Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World
by Dennis Ross
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pages
Former Syrian dictator Hafez al Asad was a quality tyrant. He lorded over his country for over three decades, perpetuating Syria's state of war with Israel and establishing a foreign occupation and domination of Lebanon. He even managed to slaughter roughly 38,000 of his own citizens while stamping out a Muslim Brotherhood insurrection in 1982. These are respectable achievements by a despot's standard. Perhaps that is why, in Dennis Ross' view, we should humble ourselves before such a prolific leader.
In his book Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World, Ross recounts the first meeting between then-US President Bill Clinton and Asad in January 1994. After the meeting, Asad approached Ross and declared that he "liked President [George H.W.] Bush...but President Clinton is a real person. He speaks to you with awareness and understanding. He knows our problems better...I haven't felt this from an American president before." Ross reminds us that "from someone who had met and held discussions with Presidents Nixon, Carter, and Bush, this was a remarkable statement." Naturally, to Ross, we should heed the praise of such a seasoned statesman like Hafez al Asad. By describing Asad's compliment as "remarkable," Ross implicitly portrays Asad as a "wise old king" who, by mere virtue of his three-decade tenure as head of state, could grant legitimacy to one US president over another.
This anecdote reveals a troubling undercurrent in Statecraft, Ross's ambitious manual for properly "understanding how to use all the tools in our toolkit of power and influence to maximize what we can achieve at manageable costs." A veteran diplomat, Ross offers a sweeping work that proposes to restore "the legacy of statecraft" and salvage America's global image. Ross draws on his personal experience as a state department official and recalls the strategies he employed to ensure positive outcomes. He argues that President George W. Bush should have employed similar tactics in his response to the September 11th attacks. Bush's failure to do so, Ross contends, tarnished America's world standing.
Essentially, Ross proposes a "neoliberal" foreign policy, striving for many of the same goals as neoconservatives, but placing, in Ross's view, a higher priority on building "consensus around the principles that should guide international behavior." For neoliberals' cornerstone, Ross trumpets "realistic Wilsonianism," a cliché abused by candidates and pundits from across the political spectrum. In Ross's view, this means maintaining goals of democratic transformation shared with neoconservatives, while "developing the means, the tools, and the mind-set to be able to pursue idealism." The book reaches its conceptual climax when Ross proposes his twelve rules for negotiation and eleven rules for mediation, which, if sometimes glaringly simplistic as "know what you want and what you can live with," and "identify shared objectives," are rational guidelines that any administration should utilize.
But Ross reserves much of his energy and harshest criticism for the Bush administration for its "disengagement" from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although he admits the conflict's resolution "would not be a panacea," as the Baker-Hamilton Commission, Tony Blair, and too many others have stated, Ross argues that it "remains an issue that creates a deep sense of grievance in the region," and, most importantly, "one that radical Islamists exploit to promote anger and recruit new followers." "The [Bush] Administration has preferred diplomacy on the cheap, with limited effort, investment, and exposure," Ross argues, noting that the White House has granted only restricted mandates to its Middle East envoys. In Ross's argument, the Administration's withdrawal from mediation stifled progress and aggravated violence. Thus, Arabs perceive Bush as "indifferent to a conflict that animated a basic grievance among those in the Arab and Islamic world." By removing itself from the peace process, the U.S. has allowed that grievance to fester, poisoning Muslim attitudes towards the West. Ross believes that Hamas, al Qaeda, and Hizbullah have exploited that toxin for priceless propaganda material in their attempts to stoke radicalism and recruit fighters.
Ross thus represents a growing cadre of foreign policy elites in the United States who are convinced that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an integral, if not primary, source of Islamic terrorism and anti-Americanism across the world. It is hard to criticize the logic behind this notion, but its wisdom is another matter.
It is commonly thought that terrorist propaganda is based on images of Palestinian suffering, that the same ten-year-old boy who lobs stones at monstrous Israeli tanks and earns Western sympathy also earns sympathy among those in the Muslim world exposed to terrorist propaganda. Many therefore think that the establishment of a Palestinian state, at any cost, would rob terrorist groups of their talking points and perhaps even quarantine the infectious disease of Islamic rage. But the actual source of Islamic rage may tell a different story.
