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‘We helped kill bad ideas’
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‘We helped kill bad ideas’

A think tank president’s tenure in turbulent times

On Jan. 1, Martin J. Gross of Livingston completed his second two-year term as president of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is president of Sandalwood Securities, Inc., a fund management firm he founded in 1990.

The Washington Institute’s mission, according to its website, is to “advance a balanced and realistic understanding of American interests in the Middle East and to promote the policies that secure them.” Its scholars write and comment frequently on Arab and Islamic politics, Arab-Israeli relations, energy policy, and the peace process.

Gross replied to e-mailed questions about his tenure at the Institute, and his thoughts on ongoing challenges in the Middle East.

NJJN: For those who are not familiar with the Institute, how do you characterize its mission and politics? How do you respond to observers who associate the Institute with AIPAC, since its cofounders were active in AIPAC and founding director Martin Indyk was a former AIPAC staffer, or insist the Institute has a “pro-Israel” bent?

Martin Gross: The Washington Institute is a research organization founded on the idea that injecting real scholarship, knowledge, and expertise into the policymaking process will advance American interests in the Middle East and promote security and peace for our allies. In this regard, we reject the label “pro-Israel” if it means special pleading for a foreign power, but we embrace the label “pro-Israel” if it means deepening the strategic partnership between two liberal democracies facing similar threats from the forces of radical extremism.

It is important to note that the Middle East — a region that stretches from Morocco to Iran, from Turkey to Yemen — is a kaleidoscope of peoples, cultures, languages, religions, and competing narratives. Our goal at the Institute is to serve as a “second opinion” to government decision-makers on every issue relevant to U.S. interests in this region. So while we have on staff our nation’s leading experts on Israel and the Arab-Israeli peace process, such as Ambassador Dennis Ross, the real investment we make in the Institute’s human capital is the range of expertise it has on staff on all those issues and countries.

I think it’s no exaggeration to say that our director, Robert Satloff, has succeeded in bringing together the finest collection of Middle East expertise under one room in America. We have a rare gem of an Iran expert in Mehdi Khalaji, the son of an ayatollah who brings unique insight into the Shiite theocrats who rule that country. We have an outstanding scholar in Turkish research program director Soner Cagaptay, who is also responsible for training dozens of U.S. diplomats heading off to Turkey, Caucasus, and Central Asia. We have distinguished diplomats, like James Jeffrey, who served with distinction as U.S. ambassador in both Iraq and Turkey; effective former policymakers, like Michael Singh, who was a key player as senior director for Middle East issues on the National Security Council; and proven intelligence experts, like Jeffrey White, who led the Middle East unit at the Defense Intelligence Agency for decades. And the list goes on.

NJJN: A lot has changed since you became president of the Institute. What issues surprised you the most from the beginning of your term until now?

MG: I became president of the Institute in the era before the so-called “Arab Spring” — Mubarak and Qadhafi were still in power, Assad faced no challenges to his rule, and the Muslim Brotherhood was a relatively marginal group. That reality, which governed the region for decades, has been turned upside down; a region which knew too much stability in the form of dictatorships now knows too much instability in the form of chaos. That is a huge change.

NJJN: Three years after the start of the Arab Spring, prospects for liberal democracy in the Arab world look less than promising. On balance, was the spate of uprisings in the region a positive or negative development?

MG: The jury is still out — and it will be for a long time. It is clear, though, that observers who hailed Tahrir Square as the death knell for authoritarian regimes and the flowering of liberal democracy in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere were premature, to say the least. In the meantime, the detour some of these countries made to Islamist rule will leave scars that may take decades to heal.

NJJN: You’ve referred to the resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis as a “hinge of history.” What are the stakes, and is there consensus among WINEP scholars about what it would take to thwart an Iranian nuclear program?

MG: Confronting Iran’s quest for regional domination, focused on its desire to develop a nuclear weapons capability, is the most important challenge facing America and its allies in the region today. The stakes are huge — obviously for Israel, which the mullahs have threatened to wipe off the face of the earth, but no less so for Sunni Arab states across the region who tremble at the thought that an ambitious, expansionist Iran might acquire the means to cower them into submission. In the broader sense, this is a fundamental challenge to America, both because its allies are under threat but also because Iran’s apocalyptic ideology and hegemonic objectives threaten to dominate the Middle East and undermine the status-quo state system that has served our country well for decades.

That we need to stop the Iranians is clear — our scholars are unanimous about that. Regrettably, U.S. policy seems to isolate the nuclear issue from other arenas in which the Iranians are active — Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, for example — and while the U.S. government seems focused on preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, we have done little to prevent the expansion of Iranian influence around the region. Today, Iran stands on the verge of a great victory in Syria, which will have enormous reverberations regardless of the outcome of the nuclear issue.

On the nuclear challenge, I am very proud of the fact that our scholars were among the first, loudest, and most consistent in articulating the need for a strategy of prevention, not containment. That means the United States needs to use all means at its disposal — diplomacy if possible, coercive force if necessary — to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability. It is the opposite of a policy by which the United States would allow Iran to acquire a bomb but “contain” its use by making the cost of using a bomb so prohibitive.

Containment is the darling of alleged “realists” but it isn’t realistic in the contemporary Middle East. Not only can we not be sure that the mullahs are rational, in the way we use the term, but along the way, letting them acquire the bomb would unleash an arms race among other regional powers that would turn the Middle East into the nuclear Wild West.

