Utne Blogs > Politics

Obama’s Man on the Mideast

 by Hannah Lobel


Tags: politics, election 2008, international, U.S., Barack Obama, Israel, Palestine, Middle East, Dennis Ross, diplomacy, Jewish vote, Time magazine,

Time made note last week that Obama is bringing along adviser Dennis Ross when he stops in Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Jordan during his current global jaunt. Ross was the chief Mideast envoy under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Also on his resume is a gig as a commentator for FOX News. 

Ross is a controversial figure among those parsing the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians (but really, who isn’t?), and he’s often put in the conservative camp as a hawkish Israel-backer. Time parses the decision to have Ross in tow as, in part, a calculated play for the Jewish vote and foreign policy cred:

Israelis and some Jewish Americans distrust Obama's commitment to Israel — a recent Israeli newspaper poll found 27% of Israelis surveyed support him, compared to 36% for John McCain. And Obama's readiness to hold unconditional talks with Iran also makes him vulnerable among some voters to charges of being soft on Tehran. Both issues count in swing states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania where they could hurt Obama's support among Jewish voters and Reagan Democrats. But Ross is a reassuring presence on both counts.

There’s likely some truth to that. But the article notes that the Obama campaign reached out to Ross 15 months ago. That’s long before all the guffawing about Obama’s Jewish troubles and right around the time that Ross’s book, Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World, started making the rounds.

I spoke to Ross back then about what it would take to redeem the United States in the eyes of the world. Looking back, I’m struck by the pragmatic course Ross strikes. Here, for example, is Ross’s take on what the next president has to do: 

The most important thing is to strike a different posture and a different tone from day one. Make it clear that the United States has important interests in the world and that it's mindful that achieving those interests often means having to work with others. Whether it's global warming, nuclear proliferation, threats from nonstate actors, health pandemics, or failed states—these are not challenges we're going to be able to resolve on our own.

Obama’s been a punching bag among his supporters of late for allegedly scurrying toward the center in an unabashed and shameful voter grab initiative, but perhaps there’s a different way to look at his shift: as a move away from his appealing but comfortably vague rhetoric and as a step toward the pragmatic, give-and-take that’s necessary to execute his professed ideals.