Posted on January 25, 1993 in Washington Watch

In recent weeks considerable press attention has been devoted to the world of problems that Bill Clinton inherits from his predecessor George Bush.

Bush’s parting shots at Saddam Hussein have served only to highlight the critical foreign policy issues that await Clinton’s attention during his first week in the White House. In this context it was somewhat puzzling to hear the comments made by Richard Haas, the outgoing Deputy National Security Advisor for Middle East Affairs. Speaking on the television program Nightline just a few minutes before midnight on his last day in office, Haas was asked what final words he would leave for the incoming Administration. He responded by noting that as a result of the two great accomplishments of the Bush Administration, the Gulf war and the historic Middle East peace process, the Middle East in 1993 is a more stable and secure region than it was in 1989.

In fact, most Americans know that serious unfinished business remains with both of these two accomplishments. Saddam Hussein remains in power in Iraq and is still testing the international community’s resolve to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolutions. Iraq is in danger of dismemberment and in all of its regions its people are suffering from the sanctions and from repression. In the vacuum created by the weakening of Iraq, Iran is rearming at an alarming rate, exporting its “revolution” and terrorism to other countries and is threatening stability in the Gulf. And the peace process, once a source of great hope, has suffered from neglect and is now in danger of collapsing because of Rabin’s capricious and illegal expulsion of 415 Palestinians to Lebanon.

Clinton surely has his hands full. And so all eyes have turned to his newly assembled foreign policy team, into whose hands the conduct of U.S. foreign policy will fall.

This week the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed Clinton’s nominee for Secretary of State, Warren Christopher. A long-time foreign service officer who served as Undersecretary of State in the Carter years, Christopher is often referred to as a “consummate diplomat.” The Middle East will best recall his skillful negotiations that helped secure the release of the American hostages from Iran in 1981. President Clinton has called him “the man I most admire”, and he has repeatedly called upon Christopher to perform the most delicate tasks for his new Administration. It was Christopher who headed the Vice Presidential selection committee, and it was he who directed the entire Presidential transition office. He has the essential quality necessary for a Secretary of State: the complete trust of the President.

Christopher is a quiet man, known for his reserve. Hard-line pro-Israel groups were very outspoken in their opposition to his nomination because of his service under President Carter (who they fault for his Administration’s pressure on Israel in the run-up to and during the Camp David negotiations). This group of hard-liners is also uncomfortable with the fact that he has not established a long resumes of articles or statements in support of Israel’s positions.

How aggressive will Christopher pursue the Middle East peace? Will he maintain the same level of intense personal involvement that Baker did to help convene the Madrid Conference? Will the State Department shape policy or will it be called upon to implement policy directives established in the White House? Those are the key questions that are being asked in foreign policy circles around Washington. So far there are few available clues to provide the answers.

The rest of the State Department team was assembled this week, with fourteen appointments made at the sub-cabinet level. The majority of this group are foreign policy professionals with long records of service in the field. Many of them served in the Carter Administration.

Peter Tarnoff, the newly-named Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs (the number three position in the department), served as Executive Secretary of the State Department in the Carter era. He was until recently the President of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations. Interestingly, hard-line pro-Israel groups also questioned Tarnoff’s nomination, both because of his association with Carter and (some speculate) because of some balanced programming on Middle East subjects sponsored by the Council during his tenure as president. Tarnoff is considered an exceptionally skillful and brilliant diplomat. He has apparently not been outspoken on Middle East issues.

Former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth will take over a new position in the Department which has been loosely termed “Undersecretary of State for Global Issues”. His mandate will be to deal with issues such as the environment, refugee relief efforts, international terrorism, human rights and promoting democracy. During his time on Capitol Hill Wirth earned a reputation as fair and open on Middle East issues. He received considerable support from pro-Israel political action committees during his Senate tenure but supported their initiatives on only a few occasions. Wirth’s post is new and his areas of responsibility are extensive. One can assume that there will be some bureaucratic in-fighting as this office is established, since it will be drawing responsibilities away from other offices that will not want to part with them. When finally established, however, it should be an important post because it brings together areas that have been highlighted for attention by the Clinton Administration.

