Obama’s Middle East Policy Team Has a New Home in Elizabeth Warren’s Campaign

Among them is Ilan Goldenberg, who helped shape Iran policy under Obama

Ron Kampeas
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Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren before the  second 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan, October 28, 2019.
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren before the second 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan, October 28, 2019. Credit: LUCAS JACKSON / REUTERS
Ron Kampeas

Much of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign narrative subtly casts her as the anti-Obama, the potential president who will not broker sweetheart deals for big business.

That was the subtext — actually it was the overt text — of a buzzy Politico magazine article in September titled “‘Why Are You Pissing In Our Face?’: Inside Warren’s War With the Obama Team.” It chronicled tensions at the beginning of Barack Obama’s first term, when Warren, then a Harvard law professor, was the most prominent critic of the bailout championed by the president.

It’s been a narrative useful to the Massachusetts senator as she vies with Sen. Bernie Sanders to be the no-compromise candidate the party’s left is dreaming about.

But there was a hiccup in the anti-Obama narrative last month when reports emerged that Obama was “talking up” Warren in private conversations with donors.

Now a CNN story on Warren’s foreign policy team reveals that her Middle East policy advisers are nearly all Obama-ites.

As the story notes, Warren has been uncharacteristically silent about her foreign policy, delivering only one speech and an article about it in the year or so she’s been campaigning. She fumbled at an October debate on a foreign policy question when she readily agreed with another candidate, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, saying “I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East.”

Warren later backtracked, and an aide told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that she was referring only to combat troops. But the impression remained that she was not deeply immersed in the issue.

It didn’t help that the same month she told J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, that she was ready to leverage aid to Israel to pressure the country into compliance with U.S. policy — but was short on details.

Her campaign consultants, as outlined in the CNN story, offer a clearer picture and distinguish Warren from two of her main rivals for the Democratic nomination, Sanders and Joe Biden, the former vice president.

Among them is Ilan Goldenberg, who helped shape Iran policy under Obama. Goldenberg later was chief of staff to Martin Indyk, who tried to broker a Middle East peace deal in 2013-14. Warren also is talking with Hady Amr, Indyk’s deputy during that doomed peace deal attempt.

They join a raft of Gen-Z foreign policy wonks who served under Obama.

Here are some takeaways from the revelations in the CNN article:

Assistance to both Israel and the Palestinians: Warren’s pledge to J Street to consider cuts to Israel assistance notwithstanding, Goldenberg and Amr are steeped in an understanding of Middle East peace brokering that uses American carrots, and not sticks, for both sides.

Indyk and Secretary of State John Kerry went out of their way to offer Israelis incentives for sticking with the talks, notably including U.S. investment in defense infrastructure in the West Bank to assuage Israeli concerns about ceding any security control in the region.

That process was packed as well with economic incentives for the Palestinians — Amr’s brief . That’s consistent with the Warren pledge to resume the assistance to the Palestinians that President Donald Trump has eliminated.

The anti-Biden: Biden has taken on board as senior advisers boomer wonks like Tony Blinken and Nicholas Burns. Blinken held senior posts in the Obama administration, but got his start on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council. Burns was a career diplomat through the Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Those are resumes that reflect the last vestiges of the post-World War II vision of an expansive U.S. role on the planet. Warren’s consultants, by contrast, are more identified with Obama’s retreat from using U.S. military power as leverage. They have a harder-nosed outlook of the limits of U.S. influence, but at the same time repudiate the “America first” isolationism that Trump has come to embody.

The anti-Sanders, too: Goldenberg, Amr and Warren’s other consultants are nonetheless seasoned executive branch diplomats and policymakers.

Sanders, typical of his brand, is taking advice from activists and thinkers he has recruited from outside the Democratic establishment. His top foreign policy adviser, Matt Duss, for a time was the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, which has as its focus two-state advocacy and is sharply critical of Israel policy in a way that Democrats until recently were not.

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