Remembering Michael Stein, a man for whom ideas mattered

Michael Stein, the cherished leader of The Washington Institute who passed away on November 7, spent decades trying to prevent the sort of tense face-off like the one in which Israel and the United States find themselves today on the Iran nuclear negotiations.

Indeed, the reason he so swiftly backed the initiative of Barbi Weinberg, a visionary pioneer from Los Angeles, to create the Institute nearly thirty years ago was to build a strong appreciation for the commonality of interest between the United States and Israel among our nation’s foreign policy elite.

A New York native who attended Valley Forge Military Academy before going to Harvard, Mike was an American patriot who felt too many Americans – and too many American leaders – failed to recall the basic history of the Middle East, let alone its lessons. Whether it was the irrevocable but neglected commitments made to Zionists at San Remo or the ironclad but discarded American assurances made to Israel after the Suez campaign, Mike was anguished with the thought that, on his watch, another set of American assurances would be broken, with disastrous repercussions. His life’s work was to ensure that would not happen.

Mike was fortunate to have been touched by historic figures who shaped modern Israel. He received a master class in the single-mindedness needed to build the Jewish state when, in the 1950s, he was hosted for Passover by Israel’s founding father, David Ben Gurion. (How Paula Ben Gurion’s patronage of Mike’s family business – the Bali Bra Company – ended with seder at Sde Boker is just one of life’s small miracles.)

Nearly two decades later, Mike was propelled into a life of activism by Abba Eban, who he escorted during an Israel independence day celebration. In a private moment with Eban, Mike asked what he could do on behalf of Israel. He expected Eban to rattle off a list of charities to support but instead the erudite statesman told Mike the most important thing he could do for Israel was to ensure the strength and vitality of its friendship with the United States. That led to two decades of organizing, fundraising and activism on behalf of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Then, the “light bulb” moment hit: it dawned on forward-thinking friends of this relationship that they needed to reach out to an arm of the American government that traditional activism didn’t touch, the unelected “permanent government” of the Executive Branch. These are the men and women who shape and make policy every day in the White House, State Department, Pentagon, intelligence agencies and throughout the rest of the federal government. Along with the “inside-the-beltway” media and diplomatic communities, these career foreign policy professionals could only be engaged through knowledge, expertise, facts, and analysis.

Thus was born The Washington Institute – a thoroughly nonpartisan “think tank” built on the principle that ideas matter. From the beginning, the basic approach was to bring together the world’s best experts on key Middle East issues – Americans, Europeans, Israelis, Arabs, Turks, Iranians, etc. — and create settings for them to interact with government officials, diplomats and journalists, the key players in the “policymaking community.” The result, the Institute’s founders were convinced, would be wiser, better informed and more effective policies.

Building an organization is no simple feat. Together, our early leaders – Barbi, the founding president and a trailblazer who had been the first woman to head a major Jewish federation in North America, and her early partner and lifelong friend Mike — were persistent, tenacious, principled and committed. From the outset, they secured the support of eminent figures in American public life and created a Board of Advisors that, in those early years, ranged from Vice President Walter Mondale to Secretary of State Alexander Haig. They had chosen, in founding director (and now special U.S. peace process envoy) Martin Indyk, a creative policy practitioner who took the Institute’s ideas and helped shape them into effective programs and handsome, well-read publications. And they had the right formula – sound scholarship, insightful analysis, workable and pragmatic ideas to advance American interests. The right timing, the right people, the right format and the right ideas – the combination worked and the Institute flourished.

To his great credit, Mike was never satisfied with institutional success. He chafed at the ivory tower image of a “think tank” and, as a man of action, preferred the term “do tank.” Under his leadership, which included eight years as president and six as chairman in the 1990s and 2000s, the Institute broadened its size and scope, eventually to take on the mission of being able to provide expertise to the government on every major policy issue America faces in the Middle East – from Arab-Israel relations to counter-proliferation to Gulf security to counterterrorism. He was proud to know that the Institute’s team of scholars included Jews and Christians, Arabs and Israelis, Sunnis and Shiites, all working together toward a common objective – improving the quality of American policy in the Middle East.

Do all the experts agree on every issue? Of course not and Mike didn’t work so hard for so many years just to build an institution of mindless automatons. But they agree on the fundamentals that have guided the institute since its inception – that the divide between moderates and radicals is deeper and more threatening to American interests than the divide between Arabs and Israelis; that the ideological menace of radical Islamic extremism is one of the great civilizational challenges of our time; and that a strong U.S.-Israel relationship is in America’s best interest and is not special pleading for a foreign power.

If, to some, these don’t seem earth-shattering in 2013, that’s in no small part because of the remarkable success Mike, Barbi and successive Institute leaders have had in guiding an organization committed to mainstreaming these once-heretical notions over the past 28 years.

How would Mike have approached the current U.S.-Israel tension over the Iranian nuclear negotiations? For a gentle, caring, passionate man who lived by the motto of speaking truth to power, his answer would be the famous line from the old television show “Dragnet” – “Just the facts.” Tell it like it is, he always counseled, and you will never regret it.

About the Author
Robert Satloff has served since 1993 as executive director of The Washington Institute.