‘Cabal’ of advisers with ‘domestic political’ concerns steered Obama away from confronting Israel over settlements

on 22 Comments

During the Bush years it was common to hear the neocons described as a “cabal” that sought to direct foreign policy–and often succeeded. Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post used the term, so did former R.I. Senator (and now Governor) Lincoln Chafee. And authors Jacob Heilbrunn and Stephen Sniegoski, too. (Documentation here.) 

Well, now Roger Cohen of the New York Times has cited a “cabal” of advisers in the Obama White House that reportedly worked against the change-agent president’s early Israel confrontation strategy of 2009, out of domestic political fears:

“IT is not going too far to say that American foreign policy has become completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations.”

This stern verdict comes from Vali Nasr, who spent two years working for the Obama administration before becoming dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. In a book called “The Dispensable Nation,” to be published in April, Nasr delivers a devastating portrait of a first-term foreign policy that shunned the tough choices of real diplomacy, often descended into pettiness, and was controlled “by a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers.”..

Just who is this cabal and what does it want? Here are the two references to those “domestic” political considerations in Cohen’s piece:

Serious negotiation with the Taliban and involving Iran in talks on Afghanistan’s future — bold steps that carried a domestic political price — were shunned….

On Israel-Palestine, as with Iran, Obama began with some fresh ideas only to retreat. He tried to stop Israeli settlement expansion. Then he gave up when the domestic price looked too high. The result has been drift.

“The Dispensable Nation” is a brave book.

I believe these are references (2 out of 3 anyway) to the Israel lobby; though I’m going to have to read Nasr’s book to pad out my theory that the Israel lobby has its advocates in high places. When Cohen and I discussed Obama policy in Doha, Qatar, 4 years ago, we had a difference over how frontal to be about the role of the Israel lobby. I was frontal, Cohen was diplomatic. But he’s also intellectually honest: and he seems to be taking on the pachyderm in the parlor.

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22 Responses

  1. radii
    February 19, 2013, 12:02 pm

    names, names, names

    • James Canning
      February 19, 2013, 2:31 pm

      radii – – Yes. Names, and backgrounds.

      • seanmcbride
        February 19, 2013, 3:15 pm


        TITLE OU raps Obama on settlements


        DATE June 2, 2009

        URL http://www.jta.org/news/article/2009/06/02/1005582/ou-criticizes-obama-on-settlements

        BEGIN BODY

        The Orthodox Union said it was “deeply troubled” by President Obama’s approach toward Israel’s policy on settlements.

        In a letter to the president, Orthodox Union leaders wrote that Obama’s typical “nuanced approach” was “glaringly absent.”

        “To the contrary, this policy has, to date, reflected a blunderbuss, one-size-fits-all attitude toward everything from building a new house on an empty lot in the midst of the city of Ma’ale Adumim to erecting new houses on an empty hilltop in Samaria,” the OU wrote.

        The leaders added that the current approach was “not only illogical, it is also counterproductive to your goals since it forces Israelis and their supporters into a defensive posture, as opposed to one open to negotiations and creative solutions.”

        END BODY


        The Orthodox Union: key leaders of the Jewish religious establishment (that is, of Orthodox Judaism). Did they have any allies working within the Obama administration, perhaps at high levels? We need the social graph.

        To explore this issue further, Google [site:jta.org obama settlements]:


      • James Canning
        February 19, 2013, 3:45 pm

        Sean – – The Orthodox Union thought Obama should not force Israel into defending its illegal colonisation programme in the West Bank. What a surprise.

      • seanmcbride
        February 19, 2013, 3:24 pm


        “Miller, Abrams both say settlement pressure misguided” (June 22, 2009)


        Both Aaron David Miller, who advised Secretary of State Jim Baker on Arab-Israeli issues during the George H.W. Bush and was at the Camp David negotiations during the Clinton administration, and Elliott Abrams, who was deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, agreed last week that the Obama administration’s pressure on Israel over settlements isn’t the correct move right now. And both said they saw virtually no chance of a conflict-ending agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians anytime soon.

        Check it out: “liberal Zionist” Aaron David Miller in bed with neoconservative Elliott Abrams in obstructing criticism of Israeli settlements by the Obama administration.

        The phrase “Likud mole inside the Democratic Party” comes to mind.

    • lysias
      February 19, 2013, 3:26 pm

      Rahm Emanuel is surely on the list.

