April 10, 2008
Obama's New Foreign Policy Advisor Daniel KurtzerBy Ed Lasky
Some of Barack Obama's foreign policy advisors have caused controversy. In a bid to assuage the concerns of millions of Americans regarding his foreign policy plans, the campaign has been engaged in a bit of a shell game, spinning the roles of various advisers.
More significantly, the campaign has been adding to its roster of "experts". The latest headliner to come on board is Daniel Kurtzer, former American Ambassador to Egypt (1997-2001) and Israel (2001-2005). As an ex-ambassador to Israel, perhaps it is felt his presence will reassure friends of Israel who vote. However, his views -- once they become more widely known -- may create further unease.
Ambassador Kurtzer has signed onto the campaign, appears before Jewish audiences to vouch for his candidate, and provides "foreign policy advice" regarding the Middle East to the campaign. Presumably, he will be rewarded with a top foreign policy post if Barack Obama becomes President. That is how Washington works.
But what type of policies would Kurtzer work toward? What does he believe is the way forward?
He does have a record, and it may displease many supporters of the American-Israel relationship.
Daniel Kurtzer earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University. In his dissertation he blamed the Israeli response to terror attacks for "the radicalization of those Palestinians to violence". He does not characterize the perpetrators as terrorists but as "guerillas". As Joseph Farah has written, Kurtzer accepts a false premise: that the Palestinian problem is the core of the conflict in the Middle East (see more on this concept below).
Furthermore, writes Farah,
Kurtzer was also a key figure in the decisions that led to the recognition of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Yasser Arafat as the legitimate and sole representative of the Palestinian people. A decision that has brought about much violence and despair and is a source of many of the problems that that still roil the region.
Fortunately, Kurtzer has provided a contemporary guide to his views in a recently-published slim volume on the history of Middle East policy making since the end of the Cold War, Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East (co-written with Scott Lasensky, who has also signed onto the Obama campaign). The book looks backward to examine the performance of previous Presidents, and is also proscriptive, concluding with a list of proposals that Kurtzer and Lasensky advocate as guidelines for the future. In essence, a new Road Map for the next President.
Broadly, the authors are laudatory about only one President: George H.W. Bush, crediting him for having the ‘clearest sense of strategy" that was "pursued in a highly disciplined, effective and committed manner". The book also offers praise for Secretary of State James Baker.
This alone might create unease. Both these leaders had noticeably contentious relationships with Israel and with American supporters of Israel. Former President Bush notably threatened to prohibit loan guarantees to Israel to express his displeasure regarding Israel's policies on settlements. Bush and Baker also compelled Israel to negotiate and empower Yasser Arafat, who was a beaten and defeated figure in the wake of his Lebanon debacle. Both Bush and Baker also complained about the efforts of pro-Israel Americans to register their views with Congressmen.
Conversely, Kurtzer and Lasensky are highly critical of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush: two president who, despite their political differences, are very popular with supporters of the American-Israel relationship. They fault Clinton for lack of discipline and lack of strategic foresight. Bush, in turn, is faulted for lack of involvement and, similar to Clinton, lack of strategic vision (this despite the fact that he was the first American President to commit to the establishment of a Palestinian state and who saw democratization, as rocky as it may be in its establishment, as a key to future Middle East peace).
They are critical of Bush 43 for being too attentive to Israeli domestic politics and not attentive enough to the Palestinian leaders' political constraints. In their view, Bush 43
Their view of the posture that America should take in the Middle East may generate some unease as well. At various points in the book, Kurtzer and Lasensky take American policymakers to task for not trying to balance what they describe as "asymmetries" between the relative power of the Palestinians and Israelis. In their view, America should apparently apply more pressure toward Israel in order to counter perceived Israeli strength vis-à-vis the Palestinians, and thereby facilitate peace-making efforts. Presumably this would be accomplished by compelling Israeli acquiescence to American policy
They are often critical toward Clinton and Bush 43 for being too sensitive toward political dynamics in Israel and too receptive to arguments made by the Israelis (and the Palestinians) that their own political difficulties prevent them from following American plans. Repeatedly, they emphasize that American policy towards the region should be made in Washington. Of course, it should be but the repetition of this point throughout the book might create some discomfort.
Israel as the obstacle
They also hold that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to restoring peace throughout the region. According to Kurtzer and Lasensky,
Then, disconcertingly, the authors seek to tie attacks on America to the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When addressing the issues of militant Islam and the determination of some to attack America, they write,
Not only do many people take exception to this view (after all, it ignores Sunni-Shiite schisms, dynastic problems, militant Islam and the history of jihad), but it seems to put the onus on Israel to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians that would miraculously solve the problems that beset the region and the world. The authors rely on the Iraq Study Group for the view that
As noted, the authors see an asymmetry between the powers of Israel and the Palestinians and call upon America to monitor and address key asymmetries. Then they look at the region as a whole and how the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has inflamed tensions in the Muslim world. Yet, paradoxically, they fail to see how Israel might view the issue of asymmetry: the Israelis are surrounded by oil rich nations with populations that dwarf their own, nations that are led by a mix of autocrats, theocrats, and dictators. That sort of asymmetry is not addressed by the authors but certainly bears upon the peace process.
