JERUSALEM – In 2014, Robert Gates – the secretary of defense under President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden – published his insider account of his time at the Pentagon.
In "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War," Gates offered a mixture of criticism and praise for Obama.
But Gates, who previously served as CIA director in a Republican administration, took a direct and stinging shot at Biden, criticism that wound up on the front page of The New York Times.
“Mr. Gates calls Mr. Biden ‘a man of integrity,’ but questions his judgment,” the Times reported, after reviewing an advance copy of the book.
“I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” Gates wrote.
Biden opposed Obama’s decision to send U.S. special forces into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden.
Biden urged Obama to remove all U.S. military forces from Iraq in 2011, which created the vacuum into which ISIS jihadists surged and launched a genocide against Christians and Yazidis.
More recently, Biden opposed Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, though he promises not to reverse it now.
Biden also opposed Trump’s decision to assassinate Qassam Soleimani, the Iranian terror mastermind and one of the most dangerous terrorists in the world.
Yet critics need to look at the full picture, says former U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross, who has served as a senior Middle East advisor in both Republican and Democrat administrations, including the Obama-Biden White House.
In part one of my interview with Amb. Ross, he made news – warning that the Iranian regime has crossed Israel’s “red line” by enriching uranium up to 20%, and fabricating uranium metal, both of which put Tehran within months of being about to “break out” and build a nuclear bomb.
Ross warned that if Biden and his team don’t move fast and smart to persuade Iran to de-escalate the situation, the Israelis may find themselves forced to attack militarily, possibly already in 2021.
Now, in part two of our conversation, I asked Amb. Ross to help me better understand Joe Biden’s view of Israel and Biden’s goals for the Middle East.
Given the rising threat level in the region, I specifically asked him to respond to the criticism leveled by Secretary Gates.
And I asked Ross to help me understand two of the key officials who have long advised Biden on foreign policy and military matters – namely, Anthony (Tony) Blinken, whom Biden nominated to be secretary of state, and Jake Sullivan, whom Biden tapped to be national security advisor (and whose appointment does not require Senate confirmation).
Here is the full transcript of part two of our fascinating conversation. Please note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. The final portion of my interview with Amb. Dennis Ross will be released in the coming days.
ROSENBERG: Hi, this Joel Rosenberg, founder and editor in chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and our sister site, ALL ARAB NEWS. I’m really honored to talk in part two today with Ambassador Dennis Ross.
Mr. Ross has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations in senior positions advising on Middle East issues, certainly the Arab-Israeli conflict, but the Iran threat, and how to deal with the Iran threat, in particular, as well. He was a senior adviser to President Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton in his more recent positions. Of late, he's been working as a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the foremost Middle East think tank based in the United States.
Ambassador Ross, thank you so much. In Part One [of our interview], we dealt with what how serious is the Iran threat and why are they ratcheting up their provocations? You've described [that they now have] 12 times the amount of enriched uranium [than they had before], far above what they were allowed under the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. They seized another tanker, a South Korean tanker, in this case in the Gulf. They're developing this nuclear metal that they could, in theory, [use to] build a nuclear bomb. So, these are very serious provocations.
Your argument is that they are trying to provoke a response from the Biden administration, primarily that the Biden team would find some way to give them a lot of money, to remove – or at least reduce – the economic sanctions that are really squeezing, one could say, choking the Iranian economy.
Now, in the last interview [Part One], you talked about how you talked about the Israeli threat of using military force if Iran moves past the threshold, which you believe we are now at. Secondly, you said that the Trump administration did a good job at this maximum pressure campaign and ratcheting up this intense pressure, but did not allow sort of an off-ramp diplomatically for Iran to try to dial things down. And obviously, they haven't done it on their own.
So, now you're suggesting with a military option that's real and serious from Israel, and the maximum pressure Trump legacy economic sanctions, now you're all eyes are on the new president and his team to say, OK, can Biden navigate this?
So, let's start with, “Who is Joe Biden?” You know him. You've worked with him, and not just sort of in passing, but in specifically dealing with Middle East and Iran particular issues. I want to take a moment and have you walk us through some of the key things our audience needs to know about President Biden. And then we'll talk about some of the key people in his team now as they get confirmed – I think every president should get their team confirmed. But we're talking about Tony Blinken at the State Department; Jake Sullivan as National Security Advisor; William Burns at CIA, and so forth.
Let’s start with President Biden. What's your take on him?
AMBASSADOR DENNIS ROSS: Well, look, I first of all, he is an incredibly decent person. What you see is what you get. This is a “people person.” I like to tell a story about him because I think it's so revealing. In one evening in 2010, my daughter – my middle daughter – and her boyfriend came and I was giving them a tour of the White House is around a little after eight o'clock at night.
