THE PLANK JUNE 26, 2009
Ben Smith has a piece today with still more speculation on Dennis Ross, Washington's most speculated-about bureaucrat. What's with the Ross obsession? Part of it, I'd say, based on some reporting this week, is that Ross's portfolio and standing reflects an administration still sorting out its foreign policy decision making process. You have in Jim Jones a national security advisor who doesn't seem to click well with the president (or at least with other senior national security officials who are close to the president). You have several big power centers--Clinton, Gates, Mitchell, Holbrooke--trying to stake out their own policy turf and create their own direct channels to the Oval Office. You have internal disputes within the administration about how tough to be with Iran and, in a different sense, Israel. Dennis Ross is at the crossroads of virtually all those tensions.
Ben's story notes, as have others, the White House's curious new designation of a "Central Region" in Ross's title. This, sources say, suggests the imprint of Jim Jones, a former general who still sees the world in terms of military regions--one of them being Centcom, an area stretching from the Middle East to Central Asia that closely matches the region now under Ross's purview.
My sources also noted the slightly defensive tone of yesterday's White House announcement, which said that Ross was joining an "already strong" NSC. Some people think that, to the contrary, Obama may have wanted to beef up the NSC's heft with someone who had seen more presidential-level action than many of the NSC's current senior aides. (One source tells me that a prime advocate of bringing Ross to the NSC was Jones's deputy, Tom Donilon, who is said to be feeling swamped with responsibilities.) In that sense I think fomer Bushie Dan Senor, though hardly an Obama insider, probably has it right when he tells Ben that Ross is "going to become the de facto National Security Advisor because of the portfolio he has, because of the experience he
has, and because of the relationships he’s accumulated abroad."
These process questions are murky enough. (I am also told, incidentally, to expect at least one more
high-level NSC change in the near future--although it does not sound
like Jones himself, despite the whisper campaign against him, will be
leaving anytime soon.) And the implications for Obama's actual policies are even less clear. But questions like this are more than a mere who's up, who's down parlor game. Ultimately policy is shaped in large measure by individuals and the relationships they have with the ultimate "decider": the president.