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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The achitect of Obama's Middle East policy

If I asked you to name architect of the Obama administration's Middle East policy, whom would you name? Until I read the article I am about to discuss, I would have named Brent Scowcroft or George Mitchell. Some of you might have named Samantha Power, a few might have said Hillary Clinton, and maybe some would have mentioned Dennis Ross or Dan Kurtzer. According to Ed Lasky, you and I would all be wrong. The architect and real power behind the Obama administration's Middle East policy is a former Democratic Congressman from Indiana named Lee Hamilton.
Hamilton has become an eminence grise, arguably exercising more influence in his sphere than the Secretary of State. He is a veteran Washington player, heads up an estimable foreign policy think tank, and early on became a mentor or Barack Obama. Obama came to Washington with very little real world foreign policy experience. A natural course for such a President would be to seek the counsel of elders -- which fits a pattern for Barack Obama, who seems to have a penchant for looking up to older men for advice (these can be as varied as Frank Marshall Davis from his childhood days to Jeremiah Wright during his Chicago days.)

Hamilton fits the profile. His gravitas also must have been appealing to Barack Obama who needed to overcome doubts about his foreign policy competence. So what does Hamilton believe is the right approach towards Iran and other players in the Middle East? Does he have the leverage to make his ideas official American policy?

According to Ignatius:
The starting points for U.S.-Iran discussions, Hamilton said, would be to "state our respect for the Iranian people, renounce regime change as an instrument of U.S. policy, seek opportunities for a range of dialogue across a range of issues, and acknowledge Iran's security concerns and its right to civilian nuclear power." He said Obama has already signaled that he wants such a conversation, without preconditions.
Any other areas that can be looked upon as polestars to determine Hamilton's views?

The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report was drafted under his auspices. That report called for American withdrawal of its forces from Iraq to be coordinated with Iran and Syria -- the principal sponsors of the terrorism that took so many American and Iraqi lives in Iraq. The group also recommended that the US purchase Syrian "goodwill" (an ephemeral asset) by pressuring Israel to surrender the Golan Heights and for Israel to leave the West Bank. Baker-Hamilton also advocated that Israel be forced to accept that Palestinian refugees have a "right of return" to Israel.

The report did not require the dismantling of the terror groups Hezbollah and Hamas (proxies for Syria and Iran) and called for a "unity government" among Palestinians (i.e., including Hamas in the Palestinian government -- a role being pushed by the Obama administration now). The report's main focus seemed to be that the Arab-Israeli conflict was the source of the region's problems (it was startling that a report which was supposed to focus on Iraq turned its attention instead toward Israel). The ISG report stated that the "United States will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East unless the United States deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict."

This, as of last week, now seems enshrined as official United States policy.
I discussed the Iraq Study Group report several times, most prominently here and here, but most of those discussions centered around the flamboyant James Baker and gave short shrift to Hamilton. If anything, Hamilton may even be more dangerous.
Hamilton, a smooth Washington operator, has been successful at placing his protégés in positions of power in the foreign policy apparatus of the Obama administration. Laura Rozen of Foreign Policy.com wrote about a secret dinner hosted by Hamilton before the inaugural that was populated by Hamilton's protégés and that sought to influence the President-elect's views.
A source close to Hamilton explained that he had a long relationship with Obama, and noted that many former Hamilton staffers had gone on to be key staffers and foreign policy advisors to Obama.
An example of the reach of Hamilton's influence might be found at the National Security Council -- the focus of foreign policy making (headed by Jim Jones whose own views towards Middle East have raised concerns).

Two Hamilton acolytes occupy key roles at the NSC.

Denis McDonough was the campaign's top foreign policy staffer and is now the U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor. He is a former Hamilton aide and worked for Hamilton on the staff of the House International Relations Committee. Another Hamilton alum is Dan Shapiro who worked for Hamilton as his professional staff member on the Middle East when Hamilton was chairman of the-then House Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now the senior director for the Middle East at the NSC.

