Ross says ‘statecraft’ needed in Mideast


Dennis Ross, who for 12 years was the key point person on the Middle East peace process for the administrations of Presidents George Herbert Walker Bush and Bill Clinton, now a Distinguished Fellow with the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, called for the restoration of the use of “statecraft” to help resolve the political situation in war-torn Iraq as well as the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Ross, who helped broker the successful 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, and who was present with Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the late Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat at Camp David in July 2000, had detailed those talks in The Missing Peace, which he published in 2004, when he was a guest at that year’s St. Louis Jewish Book Festival. Just over 500 people packed the half-gym setup in the Robert Edison Gymnasium at the Jewish Community Center’s Wohl Building for Ross’s talk, which included an extensive, classroom-like discussion period.

While The Missing Peace focused specifically on the Middle East peace process and its successes and frustrations, Statecraft, And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World, broadens its perspective into a comprehensive look at the total approach to foreign policy. Ross expressed disappointment in the direction American foreign policy has taken during the current Bush Administration, and he emphasized, “the important thing is that when mistakes happen, we should learn from those mistakes and act accordingly.”

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Regarding the failed attempt at Camp David in July 2000 to win agreement from Yasser Arafat for a peace plan put forward by President Bill Clinton, which would have granted the Palestinians an independent state over all of the Gaza Strip, 96 percent of the West Bank and shared adminisration of Jerusalem and its holy places, Ross was candid in admitting his own mistake about Arafat.

“If Yasser Arafat had been like South African leader Nelson Mandela, we would have had an agreement,” he said. “Unfortunately, Arafat could not re-invent himself from a revolutionary to a peacemaker or statesman. He could deal with a prolonged process but not with a final status solution. I was mistaken in my belief that he would change.”

Ross, who had worked with former Secretaries of State James R. Baker, Warren Chritopher and Madeleine Albright in his 12 years with the State Department, and who received the State Department’s highest civilian award for his service, said “originally, I was going to simply write about negotiating, since I am a negotiator. But because I am so distressed over the current direction of American foreign policy, I decided to broaden the topic to statecraft. This is my 40th book discussion, and I have gone around the country in an attempt to familiarize the American public with the little-understood concept of statecraft, which I believe is urgently needed in today’s volatile world situation.”

According to Ross, “Statecraft involves using all of the tools of the trade of diplomacy, not just the military option or the threat of force. It involves diplomatic, military, economic and intelligence tools, all of which should be used in dealing with any challenging foreign policy issue. Timing is to statecraft what location is to real estate. The tool kit of statecraft involves using all of the tools, not just some of them tackling complex and challenging issues.”

Ross added that effective diplomacy means “using to good effect available information, persuasion and if needed, coercion, the effective framing of issues, or how to describe what is going on, and lastly, good intelligence and the wise use of that intelligence.” Ross said that applying these tests to how the Bush Administration has handled the war in Iraq and the efforts to help establish a stable government there, and the Middle East peace process, would earn failing grades by the standards of statecraft he outlined.

“The administration applied its own principles in Iraq in ways that made no sense,” Ross said. “There was a wide gap between objectives and the means to meet them. The original premise for going to war was based on faulty intelligence; there were no weapons of mass destruction found, and if there were such weapons, we did not have enough forces to find them or to seal the borders with other countries like Syria, where they could have been smuggled out.”

Ross said that the Pentagon had estimated before the war that at least 380,000 troops would be needed to topple Saddam Hussein and then secure the peace, “but the administration refused to pay attention since they believed the Pentagon was against the war. As a result, we went into Iraq dirven by a faith-based assessment that was not reality based. The CIA wanted to run a simulation analysis, but Rumsfeld’s Defense Department did not want this, since they believed the CIA was against going to war.”

Ross said that the administration fell victim to “group-think in which anyone who disagreed with the stated objectives was discredited within the administration. This is not a partisan issue, but it is clear that our present foreign policy is not based on statecraft. The present military surge has helped create a more secure environment in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, and there has been more local empowerment. One of the reasons Baghdad today is more secure is that they have been building separation barriers between the Sunni and Shia neighborhoods.”

Ross feels that there will still be challenges and instability in Iraq in the next decade.

“There will still be a place on the map called Iraq, but there will be considerably more regional and local authority. It is clear that the present level of l60,000 troops will not be sustainable after the next administration takes over. The fighting could slow or stop as a result of sheer exhaustion, or by the ethnic separation among the groups.”

Turning to Iran’s attempts to enrich uranium and its interests in Iraq, Ross said “We are meeting regularly with Iran bi-laterally to discuss Iraq,” and he advocates keeping diplomatic contacts going, stating the belief that military action would not be a better option than containment.

Regarding the upcoming Middle East peace conference to be hosted in Annapolis, Md. by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and to which Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Syria have been invited, Ross expressed doubt that they will lead to a major breakthrough. “For six years, this administration did next to nothing on attempting a revival of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Neither Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas are sufficiently strong to make major dramatic concessions. At one point, Ehud Olmert’s approval ratings were in the single digits and have only risen to about 13 percent.”

Ross said that Rice hopes the mutual fear by the invited, mostly Sunni Mulsim nations to the peace conference will result in their uniting against the threat of a Shiite-dominated hegemony led by Iran and its proxy Hezbollah. “The premise is that the Israelis, Saudis, Jordanians and Egyptians all share the same fear of Iran, and are therefore prepared to make unprecedented concessions. But leaders need a strong political base before they can make such concessions, and neither Olmert nor Abbas has such a base at present.”

Ross also finds fault with the pressure by Rice on Olmert and Abbas “to give their bottom line before the talks begin. The essence of effective negotiations is that you never lead off with your bottom line positions. Rice seems determined to launch what she calls ‘final status’ negotiations. On the positive side, both Abbas and Olmert really would like to achieve something during the last months of the Bush Administration. Abbas has come through recently in calling together 800 imams in the West Bank to get them to stop giving inflammatory sermons, and he has shut down 118 Hamas-front charities in the West Bank. Meanwhile, Olmert has been releasing Palestinian prisoners in an effort to build up Abbas and his Fatah at the expense of Hamas.”

Ross concluded by stressing, “I wrote this book because I want statecraft to be discussed and revived in this country. I would hope that in the presidential campaign that journalists like Wolf Blitzer will ask the candidates foreign policy questions which will test their commitment to the concept of statecraft in our foreign affairs.”

Ross was critical of the recent book The Israel Lobby by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt who “say that we face terrorism because we support Israel, which explains our negative image in the Arab world and Europe.” He also criticized former President Jimmy Carter’s book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid as a “mixture of myth and revisionism.”