Think Tanks Compete on Middle East Policy

By JENNIFER LORD, For United Press International  |  Jan. 7, 2002 at 6:31 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 7 (UPI) -- As the situation in the Middle East has heated up over the past 16 months, two Washington think tanks have been competing for influence over United States foreign policy in the region. Both are run by former U.S. ambassadors to the Middle East.

On one side is the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, generally viewed by the think tank world as being more pro-Israel and which tends to support the policies of Ariel Sharon's right-wing Likud party. On the other is the Middle East Institute, which is viewed in the think tank universe as being more in favor of a peace process, and as more pro-Palestinian.

Both think tanks are known for top-notch research and scholastic contributions. While the Washington Institute long has been involved in the bruising business of influencing policy in the nation's capital, the longer-lived MEI only recently has become a contender in the public policy world.

James Phillips, Middle Eastern fellow at the Heritage Foundation, says the Washington Institute has a greater degree of influence over policymakers, while MEI has always tended to have a more academic presence. Founded in 1946 as an educational resource for Americans wishing to study the Middle East, MEI offers middle-eastern language and culture classes and publishes "The Middle East Journal," which carries essays on historical and political issues in the region.

"The Middle East Institute is more of an old institution primarily known for publishing the Middle East Journal," says Phillips. "Up until recently it was mostly publishing articles on Middle-Eastern history rather than current policy topics, so it's a relative newcomer in the field of trying to affect Washington policy."

Ambassador Ned Walker is the man responsible for changing MEI's academic image. Last May, Walker became the president and chief executive officer of the institute, bringing more than 35 years of State Department experience to the post. Walker served as Ambassador to Egypt under the Clinton administration and as Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 1989 to 1992.

In addition to overseeing the publication of the Middle East Journal, Walker writes a biweekly column for Al Hayat, a London-based Arabic newspaper. He hopes that in the future MEI will have a larger influence over America's decision-makers.

"The Washington Institute is a very well-established, well-directed and managed organization which has made a place for itself in this town, and it is the model in which I will be trying to build the Middle East Institute, " says Walker. "We have been a relatively much smaller organization, more academically orientated, not very active politically, as opposed to the Washington Institute, and now we are trying to become more active, more of a voice so that there is a healthy debate in town."

Ambassador Dennis Ross, counselor and senior fellow at the Washington Institute, prefers not to discuss any competition between the two think tanks and says that he is primarily focused on improving his institute. Prior to joining the Washington Institute, he served in the State Department during the first Bush and Clinton administrations as a special Middle East coordinator with the rank of an ambassador. In that position, Ross was instrumental in the Middle East peace process, aiding in facilitating the Israel-Jordan peace treaty in 1994, assisting Israelis and Palestinians in reaching the 1995 Interim Agreement, successfully helping to broker the Hebron Accord in 1997.

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy was created in 1985, and is known for its research, seminars, conferences, and publications on Israeli and Middle East Issues. Ross says that the Washington Institute's main objective is to do research and analysis across a very wide spectrum of different issues. And he says the Washington Institute tries to be objective about all the issues.

"The Institute takes a regionwide view, so I wouldn't say that it has a particular orientation," says Ross. "If there's one thing that is an arching principal that guides the Washington Institute, it is the focus on America's interest in the region."

Ross says that while the founders of the institute were pro-Israel, the Washington Institute has scholars with many different points of view.

"The people who come here have a spectrum of opinions -- there is a pretty rich give and take in the fact that you have diverse kinds of people who are here as fellows," says Ross. "However, those who helped found the Institute felt that a U.S.-Israeli relationship was something that was in America's best interest."

Walker says that while MEI does not question the existence of the State of Israel, it also does not turn a blind eye to other parties involved in the issue.

"The Washington Institute tends to have a very strong relationship with people who favor Israel. We try to be as objective in this issue as possible -- but we don't take quite the same orientation," says Walker. "We tend to try and make sure that the views of Palestinians and Arabs are [also] reflected in the policy debate."

Charles Duelfer, a Middle East scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that while both organizations have a reputation for being fair and balanced, they don't always share the same conclusions.

"Both address similar issues, but not identical issues. They are seen as having different perspectives, one is seen as being from more of an Israeli perspective (the Washington Institute) and one is seen as being more from an Arab perspective (MEI)," says Duelfer. "They look at the same set of Middle-Eastern issues and the expertise they bring to bear on them tends to derive from one side or the other. However, they both seem to try to look at both sides of the issues."

Scott Lasensky, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, still views MEI as more of a force in academia and less of a player in the public policy world, and points out that the two groups were established for very different reasons.

"The Washington Institute, unlike MEI, grew out of a singular interest with matters related to Israel, and then grew very rapidly over the 1990s to put forward a very ambitious research agenda," he says

Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says that both groups are useful to the public policy world.

"[The Washington Institute}is clearly a pro-Israel perspective, but it's an incredibly useful forum for being in touch with Israelis and others in the region, and for debating and discussing the issues," says Gordon. "MEI tries to provide a balanced forum for discussion, debate and research on these types of issues, and is less orientated toward Israel."

Both think tanks have ambitious goals and are optimistic about the future. Ross says that as a result of the events of Sept. 11, the Washington Institute has developed an increased interest in combating terrorism. And he says that the main issues of the future will involve terrorism and oil.

"We have a former FBI agent here who is working on counter-terrorism issues, and we have others focusing on the broader issues of energy and oil, and broader issues of stability in the region," says Ross. He says that Middle East politics are at a low point now, but he is confident that in the future there will be more peaceful co-existence between the nations.

Walker says that in coming years MEI plans to compete more for the ear of the Administration, Congress, the press and the people.

"We're trying to get the message across that moderation is the wave of the future, and that those who would seek to destroy the moderates are actually destroying the hope and the future of the region," says Walker. He says that increasing MEI's involvement in public policy issues will allow a healthier debate.

"We would like to be a point of reference for our congressional friends and their staffs when they need something about the region, so that they would come to us as well as the Washington Institute to get a complete picture of what's going on," he says.

Philip Gordon of the Brookings Institution agrees. He thinks that it's healthy to have more than one think tank focusing on the Middle East.

"You shouldn't allow a monopoly to any think tank for any region, so I think that it's a good thing that we have those two participating in the debate."

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