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November 10, 2008



The White House chief of staff might not be responsible for foreign policy but certainly is heavily involved in choosing those who will do the job, and that’s where the concern is. Circulating Dennis Ross’s name who is perceived in the Middle East for being overwhelmingly pro-Israel to handle the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations is another ominous sign.

It’s hard to imagine a campaign that was so focused on changing America’s image in the world, has ignored its own image in the eyes of almost a billion and half Muslims who truly believed in Obama’s message of change. I am sure that Obama’s choice of Rahm Emmanuel was aimed at advancing domestic agenda, and it was a calculated decision, however, as you suggested, it would have been less emotional if someone from the Obama transition explained to the Arab media what the selection of Emmanuel meant and did not mean.


I confess to recoiling from two ideas that occur to me about this story.

One is that we need to explain to Arabs who hate Jews and would like to see them exterminated why putting one in a staff job at the White House need not be seen as an anti-Arab act. The other is the possibility that one of my least favorite Bush administration appointees, Karen Hughes, may have left the means in place to do some of what Lynch suggests we ought to, in terms of heading off bad stories in the foreign press about developments in the occasionally opaque world of Washington.

At the time of Hughes's appointment I thought that putting someone with a background in political campaigns in charge of public diplomacy was a terrible idea, bordering on the frivolous. However, there is something to the thought that the "rapid-response" function so essential in modern American campaign politics is a useful component in public diplomacy as well. I cannot speak to how well Hughes did in establishing that function in the State Department, but she seems to have tried and deserves credit for that.

I'm not entirely convinced that a "seat at the table" for public diplomacy is always necessary when major decisions are made that might be noticed overseas. That table is usually a small one, after all. However, once an administration is established it ought to be able to respond quickly to developments the public diplomacy office knows will have an impact on foreign public opinion.

By the way, it is the public diplomacy Undersecretary at State who needs to direct this function. Otherwise it won't get done. I understand impatience with bureaucratic details, but agnosticism toward them is not an option in Washington.


I take it that John Sununu's Arabic surname and Lebanese/Palestinian origins were never an issue for Zionist groups when he was Chief of Staff to George Bush the Father because of his avowedly conservative politics and the fact that he's a Christian? I doubt it, but the truth is I can't remember.


Zathras -

The point is that such explanations would not be directed to "Arabs who hate Jews and would like to see them exterminated" - it would be directed to Arabs who want to see a negotiated two state peace agreement and who fear that the pick signals a pro-Israeli tilt which will torpedo a new peace initiative. I don't think that it does, as I wrote - Emmanuel's own views seem to favor the peace process (he helped choreograph the Rabin-Arafat handshake, I'm told), and this was not a foreign policy pick. My point was more in line with Ali's comment in this thread - the Arab perception of the meaning of the pick was a self-inflicted blow to a still unformed image which could easily have been avoided had it been anticipated. U.S. foreign policy tends to commit a lot of those... something I'd like to see fixed.


As you said, Emanuel's appointment has more to with his skills dealing with Congress than with any Mideast conflict. Senators can be as bullish as any angry ayatollah. You better have at least one profanity-based advisor to deal with them.

But any profile of his is incomplete without the letters he signed as a member of House of Representatives. Once he criticized Bush for not being proIsraeli enough and that, well, says a lot. He also attacked PM Maliki because of his opposition to Israeli shelling of Lebanon.

You don't find change in these points of view.


Marc Lynch and I do not disagree about this subject. We probably do disagree as to the proportion of Arabs who support a negotiated two-state solution to the Mideast problem in good faith. Public perception is a two-way street.


It's very hard to see how pre-emptive public diplomacy would have mollified the arab world given Rahm's zionist credentials?

Anybody who has seen the West Wing knows that the COS, beyond any other staffer or advisor, is the President's right arm (or maybe in this case left arm going by Rahm's position at the press conference)

The problem in the appointment in my mind is that Obama has relinquished ambiguity in so far as his policy towards Palestinian/Israel conflict is concerned. Even if he places a recognised Palestinian perspective in his administration, that person would now be attacked immediately as a sell out. There is also the danger that Obama would be importing the destructive, intransigent Israel/Palestinian discourse right into the heart of his administration.

Obama will have to use his all his Superman powers on this one. But I suspect that Palestine/Israel is well down on his list of priorities?


Obama needs to put the US in order first. I'm not sure what can be done to mollify anti-Israeli Arabs; fire all Jewish or pro-Israeli members of staff? When did the US and Israel stop being allies?