Another individual who will have direct involvement in Middle East issues is the newly appointed Director of Policy Planning, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis. Lewis served there for eight years under both Carter and Reagan. He is currently the head of the United States Institute of Peace.

Pro-Israel activists have hailed this nomination and consider Lewis a strong friend of Israel. Certainly during his time in Israel and shortly after his return he made a number of statements that raised concern in the Arab American community. But others who are close to Lewis note that in recent years he has traveled in the Arab world and has become more open and balanced in his views.

Over the past few years I appeared on a few programs with Ambassador Lewis, and also served with him on a small Council on Foreign Relations study group examining U.S.-Israel relations. I found him to be quite thoughtful and open to many of my positions. I feel somewhat confident that Lewis will bring a professional commitment to fairness to his new position.

It is important to note that Clinton has left in place most of the Bush appointees who dealt with the Middle East peace process. Ambassador Edward Djerejian has been reappointed as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East and South Asian Affairs. Djerejian has long been involved with the Middle East, coordinating Gulf Affairs during the Reagan Administration, then as Ambassador to Syria and recently in his Assistant Secretary post. He is a talented diplomat and has earned the respect of all who have worked with him.

Dennis Ross, who served as Director of Policy Planning under Secretary Baker will remain for a short period in a different capacity in order to continue work on the peace process. Also remaining in the Policy Planning Staff will be Aaron David Miller. Miller is a very capable thinker and will continue to work on matters related to the peace process. Together this team will provide Clinton with continuity of experience, should the current problems be overcome and the peace process is restarted.

The foreign policy group at the White House will be headed by Anthony Lake as National Security Advisor to President Clinton. Lake is a long-time foreign service officer and academician who has written extensively on how foreign policy decisions are made in the by the U.S. government.

Both Lake and his Deputy National Security Advisor Samuel (“Sandy”) Berger also encountered opposition from hard-line pro-Israel groups. Once again the cause was their association with the foreign policy of Jimmy Carter. Lake served as Director of Policy Planning under Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Berger was his deputy. There was also some concern about Berger in the hard-line pro-Israel groups because of his support for the organization American Friends of Peace Now.

Lake and Berger were Clinton’s two top foreign policy advisors during the campaign. While no one can really question their support for Israel (in this regard the protests against them are absurd and have irritated the Clinton camp), they are also serious and competent foreign policy professionals who have a genuine commitment to U.S. interests in their approach to problem-solving.

Lake, for example, has written extensively about U.S. policy successes and failures in Africa, Southeast Asia and Central America. He has developed conceptual models for understanding insurgent national movements and how to solve problems arising from such insurgencies. There is hope that if these same models of understanding are applied to the Middle East, Lake and his team can play a creative and constructive role in moving the peace process forward.

The most recent addition to the National Security team at the White House, which was announced this week, came as a shock to some Arab Americans. The appointment of Martin Indyk as the NSC’s Middle East advisor was heralded by hard-line pro-Israel activists as the one real plum they received from Clinton’s election.

Indyk, Australian-born and only recently an American citizen, worked in 1981 as a researcher for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)—the Israel lobby. Shortly thereafter he left AIPAC to found the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In fact, AIPAC was instrumental as setting up the Institute as a counter-balance to what they felt was the anti-Israel bias of the other think-tanks in Washington. The Institute gradually came to be viewed as an independent organization and now insists on referring to itself as a neutral policy center—even though its pro-Israel bias and raison d’etre are still quite clear.

There is still some question about what Indyk’s exact post will be. Some insiders have suggested that Richard Haas’ position (as Middle East advisor on the NSC) is being divided into two parts: the Arab-Israeli peace process would be one part and general U.S.-Arab relations would be the other. In this case, Indyk would be in the former role and not in charge of U.S. relations with the broader Arab world. This should all be clear by next week.

While there is justified concern about Indyk’s appointment, it must be viewed in light of the other factors, because the selection of Indyk was not made in a vacuum.

