A Team of Coreligionists

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"A Team of Coreligionists"

Another fantastic Roger Cohen column on the Israeli-Arab conflict starts with a little joke:

The Obama team is tight with information, but I’ve got the scoop on the senior advisers he’s gathered to push a new Middle East policy as the Gaza war rages: Shibley Telhami, Vali Nasr, Fawaz Gerges, Fouad Moughrabi and James Zogby.

The joke, of course, is that those guys are all Arab-American or Iranian-American and no president would ever assemble a Middle East team like that even though those are all well-respected figures. Instead, the Obama team looks more like this:

They include Dennis Ross (the veteran Clinton administration Mideast peace envoy who may now extend his brief to Iran); James Steinberg (as deputy secretary of state); Dan Kurtzer (the former U.S. ambassador to Israel); Dan Shapiro (a longtime aide to Obama); and Martin Indyk (another former ambassador to Israel who is close to the incoming secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.)

Like Cohen, “I have nothing against smart, driven, liberal, Jewish (or half-Jewish) males” but there is a certain diversity issue here. And of course it buts up against the fact that US policy toward Israel is in part a real aspect of our national security policy and in part an aspect of US domestic politics. And these things don’t cut in the same direction. In particular, the politics of the situation dictate that Mideast policymaking should be dominated by Jewish people. By hawkish, right-wing Jewish people if you want a hawkish policy or by dovish, left-wing Jewish people if you wanted a dovish policy. You can easily enough find Jews to fit whichever ideological template you want and either way it’ll serve the same purpose of demonstrating, for political purposes, that you like Jewish people.

But for actual policymaking, a Jewish peacenik is no substitute for someone with actual ties to the other perspectives in the region:

Enlightenment will require a fresher, broader Mideast team than Obama is contemplating. As noted in “Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East,” [link here—sure would have been nice of the NYT to put that in the original] a fine evaluation of U.S. diplomacy by Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky, the lack of expertise on Islam and an Arab perspective was costly at Camp David. At one point, the State Department’s top Arabic translator had to be drafted because “the lack of cross-cultural negotiating skills was so acute.”

In particular, I think that with Hillary Clinton taking over as Secretary of State the whole world is going to be looking for a sign that she understands the difference between an Israel policy well-suited to New York electoral politics and an Israel policy well-suited to advancing the interests of the United States of America. Those aren’t the same thing.

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