So I am proud that our persistent drumbeat to advance the idea of prevention paid off — the Obama administration accepted the idea, at least in principle. We may debate with U.S. officials the details of how best to implement the idea — debates that can be quite vigorous, to use a diplomatic term — but our efforts helped defeat the “containment” lobby, which was a substantial victory.

NJJN: Is the Institute faculty optimistic about the possibility of a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians? What’s the single greatest obstacle you see to progress on negotiations?

MG: On the one hand, there are objective reasons why the chances for a breakthrough in the peace process are greater today than they have been in years — Hamas’s weakness, for example. On the other hand, the reluctance of Palestinian Authority leadership to recognize that the outcome of negotiations will be two states — a Palestinian state and a Jewish state — raises doubt as to their fundamental commitment to a real and lasting peace. As we have seen over the last few years, however, Israelis and Palestinians are in a complex relationship; their economies are intertwined and their respective security forces work well together, so much so that terrorism from the West Bank has been largely snuffed out. But there’s still quite a way to go before they translate that modus vivendi into a real and lasting peace.

NJJN: What don’t Americans — either the public or policy-makers — understand about the Middle East; i.e., what’s the most significant major factor that is overlooked when Americans look at the region?

MG: Great question. There’s a long list of misunderstandings, miscues, and mistakes that characterize Americans’ views of the Middle East. If you had to pick just one, I would say, “It’s not all about Palestine.” Many Americans have this odd view that people from Morocco to Iran wake up in the morning with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict running in their veins; in policy terms, this translates into the idea of “linkage” — if only America knocked heads between Israelis and Palestinians and got them to solve their problem all the other problems of the region would resolve themselves. It’s crazy, of course — the Iranian nuclear program has nothing to do with the Palestinians, and Osama bin Laden didn’t bomb the World Trade Centers because he wants a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But that flight of fancy really does dominate a lot of what passes for intelligent debate about U.S. Middle East policy.

NJJN: U.S.-Israel relations have often been chilly under the Obama administration and were particularly fraught in 2013. First, do you agree, and second, who bears the blame for the tension?

MG: Last year, 2013, was a year of contrasts for the U.S.-Israel relationship. It started on a high, with President Obama’s well-planned and well-executed trip to Israel. To be fair, this trip was largely about repairing the damage from his first term, but he pulled it off expertly. By the end of the year, however, U.S.-Israel ties were in the doghouse because of the Iran nuclear deal. Some say that this is just tactics; they are wrong. The U.S. and Israel have a deep and profound disagreement over the goal of diplomacy (is it to deny Iran a nuclear weapon or a nuclear weapon capability?) and the means to achieve it (namely, is there a credible military option still on the table?). There are other aspects to the tension one sees in this relationship — from a personality clash between the leaders to their differing worldviews to competing visions of Middle East peace. But the Iran divide is the most serious aspect of this tension, and if it is not bridged, it could have terrible consequences for the bilateral partnership.

Our goal at the Institute is to identify areas of common interest and areas of clashing concern; deepen and broaden cooperative efforts to strengthen the former; and address, mitigate, and resolve the latter. The purpose, as I said at the outset, is to advance U.S. interests. Everyone knows how important America is to Israel. However, few recognize how important Israel is to America. It is absolutely true that the solidity of the U.S.-Israel relationship is a critical element of Israel’s deterrent against its adversaries. It is no less true that the strength of this relationship is a critical element of America’s credibility in the region. Just ask any leader of a moderate Arab state — they know this better than anyone.

NJJN: How do you measure the success of a think tank like the Institute? Are there policy papers or forums you’ve held in recent years that have set or changed the policy-making agenda?

MG: Measuring success is one of the most important yet most difficult tasks we face. It is easy to measure output — how many television interviews our scholars have, how many op-eds of theirs appear in major newspapers, how many congressional testimonies they deliver, how many times they brief the president, secretary of state, national security adviser, etc. But it is much more challenging to measure impact.

One measure of impact is the eagerness of government to engage with us, especially on an ongoing basis. Here, we have measureable success. We are proud of the fact that for more than 15 years, the U.S. Air Force and, more recently, the U.S. Army, have sent serving officers — some of their best and brightest rising stars — to spend a full year at the Institute in a “professional education” program. This is a huge “Good Housekeeping Stamp of Approval” in the seriousness of our work. Similarly, we are proud of the huge number of staff and alumni that have been brought into the government, from high-profile experts like David Makovsky, now an integral member of Secretary Kerry’s “peace process” team, to dozens of younger scholars who can be found in virtually every analytical and policy-making arm of the U.S. government, from the National Security Council to State Department to Pentagon to Treasury to intelligence agencies. Providing the manpower for the policymaking process is one of the most effective ways to make a real difference.

We also know we have made a huge impact in the battle of ideas over the content and direction of U.S. policy. On the peace process, we have championed the incremental approach to peacemaking, provided the policy rationale for Israel’s security barrier, injected the importance of fighting incitement into peace diplomacy, and helped kill bad ideas, like the deployment of international peacekeepers between Israelis and Palestinians. On counterterrorism, we have focused attention on the need to fight the ideological battle against radical Islamist extremism, not just the guns-bullets-and-drones battle against well-armed terrorists. On political change in the region, we have argued for American support for flesh-and-blood democrats, not just the abstract idea of democracy. On Iran, we have convened a series of private, backchannel U.S.-Israel dialogues with respected leaders from both sides that has provided very useful ideas to the decision makers on both sides as to how they could align their policies on this complex issue. The list goes on….

NJJN: Is there anything else you wanted to add?

MG: As many members of the Greater MetroWest Jewish community provide support for the Institute, let me end by extending to them, as well as all of our supporters, heartfelt thanks.

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