Defending Dennis Ross

In his latest attack on the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Stephen Walt strikes a note that would have made Joseph McCarthy proud.

Give Stephen M. Walt his due. After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's tense visit to Washington last month, a cowardly U.S. government official lobbed an "Israel vs. America" dual loyalty canard at my former colleague, National Security Council advisor Dennis Ross. But while he or she hid behind a cloak of journalistic anonymity shamelessly provided by Politico's Laura Rozen, Walt at least has the gumption to stand up and make his McCarthyite case in his own name. And while Rozen's muse only attacked one person's bona fides, Walt pilloried the professional credentials of several dozen of our nation's leading Middle East experts.

For the record, Ross, who was a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) throughout George W. Bush's administration, has been advancing U.S. interests in peace and security for the past quarter-century. He is now working at a senior level for his fourth president -- two Democrats, two Republicans -- and has the battle scars that come with his membership in the increasingly narrow circle of bipartisan foreign-policy practitioners. Our nation could use fewer Walts and a lot more Rosses.

Of course, "McCarthyite" is a term one should be reluctant to throw around, but I can think of no more accurate word for fact-free accusations designed to smear reputations with an appeal to patriotism. What else is one to make of Walt's rhetorical question: "Isn't it obvious that U.S. policy towards the Middle East is likely to be skewed when former employees of WINEP or AIPAC have important policy-making roles, and when their own prior conduct has made it clear that they have a strong attachment to one particular country in the region?"

I cannot speak for other organizations, but I can speak for current and former employees of The Washington Institute. What "prior conduct" is he talking about? To which country do we allegedly have a "strong attachment"?

Our foreign-born scholars hail from virtually every country in the Middle East -- Turkey, Iran, Israel, and at least a dozen different Arab countries. It is true that some have strong attachments to their native lands. One went on to serve as senior aide to the Jordanian foreign minister, another is now an advisor to the French Foreign Ministry, and a third is currently a Lebanese diplomat. Our first Arab resident scholar was Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian patriot if there ever was one. But I think Walt had something else in mind.

As for U.S. citizens on our staff, their suspicious "prior conduct" includes 35 years in the Defense Intelligence Agency (Jeffrey White), 30 years at the State Department and the old U.S. Information Agency (David Pollock), and tours of duty at the State Department, the FBI and the Treasury Department, the Pentagon, and the National Defense University (Scott Carpenter, Matthew Levitt, David Schenker, and Patrick Clawson, respectively). And then there are the dozen U.S. Air Force officers who have each spent nearly a year as national defense fellows, as well as the Foreign Service officers and Defense Intelligence Agency analysts who have been on loan to us from their home agencies. By Walt's arguments, all these public servants should be precluded from high office. But still, I think Walt had something else in mind.

And to which Middle Eastern country does Walt believe that I, director of WINEP for the past 17 years, have a "strong attachment?" Is it Jordan, where I studied at a university in Yarmouk and about which I have written two books and my Oxford dissertation? Or perhaps Morocco, where I lived with my family for more than two years and where I wrote two other books? No, it seems Walt had something more nefarious in mind.

I do wonder why Walt limited himself to smearing current and former employees of The Washington Institute. Given his argument about "conflict of interest," one would think anyone with any connection to the institute has been infected with whatever virus we carry. Indeed, if Walt were truly concerned for the fate of our nation, he should really place dozens of others in his diplomatic purdah. They would include the three vice presidents who have addressed our celebratory events over the years (Al Gore, Dick Cheney, and Dan Quayle) and the four former secretaries of state who serve on our board of advisors.

There are also the groups of scholars, experts, and public servants we bring together to recommend policy -- people like U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and Deputy National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon. And how could I forget Walt's colleagues at Harvard University's Kennedy School -- Joseph Nye and Graham Allison -- both of whom have been signatories to major Institute study groups in recent years? I am surprised Walt let a little water-cooler politics keep him from flagging the eyebrow-raising activities of these dangerous characters.

There is also a different sort of "conflict of interest" that doesn't seem to bother Walt. It's the old-fashioned kind -- the one about money. Absolutist that Walt is, one would think he would pursue the mother of all conflicts of interest before asserting, without argument or proof, that employment at the Washington Institute is prima facie evidence for disqualification for high public service. But that would get messy, especially because his employer proudly boasts of financial support from the governments of Dubai, Kuwait, Italy, and Germany, as well as numerous foreign-owned corporations.

The Washington Institute, on the other hand, does not accept any funds from any foreign source -- not a single dime from foreign individuals, foundations, corporations or governments. Since our scholars' job is to issue recommendations for U.S. foreign policy, our board of directors put into place this U.S.-donors-only policy years ago. I don't begrudge other people and institutions from looking for funds wherever they can find it. Money is scarce these days, and you have to do what you have to do -- though we at The Washington Institute won't do it.

All this goes to prove that Walt couldn't care less about real "conflicts of interest." He is a guerrilla fighter out to win a policy war using any means at his disposal and a throwback to the era when alleged realists believed that the U.S. government could not advance strategic partnership both with Israel and with friendly Arab and Muslim states. He pines for a zero-sum approach to Middle East policy that would have made Loy Henderson leap for joy. His stock in trade are smears and misleading innuendo, without a fact in sight. All in all, it's a very impressive résumé for the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Did I mention that the Belfers are donors to The Washington Institute? Maybe Walt should disqualify himself, too.



