Will Obama End Pay-to-Play
in Mideast Policy?

The incoming Obama administration is scrambling to distance itself from the scandal emanating from the president-elect’s home state. It is still too early to tell how much Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s alleged attempt to sell the president-elect’s Senate seat in exchange for $1 million may taint Obama advisers. But we may soon discover the answer to a larger question. Is pay-to-play going to be the modus operandi for Obama’s Middle East policy appointments?

Two former Clinton administration officials, Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk, may provide the answer. They have recently been energized by Hillary Clinton’s nomination as secretary of state, and both are attempting to stage a comeback. Absent any record of accomplishment – policy or electoral – Ross and Indyk have always counted on a presidential nod for influence. When placed alongside Bill Clinton’s auctioneering of the levers of power, Blagojevich’s does not seem particularly corrupt. Blagojevich at least evidenced a modicum of patriotism by limiting his sale of positions to U.S. nationals. Bill Clinton and the Democratic National Committee squeezed more cash out of the Israel lobby for highly sensitive appointments than Blagojevich would have ever dreamed possible. Clinton received the highest bid from Israeli-American media entrepreneur and American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) super-donor Haim Saban.

Saban was famously quoted by the New York Times on Sept. 5, 2004, saying, “I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel.” Saban played a decisive role in shaping Clinton policy through his largesse to AIPAC and the Democratic Party and his subsidization of a stable of appointees-in-waiting. Saban hosted a $3.5 million fundraiser for Democrats during Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign against George H.W. Bush. Saban was so anxious to maintain his lead donor influence with the Democratic Party that when he learned another donor had topped his contributions by a quarter-million dollars, he immediately sent the DNC a $1 bill clipped to a $250,000 check.

Saban served on President Clinton’s Export Council advising the White House. But Saban really made his mark pulling strings for former AIPAC lobbyist Martin Indyk’s installation as U.S. ambassador to Israel in 1995. This was no easy feat. As a foreign national, Indyk first had to receive rush preferential naturalization to become a citizen eligible to serve as a U.S. ambassador. Indyk’s overshadowing accomplishment while in Israel was having his security clearances revoked for mishandling classified information.

Indyk’s lack of achievements for the American people were exceeded only by Clinton appointee Dennis Ross’ failures as Middle East envoy during critical peace negotiations. Ross’ biases manifested themselves in his utter failure to push for a fair and contiguous territory for Palestinians. This earned the American team a revealing nickname: “Israel’s lawyer." After leaving the Clinton administration, Ross retired to a think-tank founded by AIPAC board members. Indyk found a newer and even more influential niche to call home. In 2002 Haim Saban pledged $13 million to carve the new Saban Center for Middle East Policy out of the staid old Brookings Institution. Martin Indyk became its director. In 2003 Brookings was the single most cited think-tank in the American news media. The Saban Center played a vital public relations role by creating the illusion of full spectrum political support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Brookings’ exhortations for war, immortalized by Martin Indyk’s essay “Lock and Load,” assured Americans that Saddam Hussein probably possessed weapons of mass destruction but that in any case Iraq could only be neutralized by U.S. military force – if the U.S. moved quickly enough. Was all of this pay-to-play? Probably, though not necessarily criminally so. One must fast-forward to the 2008 Obama versus Clinton showdown for the Democratic Party presidential nomination to find a closer resemblance to Chicago-machine-style patronage for the highest bidder.

Anxiety again overcame Haim Saban when he offered two superdelegates at the Young Democrats of America a $1 million contribution to their nonprofit in return for throwing their support to Hillary Clinton. Four independent witnesses claimed this crude pay-to-play gambit occurred right before the North Carolina and Indiana primaries, though Saban denied it and no criminal charges were ever filed. It is hard to see the substantive difference between Saban and Blagojevich, beyond one acting as a president purchaser and the other as a Senate seller. But there is in fact a much bigger difference: the Israel lobby ‘s prosecutorial immunity, which was institutionalized in secret by the U.S. Justice Department during the 1960s. From this perspective, Saban’s move can be seen along a much larger continuum of efforts to secure sensitive Middle East policy posts in order to steer U.S. policy toward Israeli objectives. Though many appear to violate the law, few are ever even investigated.

Saban and the Middle East – not Blagojevich and Illinois – are why this sudden and unexpected law enforcement intrusion into the quiet realm of pay-to-play matters. The hapless governor of Illinois enjoys neither Saban’s finesse nor prosecutorial immunity. But Blagojevich’s gambit does direct unwanted attention to larger pay-to-play forces in continuous operation behind the scenes in Washington. The scandal may take pressure off Obama to acquiesce to the subtle but omnipresent mandates of the Israel lobby. After all, Obama, with his decisive, grassroots-powered win, doesn’t appear to owe Saban or AIPAC’s team any political debts for past services rendered. Like Rahm Emanuel and to some extent Hillary Clinton, they are but opportunistic latecomers to Obama’s movement. If Emanuel was captured implicating himself on tape with Blagojevich, he could quickly become dead weight to the new Camelot. Given the current spotlight on pay-to-play, a Ross and Indyk comeback in light of Saban’s latest tawdry gambit could begin to weigh on Obama’s most valued personal commodities – credibility and integrity – and not just the already long-tarnished Middle East political appointee process.

The stakes could not be higher. Ross has already issued an error-laden, blustering manifesto that is little more than a roadmap for U.S. military strikes on Iran. Will the crudest forms of pay-to-play ultimately win out? If we see Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk join other AIPAC veterans streaming into sensitive posts, the answer will be clear.