Will Barack Obama follow the counsel of Lee Hamilton going forward? He seems to have certainly taken steps that comport with the policy proposals articulated by Hamilton in the past. However, it is still early in Obama's reign. Perhaps other influences and development will come to play a role in the President's foreign policy. But the weather looks rough in the short-term-particularly for Israel. This is according to a man with a vast amount of experience in Washington, who has a close relationship with Barack Obama and has sources within the administration.
"Initiatives are underway that show the United States is going to have some major differences with Israel."
The speaker? Lee Hamilton.
Read the whole thing.

America is in good hands. What could go wrong?


At 2:23 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

There are many anti-Israel people now in the halls of power.

Assuming Obama doesn't do anything else as stupid as he has done in his first 100 days, Israel should just wait out the next 1250 or so until his successor takes over.

The relationship couldn't go on forever, and Obama, Crypto-muslim or not, obviously is more focused upon being an arabist, despite all the inherent risks this carries.

So wait him out, he only has 3.5 years left before he leaves office. This one is a one term-er.

Assuming the republicans can't get their act together, we may just create a new political party that actually represents center-right while ignoring the hard core christian right's demands of highly unpopular planks and policies. More US voters are in this bloc than in the center-left to hard left bloc. We simply have to create a party that eschews the elements that lose elections.

You can't change policy if you are out of power.

At 4:01 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

I see no sign the Republican Party has its act together. As for the situation Israel is faced with, there's nothing new in it. Its driven State Department thinking for decades and every Secretary Of State who comes in winds up being captured by the Foggy Bottom bureaucracy. Which of course is Arabist and adverse to the course that Bush had advocated. And in today's Washington, Israel is unlikely to receive a fair hearing for its views.

At 4:42 PM, Blogger Andre (Canada) said...

I agree with Norman. It really is the Secretary of State's senior staff who call all the shots in foreign policy, especially in matters realted to the Middle-East. I think that their anti-Israel slant is going to be more visible (because Obama's worldview has been molded by Rev. Wright and Co.) but the facts on the ground are going to remain the same.
I would love to agree with Kranky that Obama is a one-term president but I am not so sure. The media is so kind to him that there clearly is nothing he could do that would make them critical in any way shape or form. Add to this a Republican party which seems to have no natural leader and no real policy of any kind and I think you will see Obama re-elected by default. The question is whether the US has the resilience for almost 8 more years of left-wing and socialist policies. By then, I would suspect that many Jews will be emigrating from the US, Israel will have become self-reliant when it comes to money and weaponry and Israel's main ally will be India.
It will take a generation and someone of Reagan or Thatcher's calibre to put the US back on track and undo the terrible damage that Obama is doing to the country. All clear thinking people knew this would happen but few, I think, knew how fast this man would single-handedly destroy this country.

At 5:35 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

There is no visible conservative in the United States with the kind of stature and popularity that Ronald Reagan had. When you factor in the media and the popular culture, its just too much for any Republican presidential aspirant to overcome. Obama is going to be President for at least eight years. So its a very different time from the Jimmy Carter era. And putting back the US the way it once was is probably impossible once its over.

At 6:07 PM, Blogger R-MEW Editors said...

I am inclined to agree with Andre and Norman; however, November 2012 is a long way off and much can and will undoubtedly happen between now and then to change the picture.

Another terrorist attack in the US, God forbid, or further deterioration in the situation in Pakistan or the stand-off with Iran (one or both of which are inevitable in my view) leading to a conflagration will certainly alter the public perception of Obama's wisdom and competence.

Carter was even more popular 100 days into his administration and we know what happened to him.

At 11:17 PM, Blogger DavidW said...

Your elucidation of the Baker-Hamilton plan is scary. What is as dismaying is the lack of appreciation by those who follow these events from halls close to Israel's power center. This last weekend, Herb Keinon, diplomatic correspondent for the JPOST, was at our shul. While I quickly grew to admire his intellect, knowledge and Zionism, I was dismayed at how oblivious he was as to how far Israel's positions had eroded over the last few years or the dire implications of Obama's early and overt moves to throw Israel under the tracks. In that his appreciation must certainly reflect the views of the Olmert-Livni-Barak world, it is astounding how delusional their thinking has been and likely their adherents' continuing world view. Please continue your good work at framing these issues.

At 10:34 AM, Blogger Carl in Jerusalem said...


Had it not been for the embassy takeover in Iran, and Carter's total inability to resolve it, I'm not so sure he would have been a one-term President.


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