Disconcertingly -- and startlingly -- Kurtzer and Lasensky also promote a view toward the failures of the Camp David negotiations during the concluding months of the Clinton era that is at odds with those of the vast majority of the participants who were on the ground there. According to Bill Clinton, Dennis Ross and most Americans and Israelis who were involved in the proceedings, Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians were to blame for the failure of the talks. . The contrary view has been peddled by Hamas and Hezbollah apologist Robert Malley and by the Palestinians -- and now by Daniel Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky. They write:
The idea that an American President and his chief Middle East envoy (as well as a large number of diplomats) would cooperate in a fiction and allow themselves to be manipulated strains credulity. Furthermore, it serves to stoke conspiracy theories regarding control of American policy; that is unsettling.
Looking forward, Kurtzer and Lasensky eschew incrementalism. They advocate a big bang approach towards resolving the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. In their words,
The authors believe that Syria should also be brought into the process, and argue that it is as important to involve Syria in the process as it is the Palestinians. Some might contend that this in a necessary step to remove the prospect of Syria becoming a spoiler; others might hold that it also empowers Syria and might subject Israel to a stronger and more united front. They reject the view that this coalition of Arab nations would come at "Israel's expense".
There is no discussion about asymmetry in this context, either.
Regardless, this approach would amount to a revolution in American policy. For all its faults, the piecemeal approach to bringing about peace has a solid rationale: Confidence-building measures build trust and would embolden the parties to make compromises to resolve the conflict. Hate education in Palestinian schools could be ended and a new generation ready for peace could be raised. Israel could feel more secure in removing checkpoints, working on the settlements issue, and expanding commercial ties between Palestinians and Israel. Frustrating as "incrementalism" may be, and subject though it may be to terror attacks meant to derail the peace process, there are reasons to take a step-by-step approach. After all, cutting a diplomatic Gordian knot by rejecting incrementalism has not worked so well in the Gaza Strip.
There are other criticisms outlined in the book. Kurtzer and Lasensky wish there had been more "nuance" (one wonders if this word was chosen to take a poke at George W. Bush who has been ridiculed for stating that he "does not do nuance") regarding our diplomatic policies. They seemingly wish we had more room to maneuver with Hamas, for example (page 72-3). Kurtzer and Lasensky also state that Israel has not paid a price for failing to dismantle unauthorized outpost settlements; yet they do not note that Palestinians have not paid a price for their own violations.
Kurtzer and Lasensky also, obliquely, address the issue of "domestic interest groups" and their role in formulating American foreign policy. They write that American approaches toward peace talks -- particularly bold ones as they counsel -- might come under fire "within the region and from domestic interest groups" (page 41). Then they write more expansively about the need to generate domestic support for American foreign policy (pages 55-59). Kurtzer and Lasensky write that all too easily policymakers buy "into interest groups' false dichotomy of labeling leaders as friendly or not friendly toward Israel", that at times, American negotiators feel "preemptively constrained" by such domestic groups (and hold that U.S. policy on settlements and Jerusalem have reflected this phenomenon". They reject (as do the experts they interviewed for the book) the view that some amorphous Israel Lobby controls foreign policy and note that most Americans support a strong American-Israel relationship and that this is reflected in the bipartisan nature of such support in Congress. Nevertheless, the views that Kurtzer and Lasensky express may unsettle some, particularly given our heated political atmosphere and allegations about the formulation of our foreign policy.
The Importance of Advisors
Questions have been raised about Barack Obama and his foreign policy views. Supporters point out that he has compiled a generally good voting record regarding the American-Israel relationship during his three years in the Senate. Nevertheless, he is relatively inexperienced and his record is a short one.
He will need to rely on the advice of his advisers -- the advisers who have come to cause him a variety of political problems over the last few months*. By landing a former American Ambassador to Israel as one of his advisers, the campaign clearly hoped that such a high profile figure would help to defuse questions and soothe tensions. They might be mistaken once the voters become more aware of the views and policy proposals of Daniel Kurtzer.
* Samantha Power, indisputably his closest foreign policy maven, "resigned" in the wake of comments she made regarding Gordon Brown, Jews, and Hillary Clinton (whom she infelicitously called a "monster"). The roles of others, Robert Malley and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who are widely considered to be anti-Israel, have been subject to some conjecture. Malley was identified as Barack Obama foreign policy adviser in the New York Times as recently as March 15th. Conversely, Dennis Ross -- who is trotted out by supporters of Barack Obama as an adviser, expressly denied that he was an adviser for Barack Obama. His campaign co-chair and chief military adviser Tony McPeak was found to have made ominous remarks about foreign policy being unduly influenced by people in Miami and New York. Of course, there are also the more widely known controversial views of Pastor Jeremiah Wright towards America's role in the world and towards Israel-a man who Barack Obama has called his "moral compass', "spiritual adviser", "inspiration" and "sounding board".
Ed Lasky is news editor of American Thinker