      I’d add Dennis Ross, but I don’t think you can say that he is inexperienced in foreign affairs or that his chief concern is domestic politics.

      • James Canning
        February 20, 2013, 1:52 pm

        Rahm Emanuel, most definitely is on the list (of relatively inexperienced Obama advisers in the White House who blocked Obama’s effort to reach out to Iran and blocked Hillary Clinton’s effort to stop the growth of illegal colonies in the West Bank).

  2. lysias
    February 19, 2013, 12:08 pm

    Nasr’s book won’t be released until April 23.

  3. seanmcbride
    February 19, 2013, 12:17 pm

    “Full Text of Letter from Ronald S. Lauder to President Obama”


    Our concern grows to alarm as we consider some disturbing questions. Why does the thrust of this Administration’s Middle East rhetoric seem to blame Israel for the lack of movement on peace talks? After all, it is the Palestinians, not Israel, who refuse to negotiate.

    Ronald Lauder: pro-Israel billionaire, president of the World Jewish Congress, one of the most powerful string-pullers in the Democratic Party.

    Focus on pro-Israel billionaires; follow the money; data mine their financial influence within both the Democratic and Republican Parties.

    There is no conceivable way that any American president can defy a cabal of pro-Israel billionaires without being attacked by their powerful network of allies and paid tools in the mainstream media, the US Congress, etc. Obama knows the score. He is boxed in by the Israel lobby.

    • James Canning
      February 19, 2013, 2:30 pm

      Sean – – Yes, rich and powerful Democrats (and some Republicans) wrecked Obama’s effort to reach out toward Iran. Because they want to “protect” Israel no matter how much danger Israel brings to the national security interests of the American people due to its insane colonisation programme in the West Bank.

    • ToivoS
      February 19, 2013, 5:48 pm

      Sean says: There is no conceivable way that any American president can defy a cabal of pro-Israel billionaires without being attacked by their powerful network of allies and paid tools in the mainstream media, [etc]

      True and why it is probably best for Obama to not do anything in trying to address the IP issue. Drift, benign neglect, empty platitudes of support — those should be the tools the US uses. When Israeli issues and crimes come up on the world stage the US should remain silent as possible in public but quietly signal our closest allies to vote their own interests and conscience. I do think something like this already happened on the Palestinian statehood vote before the UN last fall.

      This will help fertilize the soil in which BDS may bloom. That is the road to progress for the Palestinians. The politics inside the US are so broken that there is really nothing the US can do to influence Israeli behavio. To repeat for the umteenth time: The US is a major part of the problem, and cannot be part of the solution.

  4. Cliff
    February 19, 2013, 1:14 pm

    Gee, I wonder what Abe Foxman and the Defamation League will say.

    Mindless Israeli Lobby Zombies hijacking/sabotaging our foreign policy? Shocking. Not.

  5. American
    February 19, 2013, 1:56 pm

    Another good one to go with this post. Although if you ask me this attitude of exceptionalism come from US leadership not so much from the majority of Americans who have repeatedly expressed their oppositon to empire, being the world cop, nation – colony building and foreign entanglements.

    ”The premises and purposes of American exceptionalism’

    That the US is objectively “the greatest country ever to exist” is as irrational as it is destructive, yet it maintains the status of orthodoxy


  6. American
    February 19, 2013, 2:04 pm

    For comparison sake….the top ten empires in history.

    Ottoman Empire
    At the height of its power (16th–17th century), the Ottoman Empire spanned three continents, controlling much of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia and North Africa. It contained 29 provinces and numerous vassal states, some of which were later absorbed into the empire, while others were granted various types of autonomy during the course of centuries. The empire was at the center of interactions between the Eastern and Western worlds for six centuries. With Constantinople as its capital city, and vast control of lands around the eastern Mediterranean during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (ruled 1520 to 1566), the Ottoman Empire was, in many respects, an Islamic successor to the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.

    Umayyad Caliphate
    The Umayyad Caliphate was the second of the four Islamic caliphates (systems of governance), established after the death of Mohammed. It was ruled by the Umayyad dynasty, whose name derives from Umayya ibn Abd Shams, the great-grandfather of the first Umayyad caliph. Although the Umayyad family originally came from the city of Mecca, Damascus was the capital of their Caliphate. Eventually, it would cover more than five million square miles, making it the largest empire the world had yet seen, and the fifth largest contiguous empire ever to exist. The Umayyads established the largest Arab-Muslim state in history. From the time of Mohammed until 1924, successive and contemporary caliphates were held by various dynasties – the last being the Ottoman Empire (above).

