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Council on Foreign Relations Panel Discussion: America and the World: Challenges Facing the Next Administration--Remarks by Ambassador Dennis Ross

Presider: David Young, vice president and dean, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Arizona State University
Speaker: Dennis B. Ross, counselor and Ziegler distinguished fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy; special Middle East coordinator, U.S. Department of State, 1993-2001
October 13, 2004
Council on Foreign Relations


Tempe Mission Palms Hotel
Tempe, Ariz.

DAVID YOUNG: I hope you’re all enjoying your lunch. But we’re going to go ahead—and please do continue to eat, but we’re going to go ahead and get started so we can keep you somewhat on track for this afternoon.

I want to personally welcome all of you to Arizona State University [ASU] and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. I’m David Young. I’m vice president and dean of the college. We’re very, very pleased to have you here this afternoon and this morning for this very special and important event. For those of you that missed some of this morning’s session, this conference represents a really critical step in the developing relationship between the Council on Foreign Relations and the university, a relationship that ASU and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences values greatly. This conference is also one of the first public events of our new School of Global Studies, which will be officially launched in the fall of 2005. We really do believe that the school will take the study of global issues in a dramatically new and innovative ways of studying these global issues with its transdisciplinary, transnational, and transformational approach to scholarship that focuses on quality of life issues.

It’s also my great pleasure this afternoon to introduce our luncheon keynote speaker, Ambassador Dennis Ross, who is counselor and Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. For more than 12 years, Ambassador Ross has played a leading role in shaping U.S. involvement in the Middle East peace process. He has participated directly in negotiations that have led to some of the most important accords and agreements in modern history.

Ambassador Ross is a scholar and diplomat with more than two decades of experience in Soviet and Middle East policy. He was instrumental in assisting Israel and the Palestinians in reaching the 1995 Interim Agreement. He also successfully brokered the Hebron Accord in 1997, facilitated the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, and worked intensely to bring Israel and Syria together.

Prior to his service as special Middle East coordinator under President Clinton, he served as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Office in the first Bush administration. In that position he played a prominent role in developing U.S. policy toward the former Soviet Union, including the unification of Germany and its integration into NATO, arms control negotiations, and the development of the 1991 Gulf War coalition.

During the Reagan administration he served as director of Near East and South Asian Affairs on the National Security Council staff, and as deputy director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment.

Ambassador Ross was awarded the Presidential Medal for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service by President Clinton, and secretaries of state James Baker and Madeleine Albright presented him with the State Department’s highest award.

Ambassador Ross’ new book, “The Missing Peace,” provides a gripping account of his service as the U.S. government’s point person on Arab-Israeli peace initiatives that span 12 years and three administrations.

Please welcome Ambassador Dennis Ross as he speaks to us this afternoon about the United States and the Middle East and the key challenges that face our next administration. [Applause.]

DENNIS ROSS: Thank you. It’s good to be here, and especially when you come—actually, when you’ve come from almost any other place in the country and you come out here and you really haven’t spent much time out here, you suddenly appreciate that there’s a part of the country that you can’t believe you haven’t spent more time in, and you’re determined that you’re going to spend a lot more time in it from now on—which is, by the way, a promise; it’s also my way of additional invitations. [Laughter.]

I am on the—I’m on a 45-city tour to promote the book, and it means there are three campaigns this fall, not just two. [Laughter.] And I’m not going to talk about the book today. Well, all right; there will be a few moments, I’m sure, where I’ll make some not-so- subtle references to the book. It’s called “The Missing Peace.” And I’ll find a way to somehow fold parts of it into my discussion.

But what I am going to do is I’m going to focus on what I think actually are the big issues that we’re going to have to deal with, or at least that the next president, whether it’s the same president or a new president, is going to have to deal with. And there is something interesting to think about as we do, and that is that if you think historically, never has the Middle East been the focal point of American foreign policy, at least not since we’ve been a global power. But the fact is, today it is.

Between Iraq and Iran, the war on terror, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the next president is going to find that he is confronted by principally Middle Eastern issues. It doesn’t mean there aren’t other challenges, but even some of the other challenges I’m not mentioning are related to the Middle East: energy or even China, which is affecting energy, and the fact that China’s energy needs are going to make it much more interested in the Middle East than it ever was before. So the reality is that the next president is going to have to deal with the Middle East as the major theme in foreign policy.

One of the things I’m finding as I go on tour around the country to discuss “The Missing Peace” is that there is really an amazing hunger to try to understand what is going on in the region. So let me focus on what I think the president—whoever’s elected on November 2 is going to be hit with.

No. 1, inevitably, he’s going to be hit with Iraq. There’s no escaping that. It’s not just that we have 150,000 troops there; this is a colossal issue for us. And I think we have to start—at least I start with a premise. Whether you agree with the idea that we had to go to war with Iraq because of the war on terror or you disagree, one thing is very clear. We can’t afford to lose. Every jihadist, worldwide, is going to take heart if in fact we are seen as being defeated within Iraq.

