Joel Rubin is the president of Washington Strategy Group, a Chevy Chase, Md.-based foreign policy consulting firm. One month ago, he left the State Department after completing two stints there; the first of those, in 2002, took place during the run-up to and prosecution of the Iraq War. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica, columnist for The Jewish Chronicle, aide to the late Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg and political director of J Street, Rubin talked about the lessons he learned in government and what he thinks is behind President Barack Obama’s recent Jewish outreach. Here are highlights from that conversation.
Tell us about the work you did for the State Department as deputy assistant secretary for House Affairs in the State Department’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs.
Let me translate that into practical language. I was the House’s liaison to the State Department on all operational issues. It was my job to engage with all the House committees that have oversight of State, including the Foreign Affairs, Appropriations and Oversight committees. My job was to ensure that the House got what it needed and we got out of the Hill what we needed. I told the House that although we were not always going to agree on policy, I would try to have no process fouls.
Give us an example.
If Chairman [Ed] Royce [of the Foreign Affairs Committee] wants to hold a hearing in three weeks. My job was to judge, ‘Is this the right thing to do?’, then get back to the committee on witnesses and prep those witnesses to testify. I even worked on the nitty-gritty — negotiating with the House how long they can have a witness like Gen. [John] Allen testify when he also has to be at the White House that day. I even negotiated where our witnesses sat.
What was your worst day at State? Best?
My worst and best days at State were the same day, the day I testified before the House Benghazi Committee, Jan. 27, 2015. It was a long day coming. I had four concerns about testifying and representing the administration before Congress and the American people. Prior to that, I had done a lot of media work. But I had just had surgery to remove a benign tumor along my brainstem and I couldn’t hear out of my right ear. I had four concerns: A. Was I physically up to this? B. This is one hell of a topic. C. Benghazi is about a guy I was friends with, Ambassador [J. Christopher] Stevens. D) The conversation [around the Benghazi attacks] had become a nasty political one. I saw it going south.
But when you testify to Congress as a government official, that’s an honor. I felt proud. I felt I was ready for this. I make my opening remarks and they tore into me, personally. I was cut off for two hours. [A YouTube video titled “Trey Gowdy OWNS Joel Rubin At Benghazi Hearing” attests to that fact.] My performance was strong, but it was so depressing. My wife came down, said it looked brutal on TV. I felt I made no mistakes, made no unforced errors. But my kids asked me why I was interrupted the whole time. They just saw people yelling at me. It made me think about whether I wanted to keep doing this.
Do you see any comparisons between the way the State Department handled the Iraq War and the Iran negotiations?
Back then, State was the Department of Iraq. No other work happened at that time. It feels like that again. If they’re fortunate, it won’t be like Iraq because [the nuclear deal with Iran] will work and an office will manage it. During the Iraq war, all of the resources of the Department of Defense, State, USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] were called upon to fix Iraq. It overwhelmed the system. Our capacity as a government had never been stretched so much. The opportunity cost of war is really high. Iran will be much more of political [issue]. DOD, State won’t be dominated. But the Jewish community is stuck in the middle.
Is the Jewish community getting the information it needs to reach an informed opinion about the Iran deal?
No, and we’re entering a fact-free zone in debating the Iran deal. The best example of the facacta nature of this debate is … that [former Connecticut Sen. Joseph] Lieberman was named chairman of an advocacy group opposed to the Iran deal. United Against Nuclear Iran’s president, a former White House nuclear expert [Gary Samore] says the deal is worth doing, and he was replaced by a politician who knows nothing about nuclear proliferation.
President Obama held a virtual town hall meeting with the Jewish community last week. He recently visited Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. Why all this Jewish outreach? Why now?
President Obama has been engaging the Jewish community since he entered politics and has had a very active Jewish outreach program throughout his administration. I think that he sincerely believes that the Jewish community — including all of its strains — needs to have a seat at the table. I’ve attended a couple of White House Chanukah parties where President Obama participated, and the invite list was always both broad and inclusive. Orthodox were there. Liberals were there. People from across the country were there. I think that he understands that there are diverse voices within the Jewish community and that he needs to speak to all of them, as he does. But he also plays it straight and is willing to take on hard topics that may make traditional Jewish leaders uncomfortable. But that should be OK for the Jewish community, as we relish debate and difference of opinion.
I think that you can see this approach in both the president’s words and deeds. For example, he spoke about the pain that Jews suffered during the Holocaust when he addressed the Arab world in Cairo in 2009, a statement that should have been received with applause by the Jewish community. And when he addressed students about the Iran deal at American University, he spoke about the need to protect Israel’s security. So while he has taken on some tough issues, such as calling for a settlement freeze to the vocal opposition of many in the pro-Israel community, he has simultaneously moved to strengthen Israeli security, such as when he built the Iron Dome program at the same time that he was being criticized by the community. This means that he both has a strong compass about what needs to be done to protect Israeli security while advancing America’s interests and that he has an ear for all of the diverse views of the community.
What lessons have you learned that you can share with readers — about life, government?
I joined the Peace Corps to help heal the world, based upon my learning of the value of tikkun olam throughout my youth in Pittsburgh. It was a transformative experience for me, causing me to want to get involved in politics and public policy. But it also taught me that while one can’t wait for change to happen, one also has to be … methodical to create it. And after my health incident last year, I also learned that life is short and that we must take risks to shape the world around us. As a result, I’m proud to have worked in a community of progressive foreign policy experts for more than six years that attempted to transform our country’s politics around foreign policy.
Talking about Middle East peace wasn’t popular on Capitol Hill in 2008. And advocating for diplomacy with Iran wasn’t popular in 2011. But now both are mainstream positions … and that the politics, slowly but surely, are coming around to adopt. Working on these issues takes time, patience, and a lot of effort, but they’re worth it. Americans want our country to behave differently in the world than we have in recent years. I saw the power of our country when we reached out to the world with an open hand first, rather than a fist, when I was in the Peace Corps, and I’d like to believe that I’ve engaged in work in Washington that fits this mold, helping to transform both our foreign policy and our politics for the better.
A native of Pittsburgh, Geoffrey W. Melada is the editor-in-chief of Washington Jewish Week.
Current home: Bethesda, Md.
Education: Brandeis University (B.A., politics), Carnegie Mellon University (M.A, public policy)
Family: Wife, Nilmini Gunaratne, an economist and foreign policy expert, two daughters