Since hard-line pro-Israel groups have been displeased with most of the other appointments, it is possible that Indyk’s appointment will make Israel, and Yitzhak Rabin in particular, more comfortable with the new Administration and hopefully more forthcoming on peace issues as well. It is also important to note that Indyk and Dennis Ross have collaborated on peace process ideas for the past few years; making this particular appointment, in effect, no more than the institutionalization of a pre-existing relationship.

Further, individuals frequently grow in their positions, as they find the vision and strength to go beyond what they initially intended to do. When asked by several reporters for my opinion about the Indyk appointment I summed this idea up by saying, “After all, Nixon went to China.” (The parallel is that former President Nixon, who began his political career as a red-baiter and remains to this day an ardent anti-communist, was the first president able to establish relations between the United States and the one-fifth of the world’s population that lived in Communist China. The irony was that it was Nixon’s very credentials as an anti-Communist that made his move acceptable to most Americans.)

This is not to imply that I expect that Martin Indyk will perform some miracle comparable to Nixon’s opening to China (or even that he would be allowed such authority as a Deputy at the NSC). But it is conceivable that a person like Indyk, who is trusted by the moderate-hard-line in Israel which is exemplified by Rabin, can find ways to help Israel to make the kind of bold moves that need to be made to move the peace process forward. Moreover, Indyk is undoubtedly the acutely aware of the concerns of the security-conscious Israeli hawks, and that knowledge may enable him to make the calls of where to direct intervention for the greatest effect, and when to withhold such action when it would be detrimental to the peace process.

Despite his bias, Martin Indyk is a bright and capable analyst. I have appeared opposite him a number of times on television and radio shows. Although we often disagree, we have found common ground on many other occasions. In fact, when he was commissioned by the Clinton-Gore transition team to write a the transition report on the peace process, he interviewed me for my ideas and suggestions. I was later told by transition staff that my views were reported fairly and extensively in the Indyk paper.

Finally, Indyk is deeply committed to the peace process and wants to see it succeed. The parties to the process may currently differ on how they define success, but it seems clear that unless it includes land for peace, security for Israel and national rights for the Palestinian people, there can be no completion of the process—it would be aborted.

I am confident that this reality will be discovered by everyone searching for a solution to the conflict. If they are committed to finding a solution—and this Clinton team assures us that they are—they, too, will realize it and will have to work to bring about these goals if they want this Administration to crowned with a success in making peace.

Policy on the peace process, and all other foreign policy matters, will inevitably come from the top down in the Clinton Administration. Tensions may develop early on between the NSC and the State Department, as has occurred in previous Administrations, but decisions as to where and how to employ U.S. prestige and power will come from the President himself.

The current peace process, even if it should be brought to a successful conclusion by the Clinton Administration, will always be remembered as owing its origins to the energetic and creative diplomacy of Secretary of State James A. Baker III. Yet his involvement in the process can be divided into two phases. The first was prior to the convening of the Madrid Conference and culminated with the falling of the Shamir government and the election of the Labor Party and Yitzhak Rabin. During this time the Baker team displayed a remarkable level of commitment to do what was necessary to get the parties together. He employed the a combination of imaginative diplomacy, combined with cajoling and pressure and numerous hand-holding trips to the region and in the end got the parties together.

But then the U.S. abandoned creative engagement and the process faltered and approached a total collapse.

If Clinton commits the United States to the same kind of energetic and activist role played by Secretary Baker during the run-up to the Madrid Conference, then I am convinced that the foreign policy team in place has the competence and the commitment to creative and pragmatic problem-solving necessary to make peace possible. This team will have to help the parties deal with the tough issues that have been avoided until now, and they will have to commit to working through some tough patches of negotiation if the process is to have a chance. But perhaps Clinton’s Inaugural Address themes of sacrifice and commitment to making hard choices will carry over to this foreign policy issue.

We may soon discover the level of commitment and leadership that this Administration will provide in foreign affairs, since there is word that Secretary of State Warren Christopher may soon go to the Middle East to tackle the problem of the 415 Palestinians expelled by Israel.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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