The long-time Middle East negotiator, former Obama adviser and perhaps future adviser to Hillary Clinton, Dennis Ross, as I noted yesterday, was surprisingly blunt in his assessment of the recent foreign policy efforts of his former boss and of Clinton’s successor. In particular I want to focus on what we can learn from Ross on Gaza, both from Israel’s side and from the perspective of other U.S. allies in the region.
To begin with, Ross makes clear that the vastness of the tunnels was a “strategic surprise” to Israel. Inquiries in the future may focus on how this came to be, but suffice it to say had Israel known the extent of the tunnels at the time it first accepted the Egyptian truce proposal, Ross believes Israel would never have agreed to cease hostilities and thereby precluded their destruction. The bottom line (my words, not his) is that the war shifted from rockets to tunnels, which pose a much graver threat (thanks to the Iron Dome).
Second, Ross conveys, ” There is complete consensus in Israel that this cannot end before the tunnels are destroyed.” Any outcome, he says must ensure the Gazans can’t rebuild. The idea that this is some lark by a Likuid government is altogether false.
In addition, he says, “The long-range rockets came from Iran, The know-how to build the rockets came from Iran.” If Iran is intent on continuing this behavior the United States must engage not only at the bargaining table but also in the region, on the ground. To my mind this means supporting allies against Iranian terrorist groups and subterfuge, working to ensure Iran does not dominate Iraq and getting Iran’s junior partner, Bashar al-Assad, out of Syria without turning the place over to ISIS. This, you’ll note, would be the exact opposite of what the administration has done to date.
Ross also made clear that it is this non-nuclear aggression that makes our Sunni allies so nervous. They fear, with much justification, that to get a deal on nukes the United States will let Iran run rampant through the region. The United States can only disabuse them and Iran of the idea the mullahs have a free hand by taking concrete steps like interdicting arms shipments. Ross points out, “If you look at what the Saudis, the Emiratis, are saying . . . [in the] level of criticism of Hamas it should tell us something about what is going on in the region.” Whether Obama agrees or not, the Middle East players see events as part of a overarching battle between Iran and its neighbors. It therefore behooves the United States, as Ross instructed the administration in abstentia, to set an overarching policy goal and then make sure what it is doing in individual episodes fits into the larger goal. If this sounds like Foreign Policy 101, it is; the Obama administration plainly needs remedial help.
Finally, it’s not just Israel that needs to reassess the war in the face of the massive labyrinth of tunnels. Ross says the United States needs to reassess as well. “Who else is going to copy Hamas?” he asks. Where would other tunnels run (to Egypt? Jordan?) The degree to which the tunnels suggest the Iranian side is thinking strategically in terms of region domination while we are asleep at the wheel is startling.
I’ve focused on Ross here because he is no Republican partisan and has been in Democratic administrations. His observations differ little however from that of many conservative experts who see a rudderless foreign policy, which coveys weakness to Iran and frightens our allies. Democrats in the Senate, not to mention Clinton, might want to listen up, disassociate themselves from a disastrous foreign policy (Clinton had no role in the current Gaza war so she need not issue a mea culpa) and set forth a mature Middle East policy that recognizes we must coordinate with allies and adjust our actions to combat not only a nuclear threat from Iran, but also its efforts at regional domination. In the latter arena Iran is winning, primarily because the United States is conceding the field.