Centrist Foreign Policy Team Takes Shape

By Nathan Guttman

Published November 06, 2008, issue of November 14, 2008.
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Washington — During Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, his foreign policy advisers were criticized by some in the Jewish community for not being sufficiently supportive of Israel. But president-elect Obama’s foreign policy team is shaping up to be centrist and pragmatic, strong on Israel and likely to use special envoys to deal with overseas conflicts.

NEW TEAM: Among those being said to be considered for an Obama foreign policy team are Dennis Ross, top, and Colin Powell.
NEW TEAM: Among those being said to be considered for an Obama foreign policy team are Dennis Ross, top, and Colin Powell.

“Pragmatism is going to be the name of the game. He will replace the faith-based foreign policy with a more traditional approach to foreign policy,” predicted Scott Lasensky, senior research associate at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

This shift may not have an immediate effect on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is viewed as lower on the new administration’s priority list than dealing with Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. This pragmatic approach will also mean, according to policy experts, that Obama may focus on pressing economic issues at the expense of foreign affairs.

“He will be so busy with getting the country out of the depression that he might use the idea of special envoys to give importance to the issue without having to manage them on a daily basis,” said a source involved in talks with Obama advisers.

Washington sources told the Forward that Dennis Ross, the veteran peace negotiator, may be asked to take on the issue once again, though at a higher level than before. Ross played a leading role in reaching out to Jewish voters during the campaign and vouching for Obama’s perspective on Israel. He made clear in talks and in interviews that Obama does not intend to put pressure on Israel and that the senator believes in a policy of “bigger sticks and bigger carrots” toward Iran.

Still, in the hawkish wing of the Jewish community, some are concerned. “I think Dennis Ross is wedded to the Oslo Accords and he might feel obliged to take another shot at it,” said Shoshana Bryen, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs’ senior director for security policy.

All advisers and potential Cabinet members are known to be supporters of a two-state solution and of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, though they are all on the record saying that they will not pressure Israel, and indicating the need for change on the Palestinian side before an independent state can emerge. All the names mentioned so far for top foreign policy positions oppose opening a dialogue with Hamas and advocate a tough approach toward the Iran-based Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In addition to Ross, another name mentioned as a possible envoy is former secretary of state Colin Powell. The former Republican threw his support behind Obama in the final weeks of the campaign and offered his help, but apparently he is not in line for an official Cabinet post.

Leading candidates for secretary of state include Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico and former United Nations ambassador; Senator John Kerry, the former Democratic presidential candidate; GOP Senator Richard Lugar; veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke, and a surprise name thrown in recently — Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

For the top Pentagon post, Obama might ask the current secretary, Robert Gates, to continue, though he is also considering Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, as well as former secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig. As national security adviser, Obama might take James Steinberg, who served on Bill Clinton’s national security team.

While all names being mentioned for the top posts are well-known Washington figures, Obama might draw some new names for second-tier policy posts from his pool of current and former advisers, according to press reports and informed Democrats. These may include Gregory Craig, Samantha Power and Susan Rice, as well as retired general Anthony Zinni. All have been advising Obama on foreign policy, and with the exception of Zinni, all are relatively new to the Middle East policy scene.

Zinni has vast experience in mediating Middle East peace, and while he was known to be vocally critical of the Palestinian Authority, he is also viewed by Israelis who have worked with him as somewhat aggressive in his wish to see change on the ground.

Meanwhile, Israeli diplomats have made a special effort in recent months to get to know these advisers in a series of meetings and conversations.

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