THE PLANK JANUARY 11, 2009
Dennis Ross is a highly capable diplomat (and frequent TNR contributor), so I was pleased to see that he'll be joining Obama's foreign policy team. But the scope of his brief gives me some pause. Ross has been given the title of ambassador at large, with a portfolio that apparently includes everything from Israel to Iran. Possibly that purview is simply intended to put Ross in charge of the many people who will be working on various Middle East issues at State, but it also seems to imply a specific analysis--a belief that the region's problems are all linked and (perhaps) that resolving tensions with Iran, which center on its nuclear program, is linked to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As one foreign policy expert told Chris Nelson, "We need to base our policy on full recognition that many of the lower order conflicts which cause so much trouble are also proxy conflicts between the US and Iran." Now, that may be true, but it's also true that Iran's uranium enrichment threatens American security more than Iran's involvement in other conflicts does.
Obviously, we'd like Iran to halt support for Hamas and Hezbollah and recognize Israel's right to exist. And it would be fantastic if we could reach a grand bargain with Iran that helped resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--something like this Iranian proposal the Bush administration rejected in 2003. But it's crucial that Ross and Hillary Clinton not make the mistake of her predecessor, who apparently believed the nuclear issue was of comparable importance to our other problems with Iran. In January 2005, when Joe Biden asked Condoleezza Rice whether she would accept a deal that verifiably got rid of Iran's nuclear and missile programs, she demurred, saying, "Oh, I think we would have to say that the relationship has more components than the nuclear side." It does, but none that is nearly as important as stopping the nuclear program. Rejecting a nuclear deal because we still found Iran's other behavior objectionable would be foolish.
None of which is to say that we couldn't use a little big-think as well. (For that, a good place to start is Nina Hachigian's recent piece on a New Deal for U.S. foreign policy.) But when he assumes his rather large portfolio at State later this month, Ross oughtn't let a general approach preclude specific solutions.
--J. Peter Scoblic