How does Ross propose to create the cure-all Palestinian state? In his words, a "hands-on approach," with "intensive diplomacy," "active engagement," and "serious negotiation" would produce a resolution. Rick Richman lambasted this idea in the American Thinker, derisively noting that Ross's conception of statecraft "apparently consists of taking content-less nouns (diplomacy, negotiation, engagement) and surrounding them with high-sounding adjectives (hands-on, intensive, active, serious)." By "active engagement," Ross means Israeli concessions. "To learn how this worked out last time," Richman dryly commented, "one should consult Ross's prior book."
Ross's flawed thinking can be examined in light of the biggest recent development in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel's unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The international community lauded the disengagement, believing it would mollify those Arabs demanding Israeli concessions and bring moderation to the increasingly extremist Palestinian movement. The Palestinians would finally enjoy self-determination by taking over the Israeli greenhouses, and, for the first time, assuming control over their own border crossing with Egypt. The disengagement was the first opportunity for the Palestinians' sovereignty; Gaza would be theirs to rule, from handing out traffic violations to setting minimum wage. Most importantly, the Palestinians were granted the responsibility of every sovereign state: to maintain order and prevent their citizens from attacking neighbors.
Instead, a nightmare ensued. Greenhouses were looted, with robbers selling spare parts. Former Jewish synagogues were raided and desecrated. A mere five months after Israel's internally painful and dramatic pullout, Hamas won the Palestinian elections; moderation was not ascendant. Having pulled away from the Egyptian border, Israel saw already rampant arms-smuggling drastically increase as sophisticated weaponry, and even al Qaeda elements, entered Gaza. Less than a year after the Disengagement, Hamas partnered with al Qaeda's Gaza wing, the Army of Islam, to kidnap Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit in a momentous event that Ross fails to mention in thirty-six pages of Statecraft exclusively devoted to analyzing the last six years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
How did the international community misunderstand the situation so poorly prior to the Disengagement? Central to international thinking was the assumption that the Palestinians would be satisfied with what they had called for in pronouncements to the West, an occupation-free Gaza Strip. In other words, there was an assumption that leaving the Gaza Strip would be concession enough to satisfy the Palestinians.
We have learned since the Disengagement that concession is in the eye of the beholder. Ross is wrong to believe that territorial concessions are the key to progress. Perhaps to some, concessions can be sating. But to many others—including major Middle Eastern actors—they have the opposite effect. As Dore Gold commented in the Wall Street Journal, "the gasoline fueling al Qaeda has been its sense of victory, not political grievances." Hamas hailed the Israeli concession as a wondrous victory for Islam and a devastating blow to "the Zionist entity." Just two short years after the Disengagement, Hamas has used that banner of success to survive an international financial boycott of its government, initiate and win a Palestinian civil war, and rally over 12,000 men to its fledgling army. Hamas's successes prove that Ross, by focusing on satisfying seeming political grievances, has it entirely backwards.
Ross's misconception may stem from an assumption—or prayer—that Western and Muslim cultures respond to the same stimuli in the same way. Take the common image of the young boy throwing stones at Israeli military forces. Westerners view this image and empathize with the child, who is seen as an underdog rising up against an oppressive army. Islamists who circulate such images understand our weakness for the underdog, and they directly target such images at Western media to elicit our sympathy. But they sing a different tune in media campaigns aimed at recruiting fellow Muslims. Al Qaeda's fighters have been known to respond to videos of operatives blowing up U.S. tanks or beheading enemy forces. Indeed, Al Qaeda's seminal propaganda efforts focused on its touted deathblow to the mighty Soviet Union in Afghanistan. As Gold observed, Osama Bin Laden proclaimed that he had just beaten a superpower and was "replicating the great victories of the early armies of Islam." Bin Laden's success gave the Arab world newfound hope that al-Qaeda's tactics could be applied elsewhere. Military victories were trumpeted, not scenes of weak, victimized children. It is mistaken, then, for Ross to believe that because he is moved by the youth throwing stones, everyone else in the world is too. This erroneous assumption leads him to the ahistorical belief that if the U.S. removes the cause of the stone-throwing, the raison d'être for Islamic terrorism will disappear.
