Dennis Ross’s Myth: The Gaza Connection

By James Gundun

Last summer a heated debate probed whether Dennis Ross had been forced out as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Special Adviser for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, with special emphasis on Iran. One belief was that Ross couldn’t navigate the State Department’s Bureaucracy and had to be transferred.

More plausible is that he wanted Israel and Afghanistan too, which fell outside the State’s job description: Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Yemen.

Most realistic is that Ross was miscast from the beginning as a diversion from his true position. He was never going to State, it was always presidential circle, and Obama needed a discreet way to insert him. Of course a media circus wasn’t exactly below the radar tactics and State Spokesman Robert Wood not the man to explain Obama’s intentions, who proceeded to argue with journalists over Ross’s position.

But low and behold, Ross spent four brief months in Clinton’s sphere before wriggling loose as planned and joining what he believes is his rightful place on President Obama’s National Security Council. Instead of Special Adviser for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, he’s now Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the "Central Region" with overall responsibility for the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Asia.

Or roughly the whole world as far as America is concerned.

We wouldn’t indulge Ross by giving him so much power; he is one of many spokes in the wheel. But his true position does explain, at least a little, why Obama’s strategy in the Middle East and West Asia is growing progressively worse as time passes and new threats emerge far from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Of all the policy myths that have kept us from making real progress in the Middle East," Ross states in his book, Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East, "one stands out for its impact and longevity: the idea that if only the Palestinian conflict were solved, all other Middle East conflicts would melt away. This is the argument of ‘linkage.’”

More accurately, this is the straw-man argument of “linkage.”

Ross’s theory is better served without political interest and semantics. Solving the Palestinian conflict certainly won’t make “all other Middle East conflicts melt away,” because conflicts are their own life form with their own history. Insurgencies triggered by US intervention (Afghanistan) or Israeli aggression (Lebanon) will continue to vie for power regardless of ideological shakeups in the world.

Iran is still going to want nuclear weapons whether Palestinians have a state or not.

But Ross’s theory is ruled primarily by syntax. Afghanistan, for instance, isn’t part of the Middle East but South Asia, and so not taken into account. Not coincidentally, Kabul so happens to be in his jurisdiction, where he’s now advocating a de-linkage between Palestine and conflicts like Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan, and beyond.

Mr. Ross, meet Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian doctor/al-Qaeda agent who blew up seven American and one Jordanian intelligence officials at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost province, Afghanistan.

Or rather, meet his family. Meet his wife Defne Bayrak, who boasted, “I am proud of my husband. He carried out a great operation in this war. I hope Allah will accept his martyrdom, if he has become a martyr. I am not ashamed. He did this against the American occupation.”

Meet his younger brother, who told reporters al-Balawi had been “changed” by the Gaza war and Israel’s blockade. His wife added that al-Balawi prayed to become a martyr against Israelis two days after Israel’s Gaza offensives began.

“Anyone who sees such painful picture and does not rush to fight should consider his manhood and masculinity dead," he wrote on Dec. 29, 2008, one day after the war began. "I have never wished to be in Gaza, but now I wish to be a bomb fired by the monotheists or a car bomb that takes the lives of the biggest number of Jews to hell.”

Americans were simply the next best thing, whose occupation of Afghanistan no doubt equated with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and oppression in Gaza. He likely considered them complementary wars.

Al-Balawi is one of the most public Islamic militants outside the commander ranks to connect Gaza and Afghanistan, or any other conflict in the Middle East for that matter. He saw the two conflicts as one and the same, and many others see the same connection. Much like US officials view Afghanistan and Pakistan as one war instead of two, al-Balawi saw Gaza and Afghanistan as part of a single, all encompassing front. And he took action.

Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi is direct evidence of the “linkage” Ross is covering up in Obama’s ear.

“Dennis Ross, the U.S. Secretary of State’s special adviser on Iran, says in a new book that the United States will not make progress toward peace in the Middle East with the Obama administration’s new plan,” the Haaretz claimed while advertising his book, explicitly stating that Ross opposes the Obama administration’s concept of linkage.”

On the eve of Obama’s presidential victory in the 2008 election, Ross was asked in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, “So what would the goal be in terms of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process? What would be the Obama administration approach? An earlier effort, for starters?”

He replied, “There certainly would be a desire to demonstrate that this is an important issue. But again, look at all the issues he’s going to be confronted with. First you have a financial meltdown, which effects everything. Secondly, you have two wars that he inherited and it’s pretty clear that in Afghanistan, what you do in Afghanistan is not only difficult in and of itself, but you also have to deal with Pakistan. Thirdly there’s the question of Iran…”

Ross continues without answering the question, suggesting he would start anywhere except Israel and Palestine, not that he deems them unconnected to the greater Middle East.

Ross was also asked by the Haaretz whether, “Some progressive groups have expressed disappointment with him, saying that some of his positions are actually more hawkish than those of President Bush. Suddenly his positions regarding Al-Qaida terrorists, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iran are becoming harsher."

"I think he is quite realistic,” he responded, indicating he in fact knows the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is linked with Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Somalia, Iran Afghanistan, Pakistan, even Kashmir, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Colombia, and Cuba. He is one of the hawks, willing to say and do anything to separate Israel’s actions from other Islamic insurgencies.

At this point Ross may argue Israel and Palestine would positively influence other conflicts, though not “melt them away.” Neither does this author believe, and few people do, that all other problems in the Africa, the Middle East, and Asia would melt away if a two-state solution was achieved to the satisfaction of all parties.

He’s also correct that the main character isn’t Israel. This play isn’t about Israel itself, but its role in weighing down US policy in the Middle East.

Yet Ross isn’t speaking truthfully when he tries to disconnect one conflict from another when ideology overlaps. American policy often depends on regional conflict: Georgia influences US-Russian relations, Israel dictates US-Iran relations, India influences US-Sri Lankan relations, South American revolutions all took from each other, now Pakistan is affecting US policy in Yemen. Conflicts are unique, yet they also borrow and warp other conflicts.

And the Israel-Palestine conflict has the most gravity of all. Ross can never hide this fact completely despite his best effort to keep Obama focused everywhere except Israel.

Isolating the “Middle East” when Africa and Asia is populated with 1.4 billion Muslims, a quarter of the world’s population, is a fundamental, deliberate error that al-Bawali lethally exposes. Wherever Ross finds Muslims or the historically oppressed, possibly over two thirds of the world, the Palestine cause will resonate and influence global US perception vis-à-vis Israel. Estimating the total effect of a fair two-state solution or unilateral peace and the fall of the Gazan blockade on American influence in the world is impossible – but it certainly wouldn’t be nothing.

The difference could be like fighting with a sharp spear or a blunt stick, like defending with an iron or straw shield, in Afghanistan.

– James Gundun is a political scientist and counterinsurgency analyst based in Washington D.C. He contributed this article to Visit:

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