ROSENBERG: What was your role at that time?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: I was special assistant to President Obama, and I was the kind of broad coordinator of everything from Morocco through Bangladesh.
ROSENBERG: A light job description.
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Every conflict basically there was, I had to somehow deal with it. So, anyways, at eight o'clock at night, I'm showing them through the West Wing. When you’re in the West Wing, there are two corridors that aren’t parallel, but they move in a kind of converging direction to the Oval Office and they're separated by the Roosevelt Room. So, when you're walking down one hall and the doors are open you can see who's walking down the other hall. And I looked over and I see the Vice President, Joe Biden, in a tux – obviously he was supposed to be somewhere. And I told my daughter and her boyfriend, I said, “Just wait here for a second.” And I just ran over to his office. And clearly his staff people kind of look at their watch as he was obviously late for a function.
And I said [to Biden], “Look, I won't take long. Can I just bring my daughter and boyfriend over to say hi to you?”
“Yeah,” [he said].
And I could see all of his aides going, “No.” So, I bring him over and he spends the next half hour with him. He insists on telling them everything about the place, showing them around. He can't say enough about how great I am. I mean, this is Joe Biden. He’s a natural people person. Number one.
Number two, he has a deep emotional, historic connection to Israel and goes back to when he was a 29-year-old senator, meeting Golda Meir….
ROSENBERG: Golda Meir? Nobody in Israel can talk about their conversations with her. Netanyahu can't talk about a conversation with Golda Meir….
AMBASSADOR ROSS: But he [Biden] tells this story – and I've heard it many times – because it had such a searing effect on him. He was worrying with her, looking at everything Israel faces, surrounding them, and asking, “How do you sleep at night?” And she says, “Senator, we have a secret weapon. We have no place else to go.” And for him, it's a foundational element of how he looks at Israel. As is his view that Israel is the only true democracy in the region, and therefore we have commitment and obligation to it. But he was steeped in this. He talks about how his father talked to him about Israel and the Shoah [Holocaust]. So, for him, this is this is something deeply embedded in his own personal identity.
ROSENBERG: And I want to make a point here, because a lot of our audience are Evangelicals – not all, we certainly have Muslims and Jews and people of all kinds of faith and no faith. But Evangelicals have been very concerned about the Obama team's interaction with Israel and obviously with Iran. But one of the points you make – and I think what I'm trying to sift out as I talk to building more relationships on the Democrat side, which is not been my strong suit, but in talking to David Makovsky, and reading your work over the years – you described Biden as certainly different from President Obama, both in terms of just style and personal warmth and chemistry, but also that Biden was often the man that Obama sent in to try to smooth over or de-escalate the tensions that Obama and Netanyahu were having. Am I reading that right? Is that what you are saying?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Yes, you are reading it completely right.
ROSENBERG: That’s interesting, right?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: It is. And it's also come together as part of his natural state. Look, I'll give you another anecdote, because it really captures what you just said.
So, you'll recall back in 2011, Obama gave a speech the day before Prime Minister Netanyahu was arriving in the States. And he gave what was a kind of partial parameters speech where he talked about ‘67 and mutually agreed swaps as a parameter for borders. But he also talked about the end effect being “two states for two peoples” and that the borders had to be matched by meeting Israel's security needs with Israel, being able to fulfill its security needs on its own by itself. He wasn't saying we would be less committed. But the Israelis always said security arrangements must permit us to defend ourselves by ourselves. And that was also part of the speech.
Prime Minister Netanyahu felt this was putting him in the corner just before he arrived [in Washington], and this ended up producing the image of him lecturing Obama in the Oval Office about it – and, to be fair, [Netanyahu] was somehow saying that Obama was going back to ‘67 lines, which he [Obama] was not. “‘67 and mutual swaps” meant you [Israel] absorb all the [Jewish settlement] blocs [in the West Bank] into Israel and then you have a compensation for that. So, this was on a Thursday. On Sunday, Obama gave a speech at AIPAC and then flew to Europe.
The next day, Biden met with Netanyahu in the White House. And because they have this personal relationship and Biden has always said how much he likes Bibi when he disagrees with him…..
ROSENBERG: Biden famously signed a photograph saying, you know, “I will always love you, even though I don't agree with one damn thing you've ever said,” or something to that effect. I'm paraphrasing, but….
