Lee Hamilton: Eminence Grise of Obama's Middle East Policy

Every administration has its version of fixers, kitchen Cabinets, fellow travelers, and advisers who may never have to endure Senate confirmation hearings or show up on the government's payroll, yet can wield wide influence on an administration.  The highest title that can be bestowed on such a person would be that of an eminence grise (French for "grey influence") who is a powerful advisor operating behind the scenes or through like-minded acolytes whom he has helped to place in positions of power.

That man for the Obama administration in the realm of foreign policy toward Iran and the rest of the Middle East would be former Indiana Representative Lee Hamilton. As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote earlier in the year:

If you ask White House officials whom President Obama listens to about Iran, they mention an interesting name -- Lee Hamilton, the former congressman from Indiana who co-chaired the 2006 Iraq Study Group that urged engagement with the Iranian regime. 

Some might be surprised that President Obama would not listen to his Secretary of State regarding such an important foreign policy area. They should not be. During the campaign, Hillary Clinton's approach was far more muscular toward Iran than that of Senator Obama, who touted an openness toward engagement. Clinton seems to have adapted to Obama's position somewhat, but Hillary Clinton may be this era's William Rogers -- Richard Nixon's hapless Secretary of State, who was emasculated by a President determined to centralize foreign policy in the White House. Rogers was all but ignored and cut out of foreign policy decision-making until he finally resigned. Does a similar fate await Hillary Clinton? *

Hamilton has become an eminence grise, arguably exercising more influence in his sphere than the Secretary of State.  He is a veteran Washington player, heads up an estimable foreign policy think tank, and early on became a mentor or Barack Obama. Obama came to Washington with very little real world foreign policy experience. A natural course for such a President would be to seek the counsel of elders -- which fits a pattern for Barack Obama, who seems to have a penchant for looking up to older men  for advice (these can be as varied as Frank Marshall Davis from his childhood days to Jeremiah Wright during his Chicago days.)

Hamilton fits the profile. His gravitas also must have been appealing to Barack Obama who needed to overcome doubts about his foreign policy competence. So what does Hamilton believe is the right approach towards Iran and other players in the Middle East? Does he have the leverage to make his ideas official American policy?

According to Ignatius:

 The starting points for U.S.-Iran discussions, Hamilton said, would be to "state our respect for the Iranian people, renounce regime change as an instrument of U.S. policy, seek opportunities for a range of dialogue across a range of issues, and acknowledge Iran's security concerns and its right to civilian nuclear power." He said Obama has already signaled that he wants such a conversation, without preconditions.

Any other areas that can be looked upon as polestars to determine Hamilton's views?

The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report was drafted under his auspices. That report called for American withdrawal of its forces from Iraq to be coordinated with Iran and Syria -- the principal sponsors of the terrorism that took so many American and Iraqi lives in Iraq. The group  also recommended that the US purchase Syrian "goodwill" (an ephemeral asset) by pressuring Israel to surrender the Golan Heights and for Israel to leave the West Bank. Baker-Hamilton also advocated that Israel be forced to accept that  Palestinian refugees have a "right of return" to Israel.

The report did not require the dismantling of the terror groups Hezbollah and Hamas (proxies for Syria and Iran) and called for a "unity government" among Palestinians (i.e., including Hamas in the Palestinian government -- a role being pushed by the Obama administration now). The report's main focus seemed to be that the Arab-Israeli conflict was the source of the region's problems (it was startling that a report which was supposed to focus on Iraq turned its attention instead toward Israel). The ISG report stated that the "United States will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East unless the United States deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict."

This, as of last week, now seems enshrined as official United States policy. 

Any other ideas that Lee Hamilton shared with the public?

He signed a letter promoted by the International Crisis Group -- a George Soros supported group that has a very friendly approach towards terror groups and the regimes that sponsor them (including Syria and Iran). The letter stated that a peace agreement should be pushed that reflected the following:

  • Two states, based on the lines of June 4, 1967, with minor, reciprocal, and agreed-upon modifications as expressed in a 1:1 land swap;
  • Jerusalem as home to two capitals, with Jewish neighborhoods falling under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty;
  • Special arrangements for the Old City, providing each side control of its respective holy places and unimpeded access by each community to them;
  • A solution to the refugee problem that is consistent with the two-state solution, addresses the Palestinian refugees' deep sense of injustice, as well as provides them with meaningful financial compensation and resettlement assistance;
  • Security mechanisms that address Israeli concerns while respecting Palestinian sovereignty.

The letter also called for engagement with Syria and Hamas 

The letter was signed by a raft of people with notably anti-Israel reputations (these include Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, Rita Hauser, Lincoln Chafee, Rita Hauser, Robert Malley, Augustus Richard Norton, John Mearsheimer, Henry Seigman, Steven Walt).There were also signatories who do not have that reputation, as well.