If you go back and you look at what Osama bin Laden said about Somalia, and he described how the United States was forced to retreat in disgrace and how this proved his belief that you could defeat superpowers—it wasn’t just the Soviet Union that was defeated in Afghanistan, but here was the United States being defeated in Somalia—well, imagine what would be said about us if we pull out of Iraq, after everything we have invested in Iraq, after everything we have said about it.

So if we can’t afford to lose, we better understand where we are. And the first sign of wisdom is actually to understand the situation you’re in.

Now in a word—I’ll use a diplomatic term here—it’s a mess. [Laughter.] We got a big problem. Let’s look at this from the standpoint of a number of different measures.

Let’s start with the measure of security. How are we doing on security within Iraq? Well, A, the numbers of attacks are going up, not down; B, the quality and sophistication of the attacks are increasing, not decreasing; C, the area covered and the scope of the area covered by the attacks is wider than it was before, using much greater coordination than was the case before; and D, the numbers of insurgents, those who are involved in the insurgency, is much greater today than it was, say, two months ago, three months ago, six months ago, dramatically so.

As David said, I’m at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and one of my colleagues there is a guy named Jeff White, who spent 35 years in the Defense Intelligence Agency. And starting after the period when Saddam Hussein disappeared, before we found him, going back to May of a year ago, he began to chart the number of incidents against our soldiers. At a time when the administration was still not prepared to accept that there was an insurgency, he was identifying a pattern.

Now his judgment today, following it as closely as he has, is that there are now 100,000 people involved in the insurgency. It doesn’t mean that every one of them is a fighter, but it means there’s a network that supports the insurgency, that involves that many people.

Now that might not seem to be a huge number if you’re looking at 25 million people within Iraq, but it also means that the character of the insurgency is at this point deeply rooted, and it involves a lot of people and isn’t easily going to go away.

So when it comes to the measure of security, we’re not doing so well.

Now there are some signs that maybe there’s some greater dissonance among the insurgents. There are stories now about—as the harder we attack Falluja, having gone into Samarra, that we’re beginning to see tensions between the insurgents who are fighting our presence as an occupier and those, like [Abu Musab al] Zarqawi, who are really—if they’re not part of al Qaeda, they’re part of the same ideology of al Qaeda, which is they reject us, period. But this isn’t the first time we’ve heard that, and I’m very cautious about claims that somehow there’s now a division there that we’ll see played out in a way that will make us much more likely to succeed within Iraq. It is an important step, but we have to see how real it is and how sustainable it is.

And in any case, the critical point to bear in mind is there still are those who are fundamentally determined to fight us because they see us as an occupier, and that raises the second measure. Think about the second measure. How are those doing who see us as the occupier and how are those in Iraq doing who are prepared to identify with us?

Well, let’s take Muqtada al-Sadr. If you go back to last April—let’s go back six months. If you look at the polling among Shi’a, his standing was quite low. Now if you look at the polling among Shi’a today, his standing is quite high. How has he done it? Well, he became the symbol of occupation and resistance to us, and that was a spur to building his following within Iraq. Now that’s not the whole story, but it’s an important part of it, and what I’m about to cite now is in some ways derivative of it.

When you read “The Missing Peace”—note how subtly I brought that in—[laughter]—there’s actually one chapter devoted to narratives, and the narrative is basically about what are the historical factors that shape the psychology and story of the Israelis, the Arabs, and the Palestinians? Now what emerges is there’s a political culture in the Arab-Islamic world that is heavily infused by a deep and abiding sense of humiliation, of betrayal, of imposition, of an attraction to those who will stand up to the powerful on behalf of the powerless, which is the way the culture feels basically imposed upon and powerless. And that when you stand up to the powerful, even if you stand up and you’re defeated, as long as you survive and it looks like your survival is testimony to your overcoming great odds, then you gain. I describe it in the book as you win by losing. You win by losing because you survive, and somehow you stood up.

Well, that’s Sadr. In April, what did we say about Sadr? We said we would either kill him or arrest him. That’s what we said publicly, not privately, and on more than one occasion. Well, he was neither killed nor arrested. In August, the prime minister, [Ayad] Allawi, laid down two ultimatums that he—at that time, they were going to be defeated and the Mahdi militia was going to be disarmed. He backed off. So Sadr has grown, and now the stories that—in Sadr City, in Baghdad, the fact that there is a cash-for-arms arrangement with the Mahdi militia within Baghdad, within Sadr City, which might become a model for other places, it is, on the one hand, a source of some indication it seems to be getting better. But it’s also a reminder that, A, we don’t yet know how real this is going to be. I mean, if you look at what’s been turned in so far—I have certain previous experiences with cash for arms, and the thing that’s always striking is the arms that are turned in, they ain’t worth a whole lot. And what’s been turned in so far is a fraction of what they actually have.

But let’s even assume that this proceeds, and let’s even assume that it proceeds the way it should. That could be a good sign. But let me remind you of something else. One of the things it probably reflects is Sadr’s own level of confidence about his high political standing among Shi’a, and that Muqtada Sadr, a radical Shiite, certainly not moderate in any way, sense, or form, completely opposed to us, completely opposed to our presence—that he sees himself as a future arbiter of what Iraq is going to be. So that should also give a certain level of pause about how well we’re doing or not doing.

