Ross stresses need for context in Middle East discussions



When Dennis Ross served under the Reagan administration as the director of the Near East and South Asian affairs for the National Security Council, he worked with a team of three. But almost 25 years later, when he served as special adviser for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he worked with a team of 33.

“We’re looking at a region that is, at this point, undergoing upheaval,” Ross said, “and it’s frankly unprecedented. It’s not surprising that we’re wrestling with profound challenges that we haven’t really seen before.”

Ross, who rounds out this week’s morning lecture series on “Diplomacy” at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater, currently serves as a counselor for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, an organization founded in 1985 seeking to advance the United States’ interests in the Middle East.

With several books under his belt and an impressive resume showing his extensive experience in the Middle East, Ross will speak today about the changes that have occurred in the region throughout the decades and how the U.S. administration should respond to those changes.

“That’s part of what I’m trying to do,” Ross said, “…  to create a context to understand how to think about the region. But I think you have to have an understanding of how to think about the region before you can understand how to shape diplomacy in response to it.”

Ross readily admits that he is a “free speaker,” meaning that he won’t use notes or any text during his lecture. He said that he likes to gauge the audience and see where their interests lie. If he feels that an issue is important to those in attendance, he will further explore that area.

He did say, though, that he will most likely cover issues regarding Iran, Egypt and Syria. He will also try to speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When speaking to the conflict and to the problems that each country is facing, Ross will discuss what those issues mean for America, what choices the administration has and how it will use those choices.

“There’s a context in which diplomacy is going to take place,” he said. “It is taking place … [I’ll talk about] stakes in a region that’s undergoing great change, and that is part of the context which influences what our choices are.”

Ross began his career in government as a civil servant with a background in security issues. He was always attracted to the Middle East and never saw himself going into negotiations, he said. But the more he witnessed negotiations, the more he developed ideas about how to conduct the negotiations himself.

“The story that’s being written in that region is being written by the people in the region,” he said. “It’s not being written by the United States. We are not a bystander, we are not a big player; but we’re also not the authors of this transformation and upheaval that you see.”

In his 2007 book, Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World, Ross outlines how he believes statecraft (or, the use of one country’s power in terms of international policy and relationships) is important.

“The key challenge is to try to figure out our interest, our stakes, with the means we have available to try to influence what’s going on there,” he said, “combining that with a very high dosage of humility.”