First appeared in the Boston Globe 7/8/07
The former Mideast envoy takes a hard look at Palestine, Tony Blair’s new mission, and the failure of American statecraft
By Harvey Blume
LAST MONTH, WHEN Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, threatening the Palestinian Authority with chaos, and Tony Blair stepped into his new role as special envoy to the Middle East representing the "Quartet" of the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations, few people were more in demand to interpret these events than Dennis Ross.
Ross had served as President Bill Clinton’s Middle East envoy, and had been with Clinton at the Wye River and Camp David summits in 1998 and 2000, respectively, the last occasions at which fundamental peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians seemed within reach. Now, with a distinctly less engaged Republican administration in Washington, a reminder of Ross’s authority as a bipartisan veteran of high-stakes international negotiation arrives in the form of his new book, "Statecraft," published in the thick of things in late June.
Statecraft, as Ross explains it, is like chess: It calls for the application of varied forms of power and pressure to complex situations across a wide board. Like chess, it requires a cool appraisal of one’s assets and one’s opponents’ vulnerabilities -- plus, as Ross told me last week, an "ability to always be thinking three moves ahead."
Ross’s accounts of meetings with Yassir Arafat, Eduard Shevardnadze, and other major figures on the world scene yield revealing close-ups of the promises -- and pitfalls -- of statecraft. Before serving Clinton, Ross headed up the State Department’s Policy Planning office under President George H.W. Bush and was intimately involved in the around-the-clock negotiations with the Soviet Union and European powers that resulted in the 1990 reunification of Germany. One particularly fraught aspect of those talks was that Soviet hard-liners regarded German reunification as the defeat for Soviet foreign policy that was all the excuse they needed to unseat Mikhail Gorbachev -- something Ross’s diplomatic team worked hard to prevent.
Concentration, subtlety, objectivity, forethought -- Ross sees these core elements of statecraft as consistently absent from the Bush administration’s approach to foreign affairs. "The Iraq case," especially, he writes, "stands as a model for how not to do statecraft." Successful statecraft, he argues, cannot flow from "wishful thinking" or be "shaped by an ideology." The viable "marriage of force and diplomacy" at which statecraft aims must begin with "assessments based on reality, and not on faith."
What’s needed now, Ross says, is a salvage operation -- an effort to keep statecraft from becoming a forgotten art.
IDEAS: Tony Blair is now an envoy to the Middle East. Does he have your old job?
ROSS: No, because it appears that his mandate is not comprehensive. To be a real envoy in the Middle East, you need a mandate that covers everything -- politics, economics, security issues.
IDEAS: Blair is limited to economic issues?
ROSS: That appears to be the case. And I’m suggesting that if he can’t deal with politics and with the dimension of security he can’t succeed with economics. If there’s no set of understandings about the realities of security, the Israelis simply won’t lift the checkpoints.
IDEAS: You’re very critical in "Statecraft" of the Bush administration’s disengagement from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Does Blair’s appointment at this late date change that? Or is it just for show?
ROSS: I don’t think Tony Blair would commit himself only to a show. He brings sensitivity to the issue, and a passionate commitment to wanting to do something about it.
But I worry that this is one more manifestation of the Bush administration’s trying to get by on the cheap. Rather than fully investing itself, the administration makes a symbolic gesture that says, in effect, let somebody else do it.
Why is there no fully empowered American envoy to the Middle East? Remember, Blair represents the Quartet, which means he represents everybody and maybe nobody. What happens if there are differences in the Quartet? What happens if he begins to assume postures that are somewhat controversial?
IDEAS: Does Blair’s support for the Iraq War disqualify him in the eyes of Palestinians even before he begins?
ROSS: Palestinians are not indifferent to Iraq. But the real measure for Palestinians is whether Tony Blair can make a difference to them. Can he deliver? I’ve already heard Palestinians say that if he couldn’t deliver as prime minister, why would he be able to deliver as envoy? He can argue that he is freer to do things than before because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is his sole focus. But for Palestinians and Israelis alike the measure will be not what he argues but what he delivers.
IDEAS: What should he deliver?
ROSS: One objective is to make sure that Hamas doesn’t take over all the political institutions of Palestinian life.