AMBASSADOR ROSS: But the truth is there is a warm personal relationship there. And partly because it was Biden, partly because Netanyahu was the one to manage things, but he [Netanyahu] knew he could manage it [tensions and disagreements with Obama] with Biden, and they came to an understanding on how we could use what Obama had laid out in his speeches, how we could use them as the basis for creating a set of parameters. And, in fact, we worked through the summer and we got agreement. Netanyahu and I agreed. [And] he got his cabinet to agree to these parameters that grew out of these two speeches would now be the basis for going forward diplomatically. In fact, we got E.U. to accept it. We couldn't get the Russians to. And Abu Mazen rejected it because even though in effect, it was “two states for two peoples,” he rejected the reference to Israel being the nation state of the Jewish people. But the point was he was Biden who came in in the aftermath of what was tension – and he fixed it, and Biden defined his role that way.
ROSENBERG: Now, I think your view – and I know it’s [former U.S. Ambassador and senior Obama advisor] Martin Indyk view’s – is that the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, shouldn't even be a major topic right now. We talked about this, you and I, in the last interview. You've got the COVID situation. You've got the economy, the vaccinations – there are a lot of issues on President Biden's domestic plate, including de-escalating the partisan tensions. That's what he said he wants to do. Now, impeachment has injected an entirely new element, but he'll have to navigate through that.
But Iran is an issue that he sort of has to deal with in your view, because – and I agree with you, 100 percent – Iran is forcing itself [onto the agenda]. So, what would Biden's objectives be, in the big picture? What does he want to do? Not getting into every detail again, and to your [policy transition] paper of what you recommend should do, but what are his Middle East objectives coming in? And then I don’t want to go through all of them, but certainly Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, I think we ought to get your take on at least two.
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Look, I would say, again, you put your finger on it again correctly. The Middle East is not a preoccupation for him [Biden], even internationally. Now, famous last words. You can come in saying you're not going to, you don't want to, focus on the Middle East, but the Middle East has a way of imposing itself on you, whether you like it or not….
ROSENBERG: Which is why we started ALL ISRAEL NEWS, because even a year ago in the midst of COVID, we know the pendulum is coming back. It's just the way it's done.
AMBASSADOR ROSS: That's right. So, what does he want?
Look, he wants to be able to, as he said, make sure Iran never has a nuclear weapon. That's his number one issue, I think, as it relates to the region.
Number two, I think he wants to see the normalization process between the Arab states and Israel develop further. Recall, he embraced the Abrahamic Accords with Israel immediately – no hesitation. There was no other issue on which there was any agreement with the Trump administration in the political campaign. But on this one, he immediately said he supported this. So, I think he will build on the normalization, as a second thing.
Then third, I think that he will actually hope to see progress made in terms of stabilizing the region as a whole in terms of development, economic development, but also greater pluralization, greater respect for minority rights. This is a region where minorities are not respected as one of the reasons you have so much conflict in the region. I think that will be the third broad area where he would like to see things. Would he like to see more democracy in the region? Yes, but he's not going to make that, not going to push democracy promotion as such, because it ends up being a rhetorical exercise unless it's backed up by a consistent kind of behavior.
ROSENBERG: Well, I think that President George W. Bush, as much as he wanted and pushed it in many different ways, learned some hard lessons. We all did. Democracy in Gaza led to Hamas. I'm all for democracy. But what we're finding is the monarchies in the region have tended to be far more stable than the putative democracies.
OK, but what you're saying is in the triaging of his [Biden’s] own time – and, let's admit it, his energy and focus – it's going to fall on other people, primarily, to see what's possible in these different areas.
So, let's start with Anthony Blinken, who's been nominated as the secretary of state. Talk to us about what should we know about Tony Blinken.
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Look, I've known since early in the Clinton administration. He is just, I’ll just say, he in many ways – he's an interesting reflection of Biden, which is not surprising because he's worked with him so closely for so long –is a completely decent person. I mean, some of the people around Biden are the kind of people you would always like to know because they're just thoroughly decent people. He's very smart, very thoughtful. You know, his stepfather was a survivor [of the Holocaust].
ROSENBERG: Right, many people do not know that yet.
AMBASSADOR ROSS: His grandfather was a Yiddish poet, a very well-known Yiddish poet. He's very mindful of his personal history. And though he's not focused on the Middle East, per se, I can I mean – I'm telling stories today, so I'll keep telling them. During the Gaza war in 2014, Israel was beginning to run out of Iron Dome missiles. And it was [Israeli Ambassador to the US] Ron Dermer who went to Tony Blinken, who was at that time – he was still in the White House, he wasn't yet Deputy Secretary of State – and explained, “Look, we're running out of Iron Dome [interceptors] because of the number of rockets being fired out of Gaza.” And even though there had been some criticism of some of the Israeli targets by the White House, Blinken immediately went to the President and said, “We have to provide them. We've got to provide the money for a new production line [of interceptor rockets] so that they don't face missiles without being able to defend against the missiles.” This was smart for two reasons. First, it was the right thing to do. But also, think about it. If Israel had no choice because it could no longer use the Iron Dome, it had no choice but to go in on the ground in a very big way into Gaza, which would impose a very high cost on the Israelis, but even higher costs on the Palestinians. But he [Blinken] didn't even hesitate. He immediately went to Obama and Obama agreed. That was Blinken, and it was interesting.
