Obama's Mideast team will be named soon, if the rumor mill and precedent are to be believed. We should have the names for the top five
positions within a week or two.
Three are in the normal table of organization: Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs (now Bill Burns, who may be asked to continue); Senior Director for Near East Affairs at the NSC (now Elliot Abrams), and Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs (now David Welch). Two new positions are said to be planned by Obama and Clinton: special envoy for Iranian affairs, and special envoy for Arab-Israeli peace initiatives.
The blogs and the media are full of reports about a rivalry between Dan Kurtzer and Dennis Ross to be the chief Mideast honcho. I think this is misleading. I doubt that Ross (or Indyk) would be interested in running the vast Near East bureaucracy that answers to the NEA Assistant Secretary, managing bilateral relations with dozens of countries demanding attention twenty-four hours a day. Kurtzer, on the other hand, sought but failed to get this position in the past, and, unlike Ross and Indyk, is a Foreign Service Officer. Of the three, I believe that only Kurtzer is actually a candidate for NEA.
Similarly, I doubt that Ross or Indyk would accept the top Mideast post at the NSC (currently held by Elliot Abrams), even though this would mean some access to and influence with the President. That is more likely to go to Mark Lippert, Obama's chief Senate aide for foreign policy; Dan Shapiro, Obama's Mideast staffer in the campaign; or another candidate favored by Jones or Donilon.
Ross, Indyk and Kurtzer may be rivals for the Arab-Israeli envoy position, and Ross and Kurtzer would be credible candidates for the Iran envoy nomination. A special envoy gets to cherry pick the exciting issues, and, unlike an Assistant Secretary, can still have a family and a life.
Indyk has been a close adviser to Hillary Clinton for many years, but is well established in an interesting position and may not be as motivated as Ross and Kurtzer to serve in government again.
My hunch: Kurtzer will go to NEA, Ross will be in one of the two special envoy posts, and Indyk will remain an outside adviser to Clinton. Kurtzer will play an important role, but Ross will be more central to the issue he is given.