    Persian Empire
    or Achaemenid Empire
    Babylonian, Akkadians, Assyrians, Sumerians, Hitites, Bactrians, Scythians, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Egyptians, Ethiopians… Before the Romans, there were the Persians. They basically unified the whole of Central Asia which consisted of a lot of different cultures, kingdoms, empires and tribes. It was the largest empire in ancient history. At the height of its power, the empire encompassed approximately 8 million km2. The empire was forged by Cyrus the Great, and spanned three continents: Asia, Africa and Europe.

    Byzantine Empire
    The Byzantine Empire, or Eastern Roman Empire, was the Roman Empire during the Middle Ages, centered on the capital of Constantinople, and ruled by emperors in direct succession to the ancient Roman emperors. It was called the Roman Empire, and also Romania. During its existence, of over a thousand years, the Empire remained one of the most powerful economic, cultural and military forces in Europe, despite setbacks and territorial losses, especially during the Roman–Persian and Byzantine–Arab Wars. The Empire received a mortal blow in 1204 by the Fourth Crusade, when it was dissolved and divided into competing Byzantine Greek and Latin realms. Despite the eventual recovery of Constantinople and re-establishment of the Empire in 1261, under the Palaiologan emperors, successive civil wars in the fourteenth century further sapped the Empire’s strength.

    Han Dynasty
    During the Chinese period of warring states, the whole of China was embroiled in a civil war as the different kingdoms within it battled it out with each other in the quest for supremacy. In the end, the Qin State won, and gobbled up the whole of China, with 40 million people under it’s control. The Qin Dynasty didn’t last long, and soon it went to the Han, which eventually controlled China for close to 400 years. The period of the Han Dynasty is considered a golden age in Chinese history in terms of scientific achievement, technological advance, economic, cultural and political stability. Even to this day, most Chinese people refer to themselves as the Han people. Today, the “Han people” is considered the largest single ethnic group in the world.

    British Empire
    At it’s greatest extent, the British empire was known as the largest empire in history, as it covered more than 13,000,000 square miles, which is approximately a quarter of the Earth’s total land area, and controlled more than 500 million people – again a quarter of the world’s population. As a result, the legacy it imprinted on these conquered lands is tremendous in terms of political reform, cultural exchanges and way of life. The English language, which it spread, is the second most-widely spoken language in the world today, and many linguistics agree that English is the defacto standard language of the world. The British empire is definitely one of the most influential empires ever to have existed in human history.

    Holy Roman Empire
    During the middle ages, they were considered the “superpower” of their time. At it’s height, the Holy Roman Empire consisted of eastern France, all of Germany, northern Italy and parts of western Poland. Despite being relatively small in terms of Empires, its influence on the history of central Europe is still felt today. Incredibly the Empire lasted from the early middle ages ages to the 19th century. The Empire was formally dissolved on 6 August 1806 when the last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II (later Francis I of Austria), abdicated following a military defeat by the French under Napoleon. Upon its collapse, the following nations emerged: Switzerland, Holland, the Austrian Empire, Belgium, the Prussian Empire, Principality of Liechtenstein, Confederation of the Rhine and the first French Empire.

    The Russian Empire
    The Russian Empire was a state that existed from 1721 until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the successor to the Tsardom of Russia, and the predecessor of the Soviet Union. It was the second largest contiguous empire in world history, surpassed only by the Mongol Empire, and the third largest empire behind the British Empire and the Mongol Empire. At one point in 1866, it stretched from eastern Europe, across Asia, and into North America.

    Mongol Empire
    It all started when Temujin (who was later known as Genghis Khan), vowed in his youth to bring the world to his feet. He almost did. His first act was unifying the scattered Mongolian tribes. Then he set his sight on China, and the rest is history. From Vietnam to Hungary, the Mongol Empire is the largest contiguous empire in the history of mankind. Unfortunately for them, their empire was too big to be controlled, and there was no unity among the different cultures. The Mongols were fearless and ruthless fighters, but had little experience in administration. The image of the mongols as a brutal and savage people is renowned through history.