Also, think about it, that’s who Dermer chose to go to.
So, again, to me, it speaks volumes.
ROSENBERG: Jake Sullivan, national security advisor, doesn’t need confirmation.
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Right. Interestingly enough, again, not someone with a lot of Middle East background, per se, not a focus on the Middle East, per se. But I can tell you, after I left the administration, Jake was frequently the back channel from the Israelis to Hillary Clinton and to the administration. And I can tell you, those Israelis who were working with him have a very high regard for him. He's very straight. He's the kind of person who won't mislead you, but he's also the kind of person who is thoughtful, listens, learns because he listens, and is also someone who doesn't react to criticism. He thinks about the criticism. He doesn't reflexively reject and he thinks, OK, what's driving the criticism? And he'll address it, thoughtfully.
So, these two – it reminds me in some ways of George H.W. Bush, who brought people in who he knew could work as a team. In a lot of ways, George H.W. Bush didn't like all the infighting in the Reagan administration, and he wanted the people around them to work as a team, so that he brought people in like that. That's what Biden is doing. He’s bringing people in who have already worked together, have experience and worked together. And in many ways, Jake Sullivan and Tony Blinken are very similar personalities, with very different backgrounds.
ROSENBERG: It's interesting parallel you're making between George W. Bush and Biden and his team. Obviously, there's a lot of philosophical differences. But their depth of years of experience – I mean, just decades and decades and decades – is in contrast, with Bill Clinton, who came in no national experience. And George W. Bush, who had his father's experience, but was still trying to figure out [how to adapt] from being a governor. And President Obama, who didn't have any significant national experience – just a few years in the Senate. And obviously Donald Trump.
But I before we wrap up this one, I have to ask you about Robert Gates. The former Secretary of Defense famously said, “Look, I love Joe Biden and couldn’t – [he’s the] nicest guy in the world. You can go to him in a crisis.” But what Gates has famously said – and I don't agree entirely, but it's worth discussing with you – Gates said, “On every foreign policy issue in the last 40 years, Biden has been wrong.” Now, it’s not entirely true – you just gave the Iron Dome example [of Biden and his close allies like Tony Blinken supporting the funding of Israel’s rocket defense program], but it feels true to many…..So how do you thread that needle?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Look, it's interesting that Gates thought he [Biden] was wrong on Afghanistan. I think he was actually much closer to the mark on Afghanistan than Gates was. I mean, he [Biden] argued in 2009 that we knew that we could not nation-build in Afghanistan, that our real issue was counterterrorism, and that we had to keep a limited presence to deal with terror and not try to rebuild Afghanistan, because we would always fail. Well, he turned out to be right. Gates's approach, which was to do a surge there, and then to, you know, to build up our presence, that turned out to be wrong. So, I'm not so sure he [Biden] was wrong on all these issues.
ROSENBERG: But the last point on that is simply his [Biden’s] willingness to use force, if necessary. Just as one example, which is kind of curious, I think. And certainly, Republicans, conservatives, are going to look at that as, “Aha!” But that would be the decision of President Obama, “Should I send US special forces into Pakistan to get – to take out – Osama bin Laden? The Republican argument is, “Even Hillary Clinton was for that.” Joe Biden wasn’t. And it just, for some, that will sort of encapsulate – I'm not sure that's fair – but I'm just saying that that's an easy one [to point to.]
AMBASSADOR ROSS: One of the things that Biden always says, and that's worth repeating here, is, “Big nations don't bluff.” You know, he would never, ever, have done the “red line” the way President Obama did [if Syria’s government used chemical weapons against their own people, then that would be a “red line” that if crossed would trigger a robust US military response] if he wasn't prepared to fulfill it. So, he understands you need coercion. He understands that very well, that diplomacy doesn't work without coercion. But he's also going to be very careful about how and where he chooses to use force. And he's not going to make commitments that he's not able to fulfill. Biden is the kind of person, if he makes the commitment, he's going to act on it. It just defines who he is.
ROSENBERG: Ambassador Dennis Ross, it's very important for us to hear from people who know the President and his inner circle. You obviously do. So, thank you so much for walking us through this. I've got one more set of questions in part three, but thank you so much.
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.