Now, how about Prime Minister Allawi, who’s basically made his bet with his—well, his standing today is lower than it was when he came in. Now, why is that the case? Partly because, you know, you don’t make or issue ultimatums—I would say anywhere, but certainly in this part of the world—if you’re not going to follow through on them. If you’re not going to follow through, don’t make them, don’t say them. There’s an old rule of thumb: If you promise to do something, do it. And if you can’t, then you lose stature and credibility.

Now, he’s got one other problem. One of the things that has to happen right now—and I’m going to get into a prescription or recommendations—one of the things that has to happen right now is that, in fact, we do have to sweep the Sunni Triangle of the insurgents. We have to end their having sanctuaries there. That’s been a disaster. That’s what has helped to fuel the insurgency. We have to sweep that area. Now, here’s the paradox: As we do it, we will unfortunately kill a lot of people who are not the insurgents. It’s inevitable. Now when we do that, we’re going to breed greater resentment. We’re highlighting the fact that Allawi can’t do this. He requires us to do it. That already creates a problem for him, because it creates an image of non-independence. But the more there’s resentment bred by what we do as we sweep through the Sunni Triangle area—which, as I said, is essential—unfortunately, Allawi is the one who will pay the price for that.

Now, his bet is, all right, I’ll pay the price for it, but we’ll be able to establish security. If he does, over time he can gain. But it’s going to be a slow process. We will not succeed quickly. And again, the issue isn’t just that we sweep away these sanctuaries. The issue is that we have Iraqi forces that are able to go in there and hold the areas—also an unknown at this point. And one of the criticisms that already exists is that in some places where we’ve used Iraqi forces in the Sunni Triangle area, we’re using the forces, not surprisingly, that are the best, the most reliable. And who are they? They’re Shi’a and Kurds. Goes over real well when they go into the mosques.

So Allawi right now doesn’t have the standing or stature that he had, and he’s betting that things will change the more we can succeed in the security area. But I, unfortunately, see it as a long haul, not a short haul. So on the basis of how we’re doing in security, on the basis of those who sort of line up against us and how they’re doing, and those who line up with us and how they’re doing, it’s not a pretty picture.

So what is to be done? Well, there are several things we need to do to give ourselves a chance to come out of this with what I will define in a minute as success.

First, we have to sweep the Sunni areas, as I said. There’s absolutely no alternative to it, regardless of the resentment it breeds. The decision not to do it earlier produced an incredible base for this insurgency, and that’s how it became so much more powerful than it was. So that’s the first thing we have to do.

But clearly, if we’re breeding resentment at the same time, you can’t win—in the end, we will not win in Iraq and we won’t win in the war on terror if our only answer is military. It’s an indispensable part of what we have to do. Those who are determined to fight us with violence have to know they’re going to lose. Those who want to create a sense that somehow their ideology is superior to ours, they’re going to have to see they lose. Rather than having an inevitability of victory, there has to be an inevitability of defeat. But it’s not just those who believe that, because they represent a small minority; it’s the people who they can appeal to. And we have to be able to change the dynamic.

In Iraq, we have to change the dynamic so that in a sense, the Iraqis come to believe that they’re shaping their future and they’re fighting for their future, they’re not fighting for our presence. Today the dynamic is all wrong. The whole notion of elections was designed to change the dynamic to show that Iraqis in fact will shape their own future.

Allawi’s biggest mistake, in my mind, so far, was the decision that he either made by design or through inadvertence to confront Sadr and his militia in Najaf at the same time as the national conference. The national conference brought together a thousand Iraqi delegates. While the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni-led clerical organization, boycotted the national conference in August, it was heavily represented by other Sunnis. It had people from every part of Iraq—every ethnic group, every geographic local. It was the one forum that really for the first time brought together a wide spectrum of Iraqis. This was supposed to be a milestone in the development of the pathway towards creating a new Iraq. And instead, what was the focus? It was immediately diverted onto the confrontation in Najaf and who was going to protect the Imam Ali Shrine. Rather than being the focal point, the linchpin, the milestone where Iraqis were proving that they own this issue, they were shaping a political pathway that would determine their future, and that those who were fighting that were fighting Iraq’s interests, this became focused instead on the confrontation in Najaf.

So what do we have to do to re-seize the initiative to change the dynamic? I would recommend holding another national conference or something like it. And I would recommend something that—actually, I recommended it to the administration six months ago, and for reasons that escape me, they were able to restrain their enthusiasm.

I would actually accelerate elections. I would have this conference create a pathway, a timetable on elections that they owned. Bear in mind again the value of this conference is it’s Iraqis coming together not appointed by us. Allawi still has the stigma that he’s appointed by us. So have a national conference that actually accelerates elections.

I know people say, “Well, but you can’t hold them because of the environment.” No, what I’m saying is hold the elections wherever the security conditions permit, because when you do that, it shifts the onus. The onus will be on those who are blocking it. Right now the onus is on us. Right now there’s great skepticism, even with Allawi, that the elections will take place as scheduled.

