Ross assesses U.S. interventionist policies in three key countries

Katie McLean | Staff PhotographerWashington Institute counselor Dennis Ross delivers the closing lecture on “Diplomacy” Friday morning in the Amphitheater.
Katie McLean | Staff Photographer
Washington Institute counselor Dennis Ross delivers the closing lecture on “Diplomacy” Friday morning in the Amphitheater.

In 2008, Dennis Ross was asked by Vanity Fair if he thought the map presented by T.E. Lawrence to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 could be applied to the Middle East today. Ross said the notion was inconceivable. But five years later, Ross said he believes the map — which separates countries of the Middle East by their individual tribes, sects and clans — may have “a lot of possibility.”

“This is not the Middle East that you knew before,” he said. “It is a Middle East that is changing.”

Ross, an author and diplomat who was the director of policy planning for the U.S. Department of State under former President George H.W. Bush, rounded out Week Seven’s theme of “Diplomacy” in Friday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater. He gave an assessment of the countries he believes should be the top three countries in U.S. interventionist policies: Egypt, Syria and Iran.

Ross said he is hopeful for the democratization of the Arab world but disagrees with the term “Arab Spring.”

“I never thought the term ‘Arab Spring’ was appropriate,” he said, “because it implied, like spring, you were going to see a very quick transformation and a quick flowering, and suddenly you had democracy. But where has democracy ever emerged like that?”

The movement revolutionized the way that Egyptians, Tunisians and Libyans viewed themselves; not as subjects, but as citizens. But Ross, who prefers to refer to it as the “Arab Awakening,” said the countries lacked an institution that would enforce governmental accountability. The Muslim Brotherhood filled this gap by taking over the one institution that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak couldn’t touch: the mosque.

Now, with the toppling of a second regime in Egypt, Ross said that the Brotherhood should have been inclusive and effective to earn the trust and support of the Egyptian people.

“But the Muslim Brotherhood did exactly the opposite,” Ross said. “They focused on control, not on governance.”

Backed by the Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi won 51 percent of the vote, but his popularity failed once he was in office. He imprisoned more journalists in one year than Mubarak did in 30, did little to address poverty, got rid of judicial oversight and allowed the drafting of a new constitution written by Islamists, Ross said.

Ross believes the United States should continue giving aid to Egypt.

“We have leverage,” he said. “They want our assistance because it’s a symbol of acceptance from the outside.”

Along with that financial assistance, Ross said the U.S. should emphasize effectiveness, self-governance and inclusion and should provide a place for everyone at the table, including Islamists, to establish a new constitution and leaders.

Ross also addressed uprisings in the Middle East, describing the prospect of democratic transitions as “daunting.” In Syria especially, President Bashar Assad’s “brutal response” to peaceful protesters calling for reform has been violent; he has killed 100,000 of his own citizens in the past two years, according to the most conservative estimates.

“He has made it into a sectarian civil war,” Ross said.

There are two different schools of thought on how to deal diplomatically with a country like Syria: The “idealist” method is interventionist and says the U.S. should intercede in a foreign country if there is a humanitarian crisis. The “realist” method says the U.S. should intervene only if its economic interests are directly at stake.

Ross said the two theories ought to come together in Syria, which he called “a moral, strategic disaster.”

“What takes place in Syria doesn’t stay in Syria,” Ross said.

The country’s plunge into civil war has already affected neighboring countries such as Jordan, which hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, and Lebanon, where 25 percent of the population is of Syrian descent.

Today, Ross said, it looks like the U.S. policy in dealing with Syria has been avoidance. Even President Barack Obama’s recent approval of arms to revolutionaries is not enough. Ross believes the country needs more aid, more arms and a no-fly zone.

But to Ross, one of the most troubling countries in the Middle East is Iran, which has been sanctioned by both the United States and also the United Nations for its refusal to halt its nuclear research program.

“If diplomacy doesn’t work soon,” he said, “force will be much more likely.”

Ross believes the sanctions against Iran have worked, pointing to the recent election of Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new and more moderate president, as evidence. Rouhani ran — and won — on the premise of eliminating the sanctions, which have crippled the Iranian economy for years.

Ross lauded Obama’s decision to use the sanctions as a prevention tactic, rather than choosing a containment method. Prevention could work while containment would not, he said.

Even with the preventative sanctions, Ross thinks that Iran within the next year will reach the point of being able to quickly produce a nuclear weapon before any other country could stop it.

“I think if we’re going to have diplomacy work, it’s time to move to an end-game proposal on the nuclear issue,” he said. “This is not the ‘grand bargain.’ It is key to bringing back the essence of diplomacy.”


Q: How important is it that you like the people with whom you’re negotiating?