It’s Not a Revolution

Whatever just went down in Kyrgyzstan, one thing in clear: this isn't how it was supposed to happen.

View a slideshow of today's events in Kyrgyzstan

Protests have been growing against Kurmanbek Bakiyev's government for weeks, but the speed with which the situation in Kyrgyzstan descended into violence and chaos Wednesday surprised even dedicated Central Asia watchers. Events are still unfolding, and it's far from clear who will emerge the winner in the power struggle in Bishkek. But it's not too soon to ask whether warning signs of today's events should have been seen in advance, whether Western countries could have done anything to prevent today's bloodshed, and how to prevent another repressive government from taking place, as after 2005's "Tulip Revolution."

What is clear is that even Bakiyev's staunchest opponents aren't happy with the way his regime ended. I spoke with Edil Baisalov, a former Kyrgyz opposition leader and participant in the events of 2005 who has been living in exile in Sweden since 2007. He's preparing to return home tomorrow.

"The events of today don't look very nice on TV," he told me. "We don't have the flavor of the Orange Revolution. We don't see peaceful European protesters standing in the square holding candles. Despite our efforts to organize a national movement around civil resistance, this was a bloody uprising. It was clearly provoked by the regime and arrest of opposition leaders this week."

Casualty numbers are still unreliable, but at least 40 people were thought to have been killed on Wednesday as police used live ammunition, tear gas, and stun grenades on the protesters who had gathered outside the presidential palace in Bishkek. The protesters, some carrying automatic weapons themselves, stormed government offices and state broadcasters. Bakiyev fled the capital in his presidential plane and his location is still unknown.  

Bishkek-based International Crisis Group analyst Paul Quinn-Judge -- reached by phone in Tajikistan -- said international observers should avoid viewing today's events through "Color Revolution"-tinted glasses.

"We're not dealing with a revolution, and if anyone starts calling it a revolution in the next couple of days, we're going to have to slap that down," he said. "The unrest is spontaneous, and largely disorganized, which is very bad news."

Outside observers have fallen into this trap before, Quinn-Judge, who was Time magazine's Moscow bureau chief from 1996-2006, noted. "The ‘Tulip Revolution' wasn't a revolution. It was we journalists who called it that, or at least allowed our editors to call it that, who are to blame for that distortion of history."

"It was a fairly well-crafted, concerted extra-constitutional reshuffle of the government whereby some key former members of the government pushed out the government."

Quinn-Judge says the discontent with Bakiyev's government that led to today's events has been building for weeks, and was driven less by political repression than by bread and butter issues.

"A few weeks ago, the government sudden raised the prices on gas, water and electricity," he said. "This turned out to be quite literally the final straw for a population that is generally very apolitical and willing to take whatever is thrown at them by the regime."

"This sort of crystallized the anger people have had over the years over suspicions that the government was fixing the election and looting the country. These little boring things like utility increases that no foreign correspondent is interested in brought everything home to people."

As the discontent grew, Bakiyev's government became increasingly repressive, tightening its control over the media and political opposition. Baisalov is infuriated that the United States never spoke out about the situation.

"How can the Obama administration and the State Department explain how they kept silent over the last three months?" he said. "We've seen television and radio shut down. We've seen newspapers shut down. We've seen public rallies being dispersed. We didn't hear a single American voice, even at an embassy level. The United States cannot claim that they didn't know. Their own Radio Liberty was being shut down! There are many people who used to be loyal friends of the United States who now feel let down. They feel the United States was on the side of Bakiyev."

Erica Marat, a Washington-based analyst of Kyrgyz politics, thinks the U.S. airbase in Manas, a major transit point for the war effort in Afghanistan, may be one reason for the administration's silence. "On an unofficial level it may have been felt that the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan was more important than democracy in Kyrgyzstan," she said. "At this point, whoever comes to power, the U.S. has to be more vocal. When the U.S. doesn't say anything it looks like the U.S. is protecting the regime."

When asked about support for Kyrgyzstan at a press briefing today, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley acknowledged that "we are allied with that government in terms of its support for international operations in Afghanistan" but also stressed that "we identify with the concerns that the people of Kyrgyzstan have about their future."  Crowley also expressed concern over the violence in Bishkek, urging "all parties to show respect for the rule of law and resolve differences in a peaceful, orderly, and legal manner."

Some International observers have noted the deteriorating human rights situation in Kyrgyzstan. In a speech before the country's parliament earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that "recent events have been troubling" and stressed that "all human rights must be protected, including free speech and freedom of the media." But Ban declined to mention any specific incidents -- including the forced dispersal of protesters outside his speech.

So what happens now? Opposition leaders claim to have seized control of the government, but no one seems to be officially in charge of the country right now and the prospect of another destabilizing power struggle looms.

"At this point the Kyrgyz opposition doesn't really have a clear leader," Marat said. "There are some prominent figures but I'm afraid that at four or five of them see themselves as president. Kyrgyzstan's modest history shows that whoever suffered most will try to fight for power."

As he heads back to Bishkek, Baisalov reflects on the lessons of 2005, agreeing that a return to authoritarian rule remains a serious possibility. "Out of this uprising, will we have a revolution that will change the country for the better, or will it turn into another coup d’etat? We assumed that by throwing out Askar Akayev's family, we taught society a lesson. But it didn't turn out that way.

"All those people who helped Akayev before, they helped another dictator. " We must not fall into this trap again."