The one thing that has unified all Iraqis—everypoll for the last 17 months has shown 85 to 90 percent of the Iraqis want elections. One of our mistakes was not to want them early on, for reasons that I can understand, but unfortunately, Iraqis understood it too. We were afraid that those who were most well organized were the ones that we weren’t keen on winning, so we didn’t want to have early elections. Now we’re at a point where to change the dynamic, we want the onus to be on the insurgents.

For those who will say, “Well, if you go ahead and you hold it in the places you can hold it, you’ll be excluding the Sunnis and they’ll be even more disaffected,” well, fine. Right now they’re disaffected. And guess what? As we carry out the sweep in the Sunni triangle, they’re going to become more disaffected, not less. What we have to show is that elections will be held there too except if these insurgents block the elections.

So if we’re going to change the dynamic, if we’re going to create a circumstance where in fact the Iraqis own the problem—which is the only way we have a chance to win—I would have a national conference, a second one. I would have them create their own new timetable for elections. I would have them declare that elections will be held wherever the security conditions permit, and that those who will block elections are obviously blocking the will of the Iraqi people. Let’s at least try to put the onus on the insurgents and not keep it on ourselves.

There are two other things that—really three other things that I would recommend, two of which are being done now but not necessarily the way they need to be. The training of Iraqis has to proceed on an accelerated basis, and we have to draw others in to do the training so that in fact we can train more people. I don’t think it’s impossible to get others to do this. It is interesting that at the NATO meeting that’s currently taking place, this is precisely what Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld is now calling for.

So, accelerating this process, bringing more from the outside: I don’t expect that we’re going to get NATO troops to do anything, but they can train. And the larger number of groups that are effective at this, who are prepared to train, gives us the greater potential to train more Iraqis. And we’re going to need more rather than less.

The other thing we need to do is we need to change the way we do reconstruction in Iraq. Our focus on reconstruction was super-infrastructure projects using basically American companies. Hasn’t worked. Partly it hasn’t worked because of security, because there wasn’t security, partly it hasn’t worked because we’ve been so slow to dispense the monies, partly it hasn’t worked because we do business differently.

And one of the things we need, in fact, is to do reconstruction based on small projects using Iraqi contractors. That way, more Iraqis will get the benefit of this. Here again, I think we’re moving in that direction, and that’s good.

The last thing I would recommend is that I would hold a conference—Secretary [of State Colin] Powell has begun to talk about this now—I would hold a conference that involves all of Iraq’s neighbors. I would have done it from the beginning. It’s another idea I had that there was the ability to restrain enthusiasm over, but I would have—from the beginning, I would have held a conference involving all of Iraq’s neighbors, meaning Iran and Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria.

I would have established the focal point of that conference, with the Europeans there as well. The focal point should have been the do’s and don’ts, what’s acceptable, what isn’t acceptable.

I would have put a spotlight on any kind of cross-border efforts in terms of arms and materiel. I would have reached—tried to generate a consensus or at least make it clear to the Iranians that there will be a cost for doing this. There’s been no cost for doing it. They care about their relationship with the Europeans, even if they’re, as I will say in a minute, confident about it. I want them to at least know that the Europeans will make this an issue with them. The only way it’s going to happen is by putting a spotlight on it.

So there is going to be a conference, I think, now, towards the end of November, probably held in Egypt. But it needs to be shaped on the do’s and don’ts, not just the issue of reconstruction, the do’s and don’ts, what will help stability in Iraq, what will hurt stability in Iraq.

Now even if we do everything I’ve suggested, it’s going to be a tough road. From my standpoint, the most that is possible right now in Iraq is that over time we will succeed in creating a loose federalism. There will not be a strong central government. There will be a great deal of regional autonomy. There will be majority rule in this regional autonomy, and if there’s tolerance for minority rights and this regional autonomy basically has a local governance that is decent towards its own people and not a threat towards its neighbors, we’ll come out of Iraq with something that is far less than supposedly what we were going in for, but something nonetheless that would be a good thing. And it would not be a defeat. In fact, under those circumstances, I would call it a success.

Maybe one of the things we have to do is redefine what we mean by success within Iraq. For those who want to say we’re going to produce democracy in Iraq, well, maybe, but it isn’t going to be for the next 10 years. Elections aren’t the sole measure of democracies. I mean, there have been elections in places like Algeria, and they prove the adage: One man, one vote, one time doesn’t make for democracy.

But if you can produce what I just described, that’s not a bad outcome. We’re not going to do better than that. So at least let’s recognize what’s possible and then try to shape an approach that reflects it.

All right. Given that cheery assessment, now let me go on to Iran.

Iran. The most amazing thing about Iran is that in the coming year, it will be the major issue in foreign policy. Even though we’ll have to deal with Iraq the way I said, Iran is going to be where the real crisis point is going to come. Why? Because Iran, in the last two years, either because of what it got from the A.Q. Khan [nuclear black-market] network out of Pakistan or because of its own developments over the last several years, has had a breakthrough in gas centrifuge technology and the Iranians are in a position where within a year they’re going to be able to develop fissile material on their own without anybody’s help, which means they will be able to develop and fabricate nuclear weapons with nobody’s help, and we’re talking about—about [that happening] within a year’s time.

