In his new book, Dennis Ross, former US special envoy to the Middle East under president Bill Clinton and point man for the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, asserts that statecraft “has been missing” in America’s foreign policy in recent years.
Ross defines statecraft as the strategic use of “every asset or military, diplomatic, intelligence, public, economic or psychological tool we possess (or can manipulate) to meet our objectives.”
Upon closer examination, Ross believes that nations practice statecraft best by working closely with other nations to coordinate, in advance, the outcome of diplomatic or even military endeavors.
While conceding that “no administration is ever entirely unilateralist,” Ross hammers the George W. Bush administration over “how poorly it has practiced multilateralism.”
In fact, a good chunk of the book examines how the Bush administration allegedly botched Iraq and burned diplomatic bridges because of poor statecraft.
Ross doesn’t simply attempt to demonstrate how he believes the Bush administration has failed; he describes instances in recent history in which he personally wielded the art of statecraft, while working in the State Department, to ensure positive outcomes. This includes the post-Cold War integration of Germany into NATO, the 1991 Gulf War and the Bosnia intervention in the mid-1990s.
There is no denying that Ross had an impressive record during his tenure in government. Even with the collapse of the Oslo Accords in 2001, he must be credited with taking the Israeli-Palestinian peace process farther than anyone had before him.
He has also achieved elder statesman status in Washington, even at a relatively young age. And, as a former colleague of his, I can personally attest to the depth and breadth of his knowledge of Palestinian and Israeli affairs.
However, it was difficult to accept the very premise of this book. So I recently sat down with Ross and challenged him on several key arguments in Statecraft.
There may be times in history, I argued, particularly during times of emergency or war, when it is not in the best interest of the United States to practice what he terms “statecraft.” For instance, after September 11, 2001, was it necessary for Washington to coordinate with all its allies before invading Afghanistan?
“Sometimes statecraft doesn’t work because the behavior of the country or group… can’t be changed except through coercion,” Ross responded. However, he still believes that we are better served by waiting to go to war only after we “have exhausted all the other options in a way that the rest of the world is completely convinced…
“One, it convinces your own public, so what you are doing is much more sustainable. Secondly, the rest of the world feels we tried and they were part of the effort to try” to solve conflict by other means.
Ross sees himself as a member of what he calls the “neoliberal” movement. He believes that neoliberals and neoconservatives want the same things. That includes, among other things, the democratization of the Middle East, a disarmed Iran and the defeat of radical Islam.
The difference, he notes, is how neoliberals and neoconservatives try to achieve these ends; neoliberals work with the system, employing statecraft, in an attempt to get more of America’s allies on board.
“The difference between neoliberals and neoconservatives,” he explains, “is the respect for the system.”
But what happens when respecting the system or working with the system only delays what is necessary? What happens, as was the case before the Iraq War, when countries such as China or Russia seek to defer or prevent war, just so they can protect their financial interests? What happens, as was the case prior to World War II, when the West stood by and watched a genocide because the world was afraid to do what was right?
Ross believes that the WWII analogy is not a fair one. “Look at how we operated and the signals we sent when we wouldn’t allow the refugees to come in. We engaged in forms of appeasement. That wasn’t an act of statecraft. That was shirking the problem. Statecraft is understanding the means and responsibilities. It is employing reality-based assessments… If you look in the late 1930s there’s too much denial of the threat Hitler represents.”
Ross argues that in the same way that US assessments of WWII were based upon wishful thinking (that Hitler would not expand power), so too were the recent US assessments leading up the Iraq War based upon wishful thinking (that Iraq would easily be converted into a democracy). “In Iraq,” he explained, “the assumption was everything was going to fall into place, not fall apart.”
But isn’t it too soon to start judging Iraq? Contrary to what Americans hear from most of the Democratic presidential candidates, Iraq still has a chance of stabilizing. What if Iraq does fall into place, rather than fall apart?
Ross is unmoved by this argument: “I felt comfortable with the criticism of the president in my book because it was about judging the process on which assessments were made. How were objectives identified? How did they try to identify the means that were available? What was done to mobilize others? By that measurement, the administration did badly on too many issues… I am merely judging how it conducted statecraft. What it means over time will be judged over time.”
Admittedly, Ross’s points are well argued. But neither his book nor our discussion could dissuade me from the belief that America now faces a dangerous challenge that was largely absent during Ross’s models of exemplary statecraft in the 1990s. The forces of radical Islam, now growing at an alarmingly fast rate, were mostly dormant during Ross’s heyday of diplomacy. True, al-Qaida attacked America a handful of times, but the problem was not yet full-blown.
Fast forward a decade, and the problem is everywhere. The forces of radical Islam now openly attack America, its allies and its interests around the world.
Unfortunately, America cannot afford to wait for the global community to reach a consensus over how best to deal with this alarming and expanding challenge. As the lone superpower, until our allies understand that this is the beginning of World War IV, the US will be forced to fight the battle alone.
The US is fighting a just war against the forces of radical Islam in Iraq and beyond. The fact that other countries have not joined our efforts does not make our war any less just. Nor does it necessarily mean that our diplomatic skills are failing. It means that the international system, led by an ineffectual United Nations, has failed. Respecting this crumbling system, as neoliberals insist we should, will likely not strengthen the spines of our timid allies, no matter how statecraft is applied.
The writer, a former Treasury intelligence analyst, is director of policy for the Jewish Policy Center. Ambassador Dennis Ross wrote the foreword to his book, Al-Qaeda’s Armies: Middle East Affiliate Groups and the Next Generation of Terror.