Four years into the war in Iraq, lambasting the Bush administration has become a sport for the left and, as it becomes politically expedient to jump ship, a necessity on the right. It’s all great fodder for our favorite comics and talking heads, of course, but what comes after we finally get tired of the finger-wagging? What’s the way forward?
Dennis Ross, the chief Middle East envoy under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, has abandoned heated, partisan rhetoric in favor of refreshingly pragmatic advice in Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).
A fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ross relies on his insider’s view to analyze instances of successful foreign policy: from the international effort to drive Saddam from Kuwait during father Bush’s presidency to the Dayton Accords that helped bring peace to the former Yugoslavia. When analyzing our current foreign-policy adventures, the author resists the temptation to blame or gloat and instead treats each misfire as a teachable moment–hoping to provide guidance to an America in desperate need of an image makeover.
‘We can redeem our foreign policy and our place in the world,’ Ross writes. ‘But if we are to do so, statecraft must no longer be a lost art.’ In the following interview with Utne Reader, Ross defines statecraft, explains its nuances, and offers examples of how it can and must be deployed moving forward.
What is statecraft?
The essence of statecraft is the combination of the what and the how of foreign policy. Oftentimes, when people think of statecraft, they think it just refers to the tools–to diplomatic, military, economic, intelligence, and information resources. But if you used them all brilliantly, and knew how to negotiate effectively, it wouldn’t count for much if it was in the service of objectives that make no sense, that are disconnected from reality.
The idea that you should base foreign policy on reality seems obvious.
Well, a lot of it does seem elementary. And yet, look at Iraq. There was a complete mismatch between objectives and means. The Bush administration chose to look at what it wanted to see as opposed to what actually existed. I don’t think that you have to be completely limited by reality, but you have to be informed by it. First things first–if you want to change reality, you’d better understand it.
In contrast, you cite the first Gulf War as a model of good statecraft.
The contrast really is a striking one. For one thing, Bush number one was inclined to go to the United Nations from the beginning of the crisis and felt that you needed to create an international context in which it was the world against Saddam Hussein, not the United States against Iraq.
Statecraft involves communication. It involves focusing on what other parties require in order for them to do what you want. Intensive consultation with other countries informs you of what is necessary, but it also gives them the ability to say that their views have been taken into account. That was done in 1990-91. It wasn’t in 2003.
What has George W. Bush’s approach cost us? What were we not able to look after?
We were slow to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue, partly because of a preoccupation with Iraq, but also because the administration expected that once Saddam fell, everything would fall into place, not fall apart. There was a presumption that success in Iraq would create an object lesson for Iran, and, therefore, Iran would become much more responsive to us. You didn’t need to be engaging in a more systematic effort with others on what to do about Iran because you thought your policy in Iraq was going to take care of it. Obviously that wasn’t the case.
You argue that for statecraft to work, the United States must restore its moral standing and legitimacy in the eyes of the world. How do we do that?
The most important thing is for us to be increasingly identified with what are generally referred to as ‘public goods’: what others internationally take as being a good without our having to say it is a good.
We need to be seen at the forefront of trying to address global warming, not being pulled grudgingly into addressing it. We also need to be at the forefront of trying to mediate conflicts. We really got out of the business of being mediators during this administration.
You outline an interesting strategy for undermining the moral standing of radical Islamists in the Middle East.
Hamas and Hezbollah have built themselves on the basis of two pillars. One pillar is jihad, or struggle. The other is the dawa, which literally means the ‘call’ and has much more to do with being seen as providers of services, as those who address public needs and provide a social safety net. When there are catastrophic emergencies, they’re the ones out there delivering blankets and food. They’re the ones out there doing what too often the local regimes are not doing. They’ve created an impression that they are the embodiment of social justice.
Too many reformers throughout the Middle East have been good at offering words and not very good at offering programs or services. I want us to work with them to develop delivery systems; work with them to become much more responsive to public needs; and work with them on how to create these social safety nets. In a sense, take a page from the playbook of Hamas and Hezbollah.
Have we been in a position this low before? If so, did we recover?
We suffered a fair amount during the Vietnam War, which shows that we can recoup. One of the things that restored our standing after Vietnam was Jimmy Carter’s committing to issues like human rights in a way that didn’t reflect a double standard. It’s not just about symbolism; it’s about actual behaviors. We need to position ourselves differently on issues like global warming, dealing with health problems and pandemics, and trying to resolve conflicts internationally.
I don’t find the position we’re in to be an irredeemable position. We need a different administration that can come in and be more likely to be heard. One of the consequences and one of the problems for the Bush administration right now is that even when it tries to do the right thing, it’s very often talking to audiences who basically turn it off. Having a new voice gives us a chance to be heard.
Are we in a holding pattern until a new president takes office?
Well, I hope not, because the world isn’t static. We can’t simply wait for 2009. I hope that the administration will make efforts on certain issues. The fact that the secretary of state is now making more of an effort between Israelis and Palestinians is useful, although, again, it has to be informed by a reality-based assessment. Another area that could be useful for the administration, if it is capable, is working something out with its allies and the Iranians.
You warn that even after Bush has left Washington, the legacies of his administration will remain. What are those legacies, and how can they be addressed?
One of the legacies I’m concerned about is what I call the ‘sociology’ of any administration: Administrations acquire ways of doing business and ways of acting on the decisions they make. This administration will have been in power for eight years, and it’s clearly not an administration that’s been governed by a negotiating mind-set. You have a big bureaucracy that is filled with lots of people who have become accustomed to doing business a certain way. One of the reasons it’s important to establish a statecraft mind-set, or at least a negotiating mind-set, is to be able to affect the middle levels of the national security bureaucracy.
There is, of course, a much more profound legacy related to how our forces are completely overburdened and overstretched. It’s going to be very difficult to use even the threat of force when we’re stretched to the bone. You know, you may not want to use force as anything but a last resort, but you have to be credible in terms of saying you will use it in certain circumstances. Unless we can repair the logistic base of our armed forces and improve retention rates and the like, we’re going to have a problem.
What should the new president do?
The most important thing is to strike a different posture and a different tone from day one. Make it clear that the United States has important interests in the world and that it’s mindful that achieving those interests often means having to work with others. Whether it’s global warming, nuclear proliferation, threats from nonstate actors, health pandemics, or failed states–these are not challenges we’re going to be able to resolve on our own.
A new president is also going to be inheriting Iraq, so being able to shape a posture that shows a serious, sustainable approach and a separation from this administration will be important.
Your book is an urgent plea for Americans and their government to recognize new realities. At the same time, you say that the country must not lose its ambition to lead the world. Why?
Because I’m not sure others can play the roles that we do. Someone needs to be the orchestrater, the mobilizer, the catalyst, and you don’t find many others around the world capable of doing that. The United States, because of its global reach, its global capabilities, its wealth, its power, and its sense of responsibility, is more capable of doing that. The fact is that someone needs to mobilize action.