Now that’s going to have a profound effect within the region. There’s a concept of the nuclear tipping point. What it means is you cross a certain threshold in an area and it isn’t just the country that crosses it; it affects the whole region, and that’s what’s going to happen with Iran. This is actually revealing if you think about it.

There isn’t an Arab country in the region that doesn’t believe that Israel’s had nuclear weapons for at least the last 20 years. Everybody believes that they’ve had it. But they also had a kind of collective sense that Israel would only use it as a last resort, so it didn’t drive anybody in the Arab world to go acquire nuclear weapons. But the fact that Iran is on the brink of it is going to have a very different impact. We already see it. The Saudis, either because, again, they’re gotten something from the A.Q. Khan network out of Pakistan or because of the relationship with Pakistan, the Saudis are not—once the Iranians have a capability, the Saudis are going to feel that they have to have a counterweight to it. Now if the Saudis feel that, I can promise you that Egypt will feel that Saudi Arabia can’t be the only Arab country with a nuclear capability, so Egypt will go that way. Algeria already has a research reactor, and they’ll decide, well, if it’s good enough for them, why not for us? And, unfortunately, so on down the line, because I’m also afraid that the Syrians were part of the A.Q. Khan network as well. What that tells you is once Iran crosses this threshold, you’re likely to see a nuclear Middle East, and somehow that’s not particularly comforting.

Now let’s take it one step further that creates more of a sense of immediacy. You’re sitting in Israel and you see the prospect of a nuclear Middle East: not acceptable. You’re sitting in Israel and you see the reality or imagery of mullahs with nukes: not acceptable. Sometime during the coming year Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon—and I would be it will be in the spring—Prime Minister Sharon will visit whoever is president, and the headline for the trip is going to be disengagement from Gaza. And the reality of the trip behind closed doors is going to be either you act to take out of the capability or we will. This is a coming attraction.

Now can we head it off? Well, let’s look at what we’re going to be facing.

First, within Iran I’m afraid already the concept of having nuclear weapons reflects an agreed symbol of national power, not just among the mullahs. While the reformers are far weaker than they were, at least structurally/institutionally, I don’t think they’re opposed to Iran having a nuclear weapon. So this notion of having a symbol of nuclear power, being a nuclear power is very important to them from a national standpoint, No. 1.

No. 2, taking out their capability militarily is not going to be so easy. This is not a replay of what the Israelis did with the Osirak reactor in 1981. That was one discrete target, very clear, in the open. The Iranians learned a lesson from that. They’re pursuing three different pathways to acquiring the capability to develop fissile material, which means that they also have multiple plants and facilities. We don’t even know if we know where all of them are. Plus, they also have tremendous know-how by now.

So the combination of these things makes this a very formidable task, to say the least.

Now, they’re also extremely confident today. They think we’re tied down in Iraq and therefore there’s not much we can do. And we haven’t been very active towards them. We’ve basically let the British, French, and the Germans deal with them. Their view of the British, French, and the Germans is that they have the leverage, not the other way around. And they know from their own discussions with the Europeans the basic way they’ve approached them is the way the Europeans up until now have. We and they have a very different view about how you inflict punishment. Their view is you deny rewards. Our view is you actually have to impose a price. And at this point, the Iranians feel the Europeans won’t cross that threshold.

Now, the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] has also not been very impressive to them. The IAEA passed a resolution. The resolution said you have to disclose finally all of your nuclear activities by November 25, full stop. It doesn’t say by November 25 or else. It simply says by November 25. And the Iranians were so impressed with that statement, with that resolution, that the day after it was adopted, they announced that they were going to convert 37 metric tons of yellow cake, which is part of the process of creating the uranium isotope that you need to create fissile material—and if that wasn’t enough, President [Mohammad] Khatami said, “We will never give up enrichment, our right to have enrichment capability.”

So you look at that array of realities, and it’s a pretty formidable challenge that whomever’s going to be elected on November 2 is going to face. So what can be done here?

Well, I think the key here—I talked about in Iraq you have to change the dynamic. Here I think you have to do something different. You have to create a sense that there’s a cost for the Iranians. I don’t know if we can succeed in doing this, but I know one thing for sure. Today the Iranians feel they can proceed down the path they’ve been proceeding on at a pretty great pace. And there’s no cost. So what has to happen is they have to come to believe there actually is a cost.

Now, bear in mind, you have had a retrenchment, a conservative reaction within Iran. The Council of Guardians basically disqualified all the reformists from running for their parliament, for the Majlis. And so now even that institution is dominated by the conservatives. But they’re not a competent leadership, and you see it whenever there’s unrest. And two years ago, when there were riots in Tehran that involved thousands of people—not students but people striking over economic conditions—this is something that they would be very mindful of, I believe. So we have to bring home to them that there’s a lot for them to lose if they go down this path. At least at a minimum they have to know what the economic consequences for them could be. It may not be sufficient, but they have to know it. And today they don’t feel it, they don’t see it.