    Roman Empire
    At first they were ruled by divine kings, then they became a republic (perhaps their greatest period) before finally becoming an empire. How a group of farmers, who started off fending wolves to protect their livestock, eventually became the greatest empire in all history is the stuff of legends. Coupled with an excellent military and administrative system, the Roman Empire, or rather ancient Rome, is also one of the longest-lasting. Counting from its founding to the fall of the Byzantine empire, ancient Rome lasted for 2,214 years.
    Ancient Rome contributed greatly to the development of law, war, art, literature, architecture, technology, religion and language in the Western world. In fact many historians consider the Roman Empire to be a perfect empire – influential, fair, long-lasting, big, well defended and economically advanced. The influence of the Roman Empire is felt to this day, if for no other reason than the influence on the Catholic Church, which took much of its administrative nous and pageantry from it.

  7. James Canning
    February 19, 2013, 2:27 pm

    Vali Nasr does appear to have been correct in saying “a small cabal of relatively inexperinced White House advisers” blocked Obama’s effort to reach out to Iran, and blocked Hillary Clinton’s effort to stop the growth of the illegal Jewish colonies in the West Bank.

  8. James Canning
    February 19, 2013, 2:36 pm

    Philip – – One of the most ardent members of the Israel lobby is of course Dennis Ross, who worked overtime, apparently, in his efforts to enable Israel to continue the growth of the illegal Jewish colonies in the West Bank, and in his efforts to block any improvement in US relations with Iran.

  9. Avi_G.
    February 19, 2013, 3:05 pm

    The following is somewhat related. It had occurred to me that perhaps Bill Maher wasn’t joking when he appeared to admit that there was indeed an Israeli Lobby controlling the State Department.

    My contention is that his was an attempt to maintain whatever credibility he had, lest he alienate viewers by trying to deny the sudden wave of truth sweeping the US media, such as the SNL skit, and the Hagel hearing itself.

    It was, it seems, a form of damage control on Bill Maher’s part, as if to say, Yes, the Lobby Exists. I’m not going to make a fool of myself by denying it in light of recent public events. So I’ll admit that it’s there and just move on. After all, I’m supposed to be the guy who tells it like it is. I won’t fare well if I told my viewers that their eyes were lying to them.

  10. DICKERSON3870
    February 19, 2013, 3:59 pm

    RE: “On Israel-Palestine, as with Iran, Obama began with some fresh ideas only to retreat. He tried to stop Israeli settlement expansion. Then he gave up when the domestic price looked too high. . .” ~ Roger Cohen

    MY COMMENT: During the next four years, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be Obama’s “Chinatown”. Like Jake Gittes when he was assigned to Chinatown, Obama will do “as little as possible”. Expect to see a heavily camouflaged policy of “benign neglect”. “I get burned once, shame on them; I get burned twice, shame on me!”


    Evelyn Mulwray: “Tell me, Mr. Gittes: Does this often happen to you?”
    Jake Gittes: “Actually, this hasn’t happened to me for a long time.”
    Evelyn Mulwray: “When was the last time?”
    Jake Gittes: “Why?”
    Evelyn Mulwray: “It’s an innocent question.”
    Jake Gittes: “In Chinatown.”
    Evelyn Mulwray: “What were you doing there?”
    Jake Gittes: “Working for the District Attorney.”
    Evelyn Mulwray: “Doing what?”
    Jake Gittes: “As little as possible.”
    Evelyn Mulwray: “The District Attorney gives his men advice like that?”
    Jake Gittes: “They do in Chinatown.”

    SOURCE – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071315/quotes

  11. Kathleen
    February 19, 2013, 10:31 pm

    How fresh could Obama’s ideas be about Israel when Dennis Ross was around I think undermining. Anyone have a subscription to Harpers I so want to read Andrew Bacevichs’ A Letter to Paul Wolfowitz
    Occasioned by the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war
    Can not find any links anywhere but Harpers

    • James Canning
      February 20, 2013, 1:44 pm

      Kathleen – – Was Obama obliged to assure his core group of backers in Chicago, that he would bring Dennis Ross into his administration? Which meant that Ross could help block any improvement in relations with Iran, so that Israel could continue to grow the illegal colonies in the West Bank.

  12. Citizen
    February 19, 2013, 10:47 pm

    Not to worry, Obama and Tiger Woods are playing golf. O J Simpson’s the hearty caddy. Could it be any better?

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