There will no doubt be a wealth of commentary about what precisely this announcement will mean for Ross’s future authority and influence. But, if you compare it with the way the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) advertised it to its Board of Trustees early last month — Ross will be “ambassador-at-large” and “the secretary’s top advisor on a wide range of Middle East issues, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran” — it seems to fall significantly short. Short, that is, not just with respect to with the “topness” of his status as Clinton’s adviser, but also short in terms of his geographical scope since it appears his brief will be confined to the Gulf and Southwest Asia — regions in which, contrary to the press release’s words, he has very little, if any, direct experience.
That doesn’t mean Ross will not be influential in developing Iran policy, in particular, but his role seems to be a) strictly advisory, with no direct policy-making responsibility; and b) confined to the State Department, unless Clinton asks him to work with other agencies as well. His exclusive responsibility to the secretary — there is no mention of any direct tie to the president or the White House — stands as a rather dramatic contrast to both Special [Middle East] Envoy George Mitchell and Special [AfPak] Representative Richard Holbrooke whose authorities and responsibilities are linked explicitly linked to the White House, in addition to the secretary of state. That impression is naturally bolstered by the fact that Mitchell’s and Holbrooke’s appointments were announced in person by Obama, as well as by Clinton, and they will be reporting to the White House, in addition to the Secretary.
The fact that Ross’ appointment was not even announced personally by Clinton, but rather through a late-afternoon press release (not even an announcement during the daily briefing), tends to reinforce this notion, undermining his authority and standing ab initio. (Clinton was reported to have been peeved at WINEP’s premature announcement to which she attributed Ross’ penchant for self-promotion. At the same time, the lack of ceremony surrounding the announcement may also testify to the sensitivity of both the position and the choice of Ross himself, especially among Washington’s European and Arab allies — not to mention Iran itself — that have indicated unease with anyone so closely associated with the so-called “Israel Lobby” as the new Special Adviser. Of course, it will be most interesting to see whether he gets that “seventh-floor” office that WINEP boasted about, but, if he falls even one floor short of number 7, that would be a serious slap in the face.)
Now that his appointment has been finalized, however, objections by the right-wing leadership of the Lobby to Chas Freeman’s appointment as chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), on the grounds that his Middle East Policy Council received substantial financial support from the Saudi government are likely weakened, as noted by a source quoted in Ben Smith’s blog on the Politico website. It notes that Ross served as chairman of the board of directors of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, an Israeli government arm.
Update: It’s just been pointed out to me by a close observer U.S.-Iran policy, Farideh Farhi at the University of Hawaii, that Ross’ new title, “Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for The Gulf and Southwest Asia,” omits the word “Persian” between “The” and “Gulf” — an omission, she noted, that appears to defy official usage by the State Department. (See, for example, the latest travel advisory for the “Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf” issued by State less than two weeks ago.) Was this alteration “intentionally intended as an insult or as a signal of a tough line?” Farideh asks.
I suspect, in any event, that this is not the kind of “respect” that Tehran may have been expecting from the Obama administration.
Irancove @ February 24, 2009