So what would I recommend? I would recommend an approach on diplomacy where we would go to the Europeans—the British, the French, and the Germans—who are still talking with the Iranians, and who—there was an article in The New York Times yesterday that talked about how they’re trying to put together a package of incentives for the Iranians for what they called the grand bargain. The grand bargain, in a nutshell, is the Iranians would give up forever the nuclear capability, the ability to create nuclear weapons and to have their own completed fuel cycle, in return for getting fuel to fuel—to basically—to run what are civil reactors. All the spent fuel would be taken out of Iran and the Iranians themselves would never be able to engage in enrichment activities and develop the enrichment capability to make weapons. Now, that’s their notion, that’s the European notion of the grand deal, and they’re offering it—or writing incentives for the Iranians to accept it.

Now, I would go and I would basically say to them, here’s what we’re going to do. We are now prepared to talk to the Iranians, not open-ended; here are the conditions: No. 1, three months. It can’t be open-ended. If it’s open-ended, they’ll talk to us, they’ll create a veneer of legitimacy while they finish doing what they need to do, from their standpoint. A three-month period. It will be good- faith negotiations. We would coordinate with the Europeans. But there would be some ground rules.

First, the grand bargain has to be more than what’s only on the table right now. The grand bargain also has to involve what the Iranians are doing in the terror area. The idea that there’s a grand bargain here and you can have confidence in it, and they’re free to continue to do what they’re doing with regard to terror, especially with Hezbollah and Hamas and Islamic Jihad, should also be on the table. Because the grand bargain is even more than what I describe in terms of incentives; it’s a whole bag of economic goodies. It’s a whole integration of the Iranians into the global economy. They get all sorts of benefits. So the idea that they can still be free to pursue terror while they get all these benefits can’t work out. So it has to be a case where we agree seriously to pursue the logic of the grand bargain, but with more things on the table in terms of what they have to give up. They still get all the goodies that they would gain.

It’s for three months. And we require one other thing from the Europeans. At the beginning of this process, they have to tell—they have to agree with us and they have to tell the Iranians that, in fact, if the Iranians don’t agree after a three-month period, the Europeans are actually going to support real sanctions; they’ll join us in going to the Security Council for real economic sanctions.

Now, can this work? I don’t know, because really the kind of sanctions you need are the kind of sanctions that were imposed on Libya. There’s actually one case—you can say all you want about what worked in Libya; what really worked in Libya was sanctions. For an extended period of time, [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi was trying to get out from under them and finally came to the conclusion it wasn’t going to happen. Now, the Iranians, given their own concerns about what could be stability within Iran, have to know this is what they could face and they have to hear it from the Europeans, not from us.

So the ground rules are a three-month timetable, broaden the scope of what’s covered in the grand bargain deal, and the Iranians have to know at the beginning of this three-month negotiation that the Europeans will join us when it comes to inflicting sanctions.

Now, will they go ahead and buy on to this kind of an approach to sanctions, that would create—that would treat the Iranians the way we treated the Libyans? I don’t know. I mean, the fact is we’ve got $52 a barrel right now of oil. I can think of all sorts of arguments that we’ve made: Gee, you can’t treat the Iranians that way because it will drive the price of oil up to $75 a barrel. Might be true. That’s a high cost to pay.

But think about what the alternative is going to be. The alternative might be having to act militarily against them. At a minimum, we have got to prove that we genuinely, in a way that everyone will believe, we tried to do this in a non-military way. If we end up finding out that diplomacy doesn’t work, the other thing we have to do before we rush to using military force is we better think about what the Iranian options are for retaliation. This is not a case where you can go in and only assume that what you want to happen will happen. That’s hardly a wise prescription for using force.

OK. So now that I’ve covered these two in such a cheery way, why don’t I say something about the Israelis and the Palestinians. It’s getting better and better, isn’t it? Whoever wins has to think about what they’re actually getting to have to deal with.

In a nutshell, since 2001 there has not been a peace process. A peace process is when you actually have a dialogue of words, not only a dialogue of violence. There’s been a war since 2001, no peace process.

Now into this war, into this frozen situation that has been frozen in terms of hopes but not frozen in terms of the reality on the ground, you have the prime minister of Israel who has made a decision to get out of Gaza. The decision to get out of Gaza has created great turmoil within Israel. He has a minority government today. Yesterday when he gave a speech to the Knesset laying out his play for disengagement, in a symbolic way there was a vote against him. A third of his party either voted against him or abstained, guaranteeing that he would lose. It was a symbolic vote, but it was a reminder that it’s not clear what the political makeup is that he’s going to have to put together to be able to deliver on his decision. Having said that, I’m convinced he will deliver on his decision.

Now, it’s created great turmoil among Palestinians, too, because reformers have been challenging [Palestinian leader Yasir]Arafat in unprecedented ways. And the reason is simple. When Israel is out of Gaza, Palestinians have to be responsible for themselves. When they’re out of Gaza, you can’t blame the Israelis. So, suddenly they’re on the hook. They have to prove to the world they can govern themselves. They have to prove to the world they actually can create a rule of law. They have to prove to the world that in fact they have the basics of having a state. And the reformers understand that and they realize it’s an opportunity but it’s also a danger because if they don’t, what happens to the Palestinian cause?

