Commentary Magazine


Breaking Up is Hard to Do

A few weeks ago, I joked that the Obama White House is “the Hotel California of presidential administrations.” It looks like we can add another name to the list of advisers who can never leave. Last week, Haaretz reported that longtime Mideast hand Dennis Ross was still advising President Obama on the Middle East, though no one was quite sure to what extent.

Today, Haaretz follows up by noting the White House took the “unusual” step of installing a direct phone line from Ross’s office at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy to the White House. The State Department says Ross is an unpaid adviser, but Haaretz says Ross has been conducting some pretty important meetings on the president’s behalf:

During his visit to Israel last week, Ross met secretly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as with his adviser Yitzhak Molho. American officials estimated that Ross’ talks with Netanyahu are on behalf of President Obama, and part of a channel of communication that bypasses the government.

One journalist insistently asked [spokesperson Victoria] Nuland whether Ross is bypassing the State Department in his talks with Netanyahu. “With regard to this specific mission and how much of it is Dennis’s private travel and how much of it is in this role as an uncompensated adviser, you need to talk to the White House about that. I don’t have those details. But frankly, Dennis has been a good partner to administrations of all kinds, whether he was in government or out of government, and always remains in close touch.”

In other words, yes, Ross is bypassing the State Department, which probably knows as much about Ross’s ghost diplomacy as Haaretz does. This is important for two reasons: first, those expecting any diplomatic adjustment from the Obama White House can now forget it. They’re running with the same all-star team that has pummeled the peace process to within an inch of its life in only three years. But second, the president is signaling he not only can accept failure, but prefers the failure he knows to the possibility of failure he doesn’t know.

Jonathan offered a good eulogy of the Dennis Ross era in which he acknowledged the fact that Ross’s streak of bungling Mideast affairs for the White House was about to begin its third decade. The interesting part of Ross’s inability to be fired is that neither side in the negotiations trusts him. Israel, however, probably trusts him more than they trust Obama or the president’s judgment in choosing a successor to Ross. But more importantly, the American Jewish community tends to trust Ross. (Though at this point, there is probably more of a perceived trust where there used to be an actual trust, and few are willing to say this out loud and bring down the house of cards on which Ross’s reputation, such as it is, rests.)

But if the Obama administration thinks the American Jewish community trusts Ross, why would they keep Ross’s continued involvement in the administration’s Mideast shenanigans a secret? Perhaps Obama was actually trying to keep it a secret from those still working as official, paid advisers to the president whose advice is being summarily ignored in favor of Ross’s but who didn’t know it. They will no doubt be encouraged to learn that not only is their advice being ignored, but when Ross’s next failure comes–and if history is any guide, it will be sooner rather than later–it will have their names but not their fingerprints on it, the most insulting possible combination.