US to Care for Israeli, Saudi Security Needs – But Freezes Them Out of Role in Policy-Making

One of the most intriguing events in Washington this week was a talk given by President Barack Obama's senior adviser Dennis Ross Tuesday, Dec. 13, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, of which he was once director.
Ross is newly retired from his two years (since June 2009) as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region, with overall responsibility for the region which encompasses the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Asia.
Because it was the first time since the Arab Revolt began in Tunisia in Dec. 2010 that a senior White House policy shaper in the areas of those uprisings has spoken publicly, his words were followed intently by politicians and intelligence personnel in many Western and Middle Eastern capitals.
Ross's appearance also had an intriguing domestic political and personal dimension.
Many Washington pundits expected him to criticize Obama on the Middle East. His comments would have been pointers to the mood in the White House and the level of optimism in the presidential staff about the president's prospects for reelection in November 2012. Ross' diplomatic career moves during his 34 years in Washington since 1977 under six American presidents, Democrat and Republican, have often been a reliable barometer of the political fluctuations in the American leadership.


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But DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources report the pundits were disappointed. Ross did not criticize the president, although they deduced from his restraint that he believes Obama's chances of a second term are still good. (According to a former senior presidential aide, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in private conversations, Obama is the first American president to raise more than $1 billion for his campaign a year before the vote.)
Ross was more cagy. He said he preferred to take time out from politics until 2016 and then see who is in line for the presidency before resuming his government activity, an attitude some Washington watchers linked to Hillary Clinton's decision to resign as Secretary of State at the end of Obama's first term and seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2016.
Obama is expected to persuade her to stay on and replace Joe Biden as his running mate, although she is unlikely to take the offer, say those observers.
With that piece of gossip in mind, Dan Raviv of CBS asked Ross: Were there differences between you and others (in Obama's administration) on this (Middle East, Iran) issues? Is that why you left? And does the administration just want to prevent nuclear (Iran), or will it go further towards regime change?
Ross replied: "I left because I had promised my wife as a condition for going back… that I would go in for two years. She tolerated a third year. There was no other reason. There are always going to be disagreements in administrations."


US security ties with Israel, Saudis stronger than ever


This answer drew understanding smiles; It was taken as confirming a disagreement between Obama, who is after a common language with the current Iranian leadership and Hillary Clinton, who would go for a policy of regime change.
Answers to a number of questions posed by Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute, opened a window to a number of basic Obama policy positions in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.
Asked how do "Arab Spring" changes affect the US-Israel and US-Saudi relationships, Ross answered: "Both leaderships came to realize that this was not something the United States could have prevented (alluding to initial Saudi and Israeli frustration with the US for not intervening to save Egypt's Mubarak).
"In terms of the US and Israel today, the security relationship has never been as strong as it is. Not just in terms of security assistance but in terms of the whole array of the relationship, of discussions of national security issues.
"With the Saudis and Gulf Council states, 'security coordination' – air defense, missile defense, maritime defense, early warning, level of cooperation – is unprecedented. The infrastructure of those relationships is stronger than ever. There are differences but there will always be differences. The fundamentals are solid."
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources translate these remarks as meaning that President Obama and his strategic advisers have opted to raise US military-intelligence cooperation with Israel and Saudi Arabia to an unprecedented level compared to previous presidents and give them all the sophisticated arms they need.
But here comes the caveat: Washington is determined to disencumber itself of the burden of diplomatic and policy coordination in the Middle East and Persian Gulf with both these countries.


Obama no longer coordinates Mid East policies with Israel or Saudi Arabia


This is the first time since President Obama took office in 2009 that a key shaper of this policy, Dennis Ross, has frankly stated that the US administration no longer accepts the need to coordinate its strategy with Riyadh and Jerusalem ahead of execution in those key regions.
Israel and Saudi Arabia still benefit from America's military umbrella and their security needs are met, but America's regional policy is separate from and may conflict with theirs. If this policy generates a security problem for either Israel or Saudi Arabia, the Obama administration will let them have all the hardware they need to stay out of harm's way, but will not digress from its own chosen path.
Clearly, President Obama differs from his predecessors in that, while addressing Israeli and Saudi security needs, he refuses to tie US policy to either of their strategic interests. This was glaringly apparent in his handling of the Arab Revolt.
This policy departure came up in another question posed to Ross:
Satloff again: What about Iran being an "existential" problem for Israel but not for the US, however critical a problem it is? And why don't people believe Obama is serous about preventing Iran from getting nukes?
Ross: From the Israeli standpoint, Iran with nuclear weapons is an existential threat, but to the States the threat is not existential, but it is a threat to US vital security interests.


A nuclear Iran is an existential problem for Israel and Saudis – not for America


"Let's assume that Iran has nuclear weapons and we (US) have a Middle East where Israel and others are looking at Iran with nuclear weapons. You are not going to have a stable situation where anyone can feel that they are going to wait. If there is the slightest indication that Iran is changing its readiness, can Israel wait? This is not a Cold War situation – unlike Soviets-US, Iran and Israel do not communicate. The potential for miscalculation would be enormous. If Iran has nuclear weapons the potential for nuclear war in the Middle East goes up dramatically."
On Iran, therefore, the gap between Washington on the one hand and Riyadh and Jerusalem on the other is clearly defined. The Saudis and Israelis both view a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat. Obama accepts a state of Cold War with Iran and finds it possible to live with its nuclear weapons.
The former presidential adviser had only one terse comment to make on the Israel-Palestinian issue. He said this issue is still important but there is an "entirely new frame of reference."
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources report that Obama recently issued a secret Presidential Directive to his administration's diplomatic staff to freeze all activity on the Palestinian question.
On Obama's credibility, Ross said: "The administration prides itself on a certain reality that it does what it says." From day one, Obama wanted to get Osama bin Laden, "and he does what he says. When he says all options remain on the table, it doesn't mean that force is his first choice, but it means that that's an option that he intends to exercise."

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