So here is something that actually creates the potential to unfreeze the situation and end the war. But the problem here is that we still have to contend with the realities on the ground, we have to contend with Arafat, we have to contend with Hamas. And Hamas and Arafat are determined to make it appear that Arafat—they’re determined to make it appear that Sharon was forced to leave Gaza, much the way Hezbollah forced the Israelis to leave Lebanon in 2000. Only Sharon isn’t going to allow Israel to be humiliated, so he will inflict a withering response on Palestinians in Gaza, not limited to Hamas, to show that Israel wasn’t humiliated.

Now this will end up undoing the Palestinian reformers, because in that environment, everything they’re pushing for in terms of a rule of law and security organizations who actually carry it out and fulfilling responsibilities will simply disappear in the environment of violence. And the Israelis will get no credit for taking what is, after all, a revolutionary move—the guy who built the settlements is going to dismantle them—because the whole world will focus on the Israeli response. And the only thing that will result will be a new confrontation line in an ongoing war.

That’s the way it will happen if we stay where we are, which is on the sidelines. The only way you have a chance to manage this is by having someone who will come in and manage it. That means the next president, whoever it is, has to begin to prepare the ground. That means the next president, whoever it is, is going to have to think about how you empower Palestinian reformers, is going to have to think about how we become a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians again, is going to have to put together a package of what the Israelis want from the Palestinians—to turn over land and settlements to the reformers, those who believe in coexistence, because the result of this shouldn’t be Israel gets out of Gaza, and those who gain are those who believe in rejection. The results should be that Israel gets out of Gaza, and those who believe in coexistence are the ones who gain.

So we have to be a bridge. We have to get the reformers in a coalition, to basically perform on their side. We have to find out from them what it is they need from the Israelis that will actually help them and what kind of steps the Israelis should avoid.

This, by the way, is a broader prescription for us in what I would call the larger war on terror. There are reformers throughout the Islamic world right now. There are reformers throughout the Arab world right now. One of the interesting developments for the last few years—and for this, the Bush administration deserves credit—is that by calling for democracy, by calling for reform, one of the developments has been that in the G-8 there’s now a forum for discussion between the G-8 and the Arab world on—a forum on civil society. Never existed before.

I’m not about to tell you that tomorrow we’re going to have a transformation of the region, but I am about to tell you that it has made the reformers much more confident. It has made the reformers feel they have some support on the outside.

Now we, for our part, have to do a couple of things. We can’t limit this to just a slogan. We actually have to have a policy that reflects it. We have to make it clear, if there is repression of the reformers anywhere in the Arab world, we will not be silent about it.

When there was a group of Saudi reformers who put together a petition to have elections, an end to corruption, and the rule of law and an actual parliament, they were arrested. And the response we gave—and my former colleagues from the State Department will understand exactly what I’m about to say—the only response we gave came from the State Department spokesperson. Now in Saudi Arabia that was understood for what it was meant to be. We checked the box, but we didn’t make a political statement, and we were saying we’re not going to make this an issue between us.

Now you know, we are accused of having a double standard throughout the Middle East. Part of that is because we support Israel; that’s a fact. But part of it is because we always use democracy as a weapon against those we don’t like and never against those that we do like.

Now we have to be more consistent in terms of our values. I’m not saying push the Saudis over the cliff; I don’t want to do that. I’m not saying push the Egyptians over the cliff.

But one of the things that needs to happen—and I can tell you, this I know from having been in Egypt in late June, where I met with all the civil society groups and all the human rights activists and all the women’s rights leaders. One of the things that was very clear is they count on us to speak up for them, and it does two things. It inspires them, but it also raises the costs to the regime of suppressing them, and we have to do that. The second thing we have to do is we actually have to have a dialogue with these reformers to find out what are the things that we will do or can do that will help you, and what are the things that we could do that would hurt you? In the best of intentions, we may choose to do certain things that actually undercuts the very people we want to help. They’re the arbiters who know what’s going to help them and what’s not going to help them. We have to have that kind of a dialogue.

We have to have that kind of a dialogue with Palestinian reformers. They’re there. They’re assertive for the reasons I said. We need to talk to them, and we’re not right now. We need to be a bridge between them and the Israelis, and we’re not right now. And we also need to raise the cost to Hamas and Arafat of carrying out what is their plan. Nobody in Gaza wants to see the Israelis stay. So one of the things we can do is we can begin to expose what Hamas and Arafat want to do. What is the logic of attacking the Israelis as they’re preparing to get out unless your purpose is to make it difficult or impossible for them to leave? The more we expose that publicly, the more we raise the cost to Arafat and Hamas of pursuing the strategy they currently have in mind.

Now if we’re smart, we’ll orchestrate a diplomacy that isn’t just about packages between Israeli and Palestinian steps; it’s also about getting the Europeans and Arab leaders to say the same thing, to raise the costs, to condition the environment, to prepare the ground. This will not happen on its own. If we stay on the sidelines, the last three-and-a-half years that were will be perpetuated.

