When President Obama dropped in on a meeting of his national security adviser in March, he found him deep in discussion with a number of advisers from past administrations on one of the most sensitive of topics on the ever-sensitive Middle East: whether the United States should at some point lay out its own plan for settling the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
The March 24 meeting held by National Security Adviser James Jones drew immediate concern from pro-Israel activists who believe that such intervention by the United States would compromise the trust that Israel places in Washington as an honest broker in the process. But some noticed, too, that among the figures sitting in on the gathering that broached this idea were a couple of faces that have not been seen at the center of influence for quite some time: Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft.
The two, both former national security advisers of previous administrations, are known as supporters of the realist doctrine in foreign policy — a doctrine viewed by many in the Jewish community as unsympathetic to the case of Israel.
Experts agree, however, that despite the fact that Realists are now getting a chance to have their voices heard in the White House after being shunned during the eight-year tenure of George W. Bush, they are far from being in a position to influence Obama’s Middle East agenda. Realism in foreign policy is seen as an approach that puts a country’s own interests first when determining its path in the world, before any other considerations, including moral views of other countries. When it comes to the Middle East, Realists are usually considered to be those who believe that America’s interest lay in strengthening ties with the Arab world rather than in supporting Israel unconditionally.
Obama and his senior administration officials have stressed their support for Israel repeatedly, but are also increasingly referring to American national interests when describing the urgent need for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Obama stressed this point at an April 13 press conference concluding the two-day nuclear security summit, and also chose to quote former secretary of state James Baker, himself a foreign policy Realist known for his tough approach toward Israel.
Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff and close confidant, defined the president’s approach in an April 13 New York Times article as leaning more toward the realist side.
“Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist,” Emanuel said. “If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41”—a reference to President George H.W. Bush, who preceded his son in the White House.
Emanuel was further quoted as saying that Obama “knows that personal relationships are important, but you’ve got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation.”
Still, Chicago University professor John Mearsheimer, one of the leading Realist voices in American academia, argued that Obama is far from joining his camp. “I don’t see any evidence that Realists are having more influence these days on U.S. Middle East policy,” said Mearsheimer, who in 2007 wrote, with Stephen Walt, “The Israel Lobby And U.S. Foreign Policy,” a book highly critical of pro-Israel advocates in the United States. In an e-mail exchange with the Forward, Mearsheimer wrote, “Obama talks to people of all persuasions about almost every issue — that is his modus operandi — and thus it is hardly surprising that he had Brzezinski and Scowcroft to the White House.”
Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser to President Carter, has irritated many supporters of Israel throughout the years because of his statements critical of Israel’s policy, his calls for an American-imposed solution for the Middle East conflict and even his suggestion that the United States shoot down Israeli planes if Jerusalem decides to attack Iran. Scowcroft, who held the same position under presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, has been less critical of Israel, but maintains an approach that views solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a key to achieving other American goals in the region.
The inclusion of Brzezinski and Scowcroft in a forum advising the president on the Middle East, even though it was an ad hoc forum, has irked some in the Jewish community. “It just adds to the concerns people have, rather than ameliorating them,” said an official with a Jewish organization, who asked not to be named. “In other times, this might not have resonated so much as it does with this administration.”
But Middle East scholar Stephen P. Cohen said that the community has nothing to worry about when it comes to the inclusion of Realists in the foreign policy advising circle. “I don’t think there is cause for a big alarm bell,” said Cohen, author of the recently published “Beyond America’s Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East.” Cohen is a member of an unofficial Middle East advisory group that includes former national security advisers Samuel Berger and Stephen Hadley.
The latter and Condoleezza Rice, both of whom served as national security advisers to George W. Bush, were excluded from the meeting at Jones’s office.
“Perhaps this was [a] mere accident; perhaps they are not invited to these festive events in Jones’s office; perhaps they are too smart to lend their names to such White House games and the ensuing leaks,” Elliott Abrams, who served as George W. Bush’s deputy national security Adviser, wrote in The Weekly Standard.
The White House did not comment on the list of participants in the Middle East consultation, and Jones said that no decision has been made yet regarding the idea of presenting an American peace plan for the Middle East.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.