Former Ambassador Says Iraq Pullout Is Inevitable
By MIKE SECCOMBE
You don't fix a watch with a hammer. And the force of blunt instruments is seldom any more effective in international relations.
That was the essence of Ambassador Dennis Ross's address at the Martha's Vineyard Summer Institute Wednesday night, as he drove home his message that America's diminished standing in the world would not be restored until it abandons its heavy-handed and faith-based approach to international problems and relearns the subtle art of statecraft.
As an indictment of the international policies of the current American administration, it was a damning presentation, although not politically partisan. After all, Mr. Ross applied his diplomatic skills to international relations under previous governments, both Democrat (Carter and Clinton) and Republican (Reagan and George Bush senior).
But the younger President Bush and his administration, Ambassador Ross suggested, have made a mess of just about every international problem they faced, by consistently failing to observe the twin rules of statecraft - defining credible and achievable objectives and using appropriate and varied means to achieve them.
"When you marry your objectives and means, you are credible and when you don't - you see what happens," he said.
He cited examples, principally related to Iraq and Iran, but also to Israel, Palestine and the Middle East in general, with asides into Russia, Venezuela, China and elsewhere. Everywhere he found failure.
In Iraq, he said, what he called the "faith-based, never-let-the-facts-get-in-the-way approach" had begun with unrealistic objectives, compounded by inadequate means.
"The administration assumed that once Saddam fell, everything else would fall into place and not fall apart," he said. "We not only hoped for the best, we planned for the best. Normally, if you're going to go to war, you hope for the best, but you plan for the worst."
America was lucky there were no weapons of mass destruction, he said. If there had been, U.S. forces would have been unable to take control of all the suspected sites, let alone preventing the weapons from being smuggled out of the country.
And the current troop surge would inevitably fail because its objective was ill-considered, he said.
A U.S. withdrawal is inevitable, he said, and the only real hope now is not victory, but containment of the conflict. He said Jihadists hardened by the Iraq conflict we are fueling others, as in Lebanon.
"We can't stay in the midst of a civil war, a sectarian war," he said, adding that containment will require a diplomatic strategy involving all the neighbors - Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey.
He also said what is needed is a three-pronged diplomatic approach beginning with a firm timetable for withdrawal - but one negotiated with Iraq rather than imposed by America - and followed by a national reconciliation conference within Iraq, which would not disband until agreement had been reached. Third, he said, a regional conference must be called with an ongoing working group which draws in all the regional stakeholders.
He stressed the need to bring in other parties, too, if Iran is to be persuaded not to pursue a nuclear weapons program.
As the situation stands now, along with other energy powers like Russia and Venezuela had gained a huge windfall from rising oil prices, the U.S. is engaged in what he called slo-mo diplomacy, and European governments continue to provide $18 billion a year in credit guarantees to their companies doing business in Iran.
Sanctions do not really strike at the country's economy, he said. He also said he believes the Iranians could be persuaded to stop their nuclear program, but not by the United States alone.
In part, that means forming a common approach with Saudi Arabia - which has its own problems with its 20 per cent minority Shia Muslim population - to threaten to cut off its investment in Europe and other nations including China, that deal with Iran.
It means getting Israel to tell European nations that their continued investment increases the risk of a pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iran. And it means America must come to the negotiating table with the Iranians on condition that Europe "cut the economic lifeline," he said, adding:
"We're going to find in many cases around the world that we have an objective but we don't have the means on our own, which means we have to mobilize others.
"We have to frame issues in a way that will appeal to them . . . have to use your leverage in a way that will move them.
The Israeli/Palestinian problem, for example, he said, would benefit from economic assistance to the more moderate Palestinian faction. Why not lean on Saudi Arabia - awash in oil money but reluctant to contribute - to do more, and to publicly embarrass them about their parsimony if they do not?
Above all, though, the ambassador stressed that regaining standing in the world means understanding the motivations and needs of other players.
"We actually have to listen," he said. "We are great at talking at . . . but not at listening."
He said he doubts the current administration is capable of change, but hopes through his speeches and his new book Statecraft and How to Restore America's Standing in the World, to encourage the contenders for the next Presidency to be questioned about their understanding of the subject.
The final Summer Institute presentation scheduled for next Wednesday will not take place. The featured speaker, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, canceled to attend instead to gang violence problems in his own city.