When I was on the West Bank a few weeks ago, I met with 30 Palestinians -- old guard and young guard, third generation Fatah, fourth generation Fatah, and independents. What I heard from the independents and young members of Fatah -- even before Gaza collapsed completely -- was that they saw the handwriting on the wall. They said that what’s happening in Gaza will happen on the West Bank as well unless they open the door to the grass roots and prove they can deliver services, not just words.
Blair has to help remake Fatah. There’s going to be enormous resistance. The old guard of Fatah isn’t very keen to give up power.
IDEAS: The young activists create a glimmer of hope that Fatah can change?
ROSS: I believe it’s not too late. And remember, Hamas, too, has been exposed. When it took over Gaza, Palestinians saw a face of Hamas they hadn’t seen before -- Hamas throwing people from buildings, dragging them through the streets. This was a coup, a reminder that the goal of Hamas is to create an Islamic state. But Palestinians happen to be more secular than they are committed to the idea of an Islamic state governed by Sharia. So, in a strange way, because Hamas has exposed itself, this is a moment of possibility.
On the other hand, if Fatah continues doing business as it always has, and Tony Blair makes it easier for the people who dominate Fatah to continue doing so, he will not help Fatah in its competition with Hamas. The presumption in the Palestinian public is that if a lot of money comes to Fatah, they will never see it, it will be misused. And that will just deepen the sense of alienation from Fatah.
IDEAS: You blast the Bush administration for total failure to care about and apply statecraft.
ROSS: Originally I was going to write the book only about negotiation and mediation, but the more I saw what was happening in foreign policy, the more concerned I became that the problem wasn’t just about the formulation of goals, but also about inept implementation. There was always a fundamental gap between objectives and means in the Bush administration, a lack of understanding of how to exercise leverage -- how to recognize where we had it, how to build it, how to recognize the vulnerabilities of those whose policies we wished to change.
IDEAS: Though you indict the Bush administration for lack of statecraft with regard to Iraq, I couldn’t tell where you yourself stood on the war.
ROSS: I was conditionally in favor of it. The issue, for me, was WMDs. I felt that Saddam was a master of miscalculation. He miscalculated the war with Iran, miscalculated on the invasion of Kuwait. My worry was that at some point he would acquire nuclear weapons, and miscalculate again, thinking they were a shield that would let him do anything he wanted.
Having said that, we didn’t have to go to war right then. We had time. And I argued that because the Sunnis had dominated the area forever, we were bound to face an insurgency and needed to go in with very large forces.
IDEAS: What should we do now in Iraq?
ROSS: Again, applying the statecraft approach, we ask: What is the right objective? Objectives have to be informed by reality and not be faith-based.
At this point we can no longer achieve the best in Iraq. We have to prevent the worst. The worst is having what is taking place in Iraq spill over and convulse the region.
I would adopt a containment strategy. We can’t stay in the midst of a civil war. We have to find a way to disengage. But we shouldn’t have a precipitous withdrawal, because that will leave things in an even worse situation. I very much favor the idea that we change our role; we go more to the neighbors, and more to training. The neighbors may not agree on what they want in Iraq, but can agree on what they fear in Iraq.
IDEAS: You call yourself a neoliberal in this book. What do you mean?
ROSS: Neoliberalism means that we have to be engaged in the world and that force is an instrument that has to be used at times. But unlike neoconservatives, neoliberals are much less optimistic that the military instrument -- a blunt instrument that creates all sorts of uncertainties over time -- can be an agent of political transformation. Neoliberalism doesn’t give up ambition or concern about what goes on inside other states. But we look at and use all the other instruments of power to try and influence behavior.
IDEAS: Who did you write the book for?
ROSS: There are two different audiences. It’s written for those who are candidates to lead the next administration. I worry about the legacy, about what happens to statecraft when you have eight years of an administration where it’s not practiced. People coming in need to understand it.
The other audience is the general public. It’s not accidental that the book came out during the presidential election campaign. I wanted to reintroduce the concept of statecraft to the public so that it would inform the questions the public and the media ask the candidates.
IDEAS: Have any candidates made overtures to you?
ROSS: There have been some Democratic candidates, and also one Republican candidate.
IDEAS: Would you care to say who they were?
ROSS: Right now I’d prefer to say I’m prepared to brief anybody.
Harvey Blume is a writer based in Cambridge. His interviews appear regularly in Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.