A blogger from Lebanon

Hi Marc,

I don't think it was Emanuel's Israeli "background" that sparked the outrage -- after all, Emanuel was also in the Clinton administration (and in fact represented the worst of the Clinton administration) -- as much as it was Arabs' realization that they had been duped by the "change" rhetoric, by the "messianic" figure that Obama had impersonated. The fact that his very first appointment (whatever the reason for the appointment) was a return to the same old, was a wake-up call for the Arab masses, which had become drunk on the election of the "underdog" and the "guy who promised change". It demonstrated, to the Arab public, that there was a huge gap between their expectations and reality, between Obama's campaign promises and his likely actions as President... The expectations were definitely misplaced, and I kept saying this throughout the campaign. That said, I don't think we should dismiss the different readings of Obama's reasons for appointing Emanuel as his Chief of Staff. I think it is highly plausible that this appointment was meant not only as a message of reassurance to the Jewish community, but also a message to the Israeli lobby to the effect that he does not wish to battle it, quite the contrary... I do not buy, for a second, that when Obama talks about reducing the influence of lobbies, he is including the Israeli lobby in the list.
Bottom line, yes, Obama has not yet assigned his foreign policy team, or announced his choice for Secretary of State, but that does not mean that Emanuel's appointment is not significant in that regard. It could be symbolic, but symbolism is often -- more often than not -- more powerful than actions on the ground, especially when those actions are, at best, half-hearted attempts and don't go all the way into solving problems and alleviating the plight of the people who are observing the American elections and the promises that are made by the candidates...
And, anyway, I don't think we can dismiss Emanuel's appintment, given the responsibilities entrusted to him...

A blogger from Lebanon

Another thing, Marc, I don't think that you will convince anyone here that even if Emanuel will have influence on foreign policy, he will be "good" because he has favored the peace-process-that-wasn't. I sure hope that the Obama administration, if it will give additional attention to the Palestinian plight, will not adhere to the same "peace process" mumbo-jumbo, because the "peace process" is viewed here -- and rightly so -- as a mere attempt to buy Israel time to plant more facts on the ground. I think people tend to focus on Israelis' negative attitudes of Oslo -- the myth that Oslo "brought about the suicide bombings" -- while ignoring what Arabs in general (as opposed to the tyrants that rule over them) really think about Oslo. You will be hard-pressed to find an Arab who would tell you that Oslo was good for the Palestinians, or that an Oslo-type agreement in the future would be good for the Palestinians. There's an Arabic saying, al-tikrar bi'allim al-hmar, which translates to, "repetition teaches (even) the donkey". So people shouldn't discount the fact that Arabs do learn from their mistakes and from their misplaced expectations.


i agree that emmanuel was picked primarily for his knowledge of washington and his get-things-done reputation. he wasn't picked for a foreign policy position. however, obama's campaign largely ran away from arabs and muslims, and i suspect that has much to do with the reaction. his speech to AIPAC, his support of an embassy in jerusalem, his position on pakistan, his cowardly statements on khalidi...all very troubling. in light of his campaign, the arab/muslim world views the emmanuel appointment with more trepidation than it should. but he's definitely earned the extra scrutiny. lets see who's on his actual foreign policy team. that'll begin to indicate whether obama will really change US policy with the arab/muslim world. i'm less optimistic than most, but i hope i'm proven wrong.


I sense in a lot of these comments a dangerous tendency to forget that Americans are Americans first and foremost and ethnic heritage comes second. I don't think Obama "meant" anything with respects to Middle East policy by appointing Rahm to COS. They have been friends for many years and shared the same political consultants. Rahm would have had just as much and maybe even more influence on Middle East policy if he stayed in Congress.

Lest we forget, Stephanopoulos was the source of a lot of anxiety to Turkey. He wrote in his book about how he had no real opinions at all on Greek-Turkish relations yet they kept trying to depict him as an evil anti-Turk influence in the Clinton administration.

What we do need to do is to stop pandering to the prejudices of people in the Middle East and let them know that the White House COS job is a critical one that largely involves domestic policy. That being the case the president hires the best possible person for the job whether they be Jewish, Greek, Arab (like Sununu), Black, Brown, Purple or whatever. We tell them that that is how America works and it's that attitude that enabled Obama to get elected. We also tell them that if they don't like it -- tough crap.

No Preference

The selection of Emmanuel was almost certainly not intended as a signal of Obama's likely Middle East policy

Oh, come on. How likely would Obama's choice of Emanuel been if Obama truly intended to steer an independent course in Middle East policy? Of course this sends a signal, witting or not. Picking either Clinton or Richardson as Secretary of State would send another signal along the same lines.

No Preference

Emmanuel's own views seem to favor the peace process

Do you sincerely believe that the Clinton "peace process" furthered peace?

Saeed Uri


I Think Mr. Zogby would be perfect for the job!


"The problem in the appointment in my mind is that Obama has relinquished ambiguity in so far as his policy towards Palestinian/Israel conflict is concerned."

I don't think it's at all accurate to say that Obama has "relinquished ambiguity." The US, for better or worse, has never been ambiguous that it's more pro-Israeli than pro-Palestinian, and the details of any settlement will be hammered out in multilateral consultation.

Besides, it's interesting that no one has suggested that Rahm could actually boost Obama's ability to work freely in Israeli/Palestinian negotiations. Obama's middle name, yes, is Hussein, and so he needs to convince Americans (and Israelis) that he's not going to sell out Israel. But with Rahm -- Obama has the freedom to lean on the Israelis on issues like settlements and still be insulated from accusations that he's secretly some pro-Palestinian Muslim who used to pall around with the spokesman for the PLO (oh wait....).


Lynch underestimates the influence of people who surround the president, any president. The fact that Obama let Jews write his speech to AIPAC (including the disgraceful line in it about Jerusalem) is an indication of what is to come. I think he has already sold his soul to the Jewish lobby, and Arabs who think he is going to be fair are dreaming.

Obama should have strongly protested what happened to his "friend" khalidi.
By the way, Sununu is originally Lebanese, and a Christian.

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