Lee Hamilton also wrote a positive blurb for a book that mythologizes and whitewashes Hezbollah -- a book ridiculed for its fabrications on behalf of Hezbollah's image . The book was written by Augustus Richard Norton (one of the above signatories) -- who was an "expert" called by the Baker-Hamilton group before it formulated its final report. His expertise? He is an anthropologist! When Norton is not promoting Hezbollah, he is demeaning and defaming Israel.

 His comments have included these gems:

 I can't recall any U.S. president (speaking of George W. Bush) who has subordinated American interests to Israeli interests like this one.

Israel is primarily targeting Shiite Muslims and that's going to fuel the sectarianism that is feeding the civil war in Iraq.

Israel is now striving to turn parts of southern Lebanon into a largely depopulated "killing box," where Hizbullah and its capability can be whittled away. In the process, hundreds of thousands of people are being forced from their homes.

He has said that Israel's "vainglorious attempts to consolidate hegemony over its neighbors usually provokes the emergence of even fiercer adversaries"

He wrote in the Boston Globe:

ISRAEL'S WAR in Lebanon, like its 1982 forbear, was launched with the ambitious aim of buttressing Israel's regional hegemony and security.

Hezbollah is designated by the United States as a ``terrorist group," a label that Israeli officials use with alacrity to cement support for their actions. The word ``terrorism" is a convenient rhetorical bludgeon. It substitutes for serious thinking and leads to the nonsensical conclusion that whatever Hezbollah does is an act of terrorism. The result is a US policy that supports Israel's ``counterterrorism" war to the point that a third of Lebanon's people are now refugees, hatred of America has become red hot, and the war has caused a major rift with important European allies.

In a New York Times article he stated that Hezbollah's "hatred was created by Israel; it wasn't there at the beginning."

Lee Hamilton praises a book that seeks to improve Hezbollah's image in the West. Did Hamilton forget that Hezbollah not only threatens Lebanon and Israel, but has killed many Americans over the years?

The pattern continues.

Last month, Hamilton was among a small group of people (including Brzezinski, Seigman, and Scowcroft) who urged the Obama administration to talk with the leaders of Hamas

Hamilton also has expressed regret for voting for the Iran Libya Sanctions Act, which was passed during Bill Clinton's presidency and that sought to sanction foreign companies for doing business in either nation because of their support for terrorism. 

All these steps and views run the risks of hurting our allies in the region (including Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel), empowering terror groups and the regimes that support them, harming the chances of reform in the Arab world, and stoking Iran's sense of its imperial destiny.

These are not good signs regarding Hamilton's sagacity.

Does Hamilton, whom Ignatius considers to have Obama's ears regarding Iran, have any other levers he can pull to influence American foreign policy?

Hamilton, a smooth Washington operator, has been successful at placing his protégés in positions of power in the foreign policy apparatus of the Obama administration. Laura Rozen of Foreign Policy.com wrote about a secret dinner hosted by Hamilton before the inaugural that was populated by Hamilton's protégés and that sought to influence the President-elect's views. 

A source close to Hamilton explained that he had a long relationship with Obama, and noted that many former Hamilton staffers had gone on to be key staffers and foreign policy advisors to Obama.

An example of the reach of Hamilton's influence might be found at the National Security Council -- the focus of foreign policy making (headed by Jim Jones whose own views towards Middle East have raised concerns).

Two Hamilton acolytes occupy key roles at the NSC.

Denis McDonough was the campaign's top foreign policy staffer and is now the U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor. He is a former Hamilton aide and worked for Hamilton on the staff of the House International Relations Committee. Another Hamilton alum is Dan Shapiro who worked for Hamilton as his professional staff member on the Middle East when Hamilton was chairman of the-then House Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now the senior director for the Middle East at the NSC.

Will Barack Obama follow the counsel of Lee Hamilton going forward? He seems to have certainly taken steps that comport with the policy proposals articulated by Hamilton in the past. However, it is still early in Obama's reign. Perhaps other influences and development will come to play a role in the President's foreign policy. But the weather looks rough in the short-term-particularly for Israel.  This is according to a man with a vast amount of experience in Washington, who has a close relationship with Barack Obama and has sources within the administration.

"Initiatives are underway that show the United States is going to have some major differences with Israel." 

The speaker? Lee Hamilton.

*Some might dismiss this as mere speculation and point towards Hillary Clinton as a focus of power. They would likely be mistaken.

Ed Lasky is news editor of American Thinker.
If you experience technical problems, please write to helpdesk@americanthinker.com