A: That’s a really interesting question. I’ll tell you, the key to effective negotiations is building relationships of trust. I say that because every negotiation involves a manipulation. There comes a point in a negotiation when you get to the crunch point, where you have to create enough credibility and believability so that when you say, “I can do ‘x’, and I can’t do ‘y,’ ” the other side believes it and doesn’t think it’s a manipulation. Trust, believability, does that require liking? It requires respecting. You don’t have to be great friends, although, I’ll tell you, it makes it easier if you become friends. In all my negotiations, I actually did end up forming very close, personal relationships with the people I was working with. The key to building credibility and trust is doing things that are hard for you to do because you realize it’s important for the other side. Once you do that, it’s not just that you build their stake in trying to do something comparable for you, it’s that you also really build your credibility as well.

Q: Is the United States military able to do serious damage to Iran’s nuclear program? And what about Israel’s military?

A: The answer is yes on both counts. But let me put this in perspective: No one can destroy the Iranian nuclear program. Let me repeat that — no one can destroy the Iranian nuclear program. The reason no one can destroy it is because you can’t destroy the knowhow and you can’t destroy the engineering capability. You can destroy every facility; we can destroy every facility, the Israelis can destroy most of the facilities, there’s one facility the Israelis could not destroy, though they could set it back because they don’t have to destroy the interior. There’s a facility called Fordo, it’s near the holy city of Qom. It’s a facility where they have built into a mountain an enrichment facility. The number of centrifuges they can have there is not that large relative to their overall program. But the Israelis have no means to destroy that through bombing. We do. We have something called the Massive Ordnance Penetrator — it’s a 30,000-pound bomb called the MOP. Only the B-52 and the B-2 can carry it; it wasn’t developed for anybody else. The Iranians know they’re under pressure from us economically. They feel that. I think today, they don’t believe that we would use force. They need to believe that we’ll use force if you’re really going to get a deal in the end. One of my outside-the-box ideas was, since I’ve seen demonstrations of the MOP, I think we should just do a demonstration of it and put it on YouTube.

Q: Would the Arab Awakening have happened without the Internet?

A: No. The Arab Awakening would not have happened without the Internet. Although, Mohamed Bouazizi was a fruit vendor in Tunisia. He was not someone who was on the Internet, but there is a whole generation of people who are on the Internet. And what the Internet has done, and what social media has done — I mean, you have to look at Twitter and Facebook, these are all the different ways that are being used as vehicles of communication — they create an ability to compare your situation to others. That’s the key to this, that you have a generation of people, basically the kids, who became very aware of their situation and how unacceptable their situation was, and how fruitless their situation was, and how hopeless their situation was, and how unwilling they were to live with that. That’s what triggered this. When their parents saw them prepared to go into the streets, then it basically encouraged their parents to do likewise.

Q: Does the Arab Awakening offer any opportunities for resolving the Israel and Palestine conflict?

