Keep Your Friends Close, And Dennis Ross Closer

Haaretz’s reports that Dennis Ross, Secretary of State Clinton’s special adviser on Iran, has written a new book in which he and co-author David Makovsky challenge a key component of the policy which Ross is ostensibly now working to implement:

Contrary to the position of the president and other advisers, Ross writes that efforts to advance dialogue with Iran should not be connected to the renewal of talks between Israel and the Palestinians. […]

In the second chapter, entitled “Linkage: The Mother of All Myths,” Ross writes: “Of all the policy myths that have kept us from making real progress in the Middle East, one stands out for its impact and longevity: the idea that if only the Palestinian conflict were solved, all other Middle East conflicts would melt away. This is the argument of ‘linkage.’”

I think it would be great if we lived in a world where people regarded as authorities on the Middle East could make arguments about the region without having to erect towering, tottering strawmen, but unfortunately we don’t. There is, of course, no one who has ever claimed that “if only the Palestinian conflict were solved, all other Middle East conflicts would melt away.” What has been claimed, and what is acknowledged by a pretty overwhelming consensus of Middle East scholars and analysts, is that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is a source of anger and tension across the region, a radicalizing driver of violence, and a convenient propaganda tool for any demagogue with access to a mic.


The idea of linkage was put forward by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, whose 2006 report stated that “all key issues in the Middle East — the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, the need for political and economic reforms, and extremism and terrorism — are inextricably linkedThe 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.”

It’s quite true that hostility toward Israel in the Middle East will not simply dissipate upon the end of Israel’s occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state. Nor will anti-Americanism disappear even if the U.S. is seen as having played a major role in producing such an outcome. There are problems in the Middle East that have nothing to do with Israelis or Palestinians. Securing a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will, however, make addressing those problems easier, by sealing up one well of resentment from which authoritarian rulers and violent extremists have for decades drawn freely and profitably. This is the actual argument of “linkage”.

Which brings us to the main point: If Dennis Ross doesn’t subscribe to that argument, why has he agreed to serve a president who does? And why employ someone who has placed himself so far out on the margins of this debate?

I suppose there’s a good case to be made for having an influential like Ross inside the tent, questioning assumptions, rather than outside, writing op-eds attacking them. Interestingly, an Iran analyst I spoke to recently made the somewhat counter-intuitive point that Obama’s bringing Ross on showed Iranians that Obama is serious about changing the relationship — assuming that Ross has been brought on to reassure the Israel-hawk community. But I think there’s still a real question as to what mischief Ross might get up to, given that he apparently doesn’t think that one of the administration’s key arguments for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is even worth treating honestly.