Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April/May 1994, Page 16
Affairs of State
White House is Occupied Territory Until Some Officials Choose Recusal
By Eugene Bird
It was a remarkably harmonious seminar at the prestigious Georgetown University, with participants from Israel, Lebanon, England, France and the United States discussing the hot subject of the Islamic revolution. Harmonious, that is, until one of the speakers said that Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular considered the White House occupied territory. The occupiers, he explained, are Israel-oriented advisers, and this is becoming more and more of a problem.
It was a clear and credible call for a more objective, unbiased and fair-minded team to handle Middle East affairs at the White House. This is not the first time that White House advisers on a particular area or country have been accused of conflict of interest. There was Korea-gate during the Nixon administration. Ronald Reagan's national security adviser had to resign only weeks after taking office because he was seen as too close to Japan.
Do we have a Tel Aviv-gate on our hands now, with top U.S. advisers too close to Israel to have a credible perspective on the Palestinian cry for United Nations protection from daily police killings of stone-throwing youths? Should Martin Indyk in the White House and Dennis Ross in the State Department step back and let a more neutral group of advisers work on peace between Palestinians and Israelis after the Hebron massacre?
At the Georgetown seminar in early March there was no call for such officials to remove or recuse themselves on negotiating a resumption of the peace talks. Yet there was general agreement that America had lost credibility with the Palestinians both in the streets of Gaza and the West Bank and among Palestinian leaders and bureaucrats in Tunis.
President Bill Clinton, supposedly under advice from his experts, is simply warning the Palestinians they should return to the table to keep the radical settlers from winning what they want most: an end to the peace process. He has expressed no concern for what is happening on the ground, no warnings against continued killings, either by the heavily armed settlers methodically seeking to drive Palestinians off their remaining lands, or undisciplined Israeli soldiers obviously unable to restore order.
Nor has there been a White House green light for the use of U.N. truce observers already on the ground, or for joint patrols with Palestinians. This reflects views of the current White House Middle East adviser that the only way to save the peace talks is to go along with an Israeli government threatening to bring into the governing coalition Israel's most right-wing and anti-Palestinian politicians, leaders of the Tsomet Party, headed by General Rafael Eitan. While Clinton advisers fiddle, European and Russian representatives ignore Washington and urge stronger measures to protect the Palestinians and facilitate the peace process on an Israeli government that has learned it can ignore the world so long as it holds the White House.
Is the White House the Problem?
Indyk and other members of the White House staff, and perhaps Ross and others in the Department of State as well, according to the Georgetown discussions, are not really disinterested observers. They believe in Israel's government so strongly, even after Hebron, that the advisers themselves have become the problem, according to many competent observers. Of course the Congress also is placing heavy pressure on the whole policy-making process, but it is concern with keeping Israel united, not with saving the Arafat peace effort, which drives the White House.
By blocking U.N. condemnation of Israel and practical measures for protecting Palestinians, the Clinton administration has crossed the line and taken sides. The U.S. blames the settlers, instead of successive Israeli governments that encouraged violence for years by refusing to halt or prosecute seriously almost daily settler outrages against Palestinians.
Unmistakably, it is the Clinton administration Middle East advisers who have waged damage control at the U.N. and in Washington and prevented a practical and credible change in the way Israel occupies the territories. The U.S. government is lagging visibly behind American public opinion, which has veered strongly toward giving the Palestinians what they obviously deserve: equal human rights with Israelis, and self-determination.
Is there a difference between the need for a federal judge to recuse himself or herself from a case because he or she holds a special view, or has property or other interests that might be affected by the verdict, and the need for a foreign policy adviser on the Middle East to recuse himself or herself because of personal or family interests in Israel which would gain or lose depending on how the matter of the settlements is decided? I think not.
Members of the White House staff are not really disinterested observers.
Ten years ago, George Shultz, who came from the Bechtel Corporation to be secretary of state, absolutely refused to see a single piece of paper concerning the huge Bechtel pipeline project from Iraq to Aqaba. Attorney General Edwin Meese had problems at the time because of association with a consultant who also was involved in the project. The project was a non-starter (because Iraq ultimately turned it down), but the firm lines on financial conflict of interest are and should continue to be matched by comparable strictures about not letting U.S. diplomats or officials become "vulnerable" to foreign country influences.
American ambassadors, even those who are political appointees, are obliged to place personal investments in a blind trust. And foreign service officers, together with most other senior federal employees, are vetted every year or two concerning their investments, affiliations and possible conflicts of interest. While affirmative action has brought new pressures to make sure that U.S. political leadership reflects the many faces of America, it in no way lessens the need to assure that all government officials make all decisions based on the national interest, and not special interest. The requirement is of extraordinary importance in foreign affairs.
There is nothing wrong with a Chinese-American advising on matters having to do with China or Taiwan. Yet if the adviser's writings and speeches support a recapture of the Chinese mainland by Taiwan with U.S. help (something comparable to permitting the use of American-built and paid for military aircraft by Israel for punitive forays into Lebanon), then perhaps that Chinese-American adviser should recuse himself from advising on that issue.
Years ago, no one who had not been a U.S. citizen for at least 10 years could be named as a foreign service officer. Martin Indyk had been a U.S. citizen for about a month when he was put in charge of White House Middle East policy.
Nor could any foreign service officer expect to be posted to an area in which he or she had attachments, either in terms of relatives by birth or marriage, strongly held views prejudicial to a balanced judgement or personal property holdings. Indyk and Ross both have close ties to Israel and its Washington lobbyists. Indyk's entire U.S.-employment history has been with the Israel lobby and a lobby off shoot think tank.
If assigning people potentially vulnerable or "too friendly" was a problem, so was the decision by personnel officers thinking 'of posting Armenian Americans to Turkey, Turkish Americans to Greece, or Jewish Americans to Arab countries bordering; Israel. Perhaps there were many minor injustices as a result, but the system itself had integrity.
That attempt to insulate officers with known prejudices, past ties with lobbying groups or special interests, or heightened susceptibilities to blackmail based on family pressure, from making policy or carrying out policies with which they might personally disagree, worked pretty well.
Full Disclosure and Full Recusal
The conclusion? That the public should certainly know every attachment to a foreign country or a foreign interest of any official appointed to advise or carry out the decisions of the president regarding that particular foreign country and its neighbors, friends and enemies. When an official with a personal axe to grind refuses to recuse himself, the media should demand that he be removed or transferred.
Could any reader condone one of the president's trade advisers, after his or her departure, becoming an official adviser to the head of the Japanese government on trade with the U.S.? Why isn't it equally unacceptable to condone the appointment to a U.S. policy-making position on the Middle East of anyone associated, formally or informally, with a Middle Eastern government or a lobby working on behalf of a Middle Eastern government?
Keeping U.S. policy making in the hands of parties with no interest but the national interest used to be a national goal. That, however, was before foreign diplomats, scholars and journalists could casually refer to the White House and Congress as "Israeli-occupied territory" with no rebuttal by their American colleagues.
Eugene Bird, a retired career foreign service officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.