A: I knew we’d get to that. You know, there’s a paradox here. For a while, the Arab Awakening had a profoundly chilling effect on Israelis and Palestinians alike. First of all, if you’re Israel and you look at what’s going on around you, you see the Muslim Brotherhood take over in Egypt, you see the Sinai, which was always a kind of “no man’s land” in some respect, but now it’s become a jihadi base. Now the Egyptian military is actually taking it on somewhat. Then you see what’s going on in Syria. It looks like the whole region is crumbling around you, and so many people say, “Is this the time for us to take risks and expose ourselves?” And if you were [Palestinian statesman] Abu Mazen and you looked at the Muslim Brotherhood take over Egypt — and Hamas is the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, they’re part of the same organization — and you say, “The future looks like it’s political Islam, and any step I take, they’re going to reject it. They look like they’re increasingly the political wave of the future.” It had to have a chilling effect. But there’s also a paradox — two elements to the paradox. The first element is, the whole region is focused on everything but this issue, right? So it creates a political space. No one’s paying attention to you. And if no one’s paying attention to you, it actually gives you the space to do something. So that’s paradox No. 1. Paradox No. 2 is, it no longer looks like the wave of the future is political Islam. Hamas has just suffered a terrible blow, because not only did the Muslim Brotherhood lose power in Egypt, but literally, if you read the Egyptian press, you’ll see all these different theories about the role that Hamas played in the original revolution: breaking [former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi]out of jail, killing members of the military and the police, Hamas snipers being used by the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s replete in the Egyptian press; it’s part of the new narrative there. So, they’re under attack from Egypt. The military is shutting down tunnels the way they never have before. It’s squeezing Gaza today, so they’re under attack there. They split from Syria because of the conflict there. They split from Iran, although now there’s signs they’re trying to get back into Iran’s good graces because they’re losing all sources of any financing. They’re weakened, and that gives space to Abu Mazen. In a sense, if you’re the Israelis and you see, maybe no one’s preoccupied, there’s even something else: You have stability with the Palestinians right now. You don’t have peace, but you have stability. The last thing you want is for that stability to disappear as well. Interestingly enough, there’s a kind of strategic convergence right now, which is one of the reasons, not just that [Secretary of State John Kerry’s] efforts have been, I think, quite effective so far — but it’s also that there’s a context here where both sides have a reason at least to be talking to each other. Whether that’s enough to produce an agreement, I don’t know. I would say this: One of the concerns I’ve had, is we’re in the 20th year of the Oslo [Accord], and that has produced complete disbelief on the part of both the Israeli public and the Palestinian public about the other. You look at polling, which has been very consistent over the last few years, you’ll find a majority of Israelis and a majority of Palestinians both believe in a two-state outcome and both, by the same numbers, believe it’ll never happen. The reason they don’t believe it’ll happen is because each believes the other isn’t committed to two states. So if you’re the Palestinians, you look at the Israelis and you say, “Look, if the Israelis really believe in two states, why are they building in our state, and why do they control every aspect of our lives?” And if you’re the Israelis looking at the Palestinians, [you ask], “Why is it they conjure up all these things about us? They just constantly reflect the kind of constant hatred, delegitimization. Why are they trying to delegitimize us internationally? Not just the fact that we’re in the West Bank, but that we exist at all.” Each side looks at the other and is convinced they’re not committed to two states. Israelis look at Palestinians and say, “When the Palestinians say two states, you know what they mean? They mean a Palestinian state and a binational state, not Israel as a Jewish state.” The Palestinians look at the Israelis and say, “They don’t believe in two states.” One of the things I’ve suggested — I’ve suggested it privately, I’ve written about it publicly — is in addition to the agenda you have for the formal negotiations, you need to show something is different this time, and you need to take on the core of the disbelief about each side’s doubt that the other is committed to two states. I actually wrote an article in The New York Times where it says 14 points —  the truth is it’s really 16 points, but I went along with the framing of it that way. I have six steps that I would like the Israelis to contemplate, six steps that I would like the Palestinians to contemplate, and then four steps that are basically mutual steps. I’m not asking either one to take unilateral steps, because unilateral steps basically just produce unilateralism. They need to be reciprocal, they need to be coordinated. I won’t go through the full 16, though I could, but let me just give you an example of what I mean on each side: If the Palestinians doubt that the Israelis are committed to two states, build only in the blocks. The blocks today represent everything to the west of the barrier. These are the settlement blocks. There are settlements, obviously, to the east of the barrier, but the barrier that the Israelis built for security reasons is about on 8 percent of the West Bank. It’s not on 92 percent. Stop all your building in 92 percent and build only in the blocks. Now, this sends an immediate message. The message is, “We’re only going to build in what we think should be part of our state. OK, you disagree on the size of the blocks, that we’ll negotiate. We’ll negotiate the size of the blocks. But for now, to make it clear, we’re only about building in our state, and we’re really committed to having states, so we’re only going to build in the blocks, not in the 92 percent that’s outside the blocks.” That’s point one, and the second example would be, Area C is 60 percent of the West Bank. I helped to negotiate a lot of things there. There’s an interim agreement that created areas A, B and C; when we did the Wye River Memorandum, we redefined the sizes. Sixty percent of the West Bank is known as Area C. There’s only 120,000 Palestinians who live in Area C, but it’s 60 percent of the territory and it is an area where the Israelis retain all civil and security control. Area A is where the Palestinians have civil and security control and it’s 18 percent, Area B is where they have civil control and security for law and order, it’s 21.7 percent, and Area C is the remainder. You can see I spent too much of my life working on this. Open up Area C to Palestinian economic activity. They’re allowed to do isolated things. Open it up to economic activity. It sends two messages. One, it says, “We really mean what we say when we say, ‘We don’t want to control you, we don’t want to occupy you.’ ” And two, it’s good for them economically. So there’s two steps: Build only in the blocks, and be prepared to open up Area C. Two steps on the Palestinians side: One, be prepared to put Israel on the map. It’s pretty hard to convince any Israeli that the Palestinians are committed to two states if you can’t find Israel on any Palestinian map. Second, start talking about two states for two peoples. That’s all you have to say. Two states for two peoples. I’m not saying you have to say “Jewish state” today, but say “two states for two peoples” and say, “Yeah, there’s two national movements, there’s two national identities. Two states for two peoples.” If the Palestinians were prepared to do just those two things, if the Israelis were prepared to do just those two things and you coordinated it, you would suddenly send a message to both publics that, you know what, maybe it’s worth a second look. What I’m worried about is if we have negotiations begin and nothing changes on the ground, the public messaging doesn’t change — you don’t do something of this sort. I’m worried that nothing’s going to happen to the disbelief. It’s hard to see two leaders take big leaps when disbelief remains the essence. For those who are interested, maybe later on with Jeff, I’ll do the full 16 points.

—Transcribed by Paige Cooperstein