Indeed, Ross's "grievance philosophy" is more than simply a case of misperception. It is grossly selective analysis. Throughout his work, Ross isolates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from its broader context within the Middle East. Not once in Statecraft does Ross consider the possibility that the Palestinian issue is actually influenced and inspired by al Qaeda successes. Hence, Ross presents us with an odd twist: in his view, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict uniquely affects all problems in the Middle East, yet the region is simultaneously untouched by all those problems.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the first Intifada began during the heyday of al Qaeda success in Afghanistan. Clearly, the post-1987 years saw a dramatic shift in the Palestinian cause, due in part to additional players in Palestinian politics and shifting battlefronts in the Middle East. Columnist Waleed Sadi suggested just as much in Lebanon's Daily Star, maintaining that the Palestinians have "become gradually more self-confident, resilient, and assertive when it comes to their national rights, and this is partly due to the successes achieved by small militant Islamic forces around the world." Sadi adds that the "increased self-confidence that Palestinians have in their ability to force Israel to withdraw...coincided with the rise of Islamic ‘power' in Afghanistan." Radical Palestinians undoubtedly drew their poise from the shining examples of militant Islamists exerting previously unknown power across the Arab world. If al Qaeda could defeat the Soviet Union, why couldn't Hamas, born in 1988, defeat Israel? Suddenly, invigorated by the news from Afghanistan, news Palestinians thought was impossible, Israel's defeat entered the realm of the possible.
Ross's approach ignores almost all of this. He understands in Statecraft that Hamas "represents a major impediment to peacemaking so long as it defines itself as an Islamic movement that rejects Israel's existence." But because he places the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a pedestal, he refuses to consider the causes of Hamas's inexhaustible ideological confidence, achievements like al Qaeda's Afghanistan and 9\11 successes, and Hezbollah's role in driving the Israelis from Lebanon in 2000. In the greatest irony yet, Ross's selective blindness makes the conflict unsolvable by disregarding al Qaeda's influences on the Palestinian movement, influences that, left unresolved, have clearly made their impression. Ross puts his own rules to poor use in the Middle East, forcing concessions on Israel and Western allies to allay "Islamic grievances." But because Hamas and al Qaeda thrive on victory to spread their message, concession has only spawned deepening conflict.
Ross does not only apply selective analysis to the Middle East, but to American politics as well. In advocating for a "neoliberal" U.S. foreign policy rather than a neoconservative one, Ross habitually cherry picks, blurring the lines between neoliberalism and neoconservatism in order to praise the former. Instead of acknowledging the complexities that both bind and separate these loose ideological camps, Ross attempts to draw artificial lines between them. This is especially clear in his discussion of the Iraq War. In light of the American difficulties in stabilizing Iraq, Ross writes that his neoliberal policy would dictate, when necessary, the deployment of U.S. troops in large, overpowering numbers. But in claiming this as neoliberal theory, Ross has a problem. While it was not the strategy employed by Donald Rumsfeld in the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation, it is strongly in line with the view of leading neoconservatives such as William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and the founder of a think tank dedicated to increasing the size of the U.S. military and its deployments. Ross's solution to this problem is to write that Kristol's view is actually a neoliberal one. What does Ross mean, then, when he calls a view "neoliberal"? Apparently, just that he likes it.
The effect of this slippery logic is greater than personal, inside-the-Beltway politics. For it demonstrates that Ross does not have a clear prescription for American policy. His analysis is selective, his labels are misleading, and it is ultimately difficult to discern either the broad scope or the specifics of his proposed neoliberal worldview.
Whether discussing Slobadan Milosovich, Asad or Yasser Arafat, Ross hardly mentions the vicious crimes these men committed. It is possible that Ross felt these crimes were not germane to his subject. It is also possible he assumes we already know of these atrocities. However, their absence from Statecraft implies (intentionally or not) that those crimes are irrelevant to the pursuit of statecraft. Indeed, Ross spends much of his book praising statecraft without pausing to ask with whom exactly we are pursuing it. The subtitle of Statecraft reveals a troubling ambiguity in Ross's mission of "how to improve America's standing in the world." With whom are we trying to improve our standing? Does Ross suggest that the key to regaining some lost diplomatic footing is to improve our standing with the likes of Hafez al Asad?
To counter Muslim extremism, America does not need to "restore the legacy of statecraft" as much as it needs to engage in statecraft with serious partners. A responsible long-term strategy requires the U.S. to demand accountability from those leaders with whom it engages. Hence mere concession for the sake of concession, even under the guise of negotiation, does not constitute proper statecraft. Hollow diplomacy and selective thinking can only damage America's standing among those in the world that truly matter.