What will happen is Israel will get out of Gaza. At some point they will get out of Gaza, and when they get out of Gaza in the circumstances I was describing you’ll have a new confrontation line, you’ll have chaos in Gaza, you’ll have continuing struggle, the Palestinian cause will be set back, and those in Israel will take a look at this and say: Why should we do anything more?

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can take advantage of the opening. We can build a strategy actually that stops this war, because to manage the Israeli withdrawal, to create the package, has to be focused on creating real calm. If you create calm, it can be sustained over time. And then you’ll create a way station back to peacemaking where Israelis will be free from terror and will be able to breathe again, and Palestinians will be free from daily Israeli control and they can breathe again. And then peacemaking will no longer be unthinkable, much less undoable.

So there, you see, I went through the whole region. I was generally downbeat, but I ended on a semi-up note. [Laughter.]

YOUNG: Why don’t we take a couple of questions?

ROSS: I’ll take a couple of questions. I can answer on the book, too.

QUESTIONER: I’m really looking forward to reading the book.

ROSS: It’s called “The Missing Peace,” and—yeah. [Laughter.]

QUESTIONER: The debates tonight, what difference does it make who we vote for? And it’s also possible, if you want to say, that it doesn’t make that much difference. We’ve heard that today too. So thank you.

ROSS: Well, what I described is the reality that is going to confront whoever is president. And rather than answer that question for you, you make your own judgments. I would say you ought to ask yourself: Who do you think is more likely to, A, recognize the character of what we’re involved with; and B, come up with responses that are more likely to work? I’ll let you decide that. [Laughter.]

YOUNG: Ambassador, I have a question.

ROSS: OK. You have the prerogative. You could have asked the first one.

YOUNG: You outlined all the issues—[inaudible]—in Iraq. What went wrong?

ROSS: Did you hear the question? The question was: I outlined what’s going on in Iraq, the conditions now, and the question was, what went wrong?

Truth in advertising—I was a supporter of the war, but I had a number of conditions. Had the conditions been met, I would have continued to support the war. The conditions were not met, and unfortunately, they have, I think, contributed to where we are.

What went wrong? The following: A, there was not a recognition that when Saddam Hussein fell, since he was a—he had created one of the two Stalinist regimes that still existed on the planet, that when he fell you were going to have a vacuum. And those of us who knew something about the Middle East said if you have a vacuum, the vacuum will be filled by violence. Middle Eastern vacuums are always filled by violence. In Gaza there will be a vacuum, it will be filled by violence. In Iraq there was a vacuum; it was filled by violence. We didn’t focus on security. We didn’t realize there was going to be a vacuum. We didn’t act to deal with it. When the looting took place because of the vacuum, we were immediately discredited. One thing about the Middle East, conspiracy is like oxygen. People breathe it. And their view was, you could get rid of Saddam Hussein—who was this overwhelming, coercive, brutal presence—in three weeks, but you couldn’t prevent the looting? No, you didn’t want to prevent the looting. You wanted an excuse to stay here. You wanted the world to see that we’re not capable of governing ourselves so you’d have an excuse to stay here. This became—the idiom was in Iraq. So immediately, we were discredited. And we’ve been fighting a battle ever since.

So No. 1, we didn’t recognize there was going to be a vacuum. But it was fully—I mean, this is something not only that could have been predicted, it was predicted by a number of people who were supporters of doing it. So that’s No. 1.

No. 2, it was essential to have either a U.N. umbrella or international umbrella—not for getting rid of Saddam Hussein but for insuring that in the aftermath, we wouldn’t become the symbol of occupation. Many of us wanted someone like Carl Bildt [former Swedish prime minister and U.N. special envoy to the Balkans] to be the administrator afterwards, because we knew there was going to be an insurgency. That was a given. It was a given because the Sunnis have dominated this area for 500 years, and they were going to go from being the dominating force to being truly the minority that they are. They feared that they’d be treated by the Shi’a the way they treated the Shi’a. So from their standpoint, they were going to fight this.

The question was how deep would the insurgency be? How widespread? How mobilizable? If we were the symbol of occupation, you had an immediate lightning rod, and that’s exactly what we did, which we shouldn’t have done. So that was No. 2.

The third thing is, we needed to create from the beginning a sense that the Iraqis own the problem. You know, if you don’t own it, you’re not going to fight for it. Insurgencies gain when the population either supports them or acquiesces, and if they feel they don’t have a stake, you acquiesce. And that required that we created not only an international administration for Iraq, but also an Iraqi administration for Iraq, from the beginning, so that, again, this was an Iraqi-owned problem. We didn’t do any of those things.

The fourth thing is, we opposed elections. If you go back and you look at what our plans were, we said, “No sovereignty early on, no elections early on. We will create a process where we’ll select those who will draft a constitution.” It made perfect sense from an American standpoint. Unfortunately, it made no sense from an Iraqi standpoint.

So you know, you had at least four basic conditions that weren’t met, that had they reflected an understanding of the reality on the ground, things might have been different. I’m not going to say that if you’d done all the things I was suggesting, everything would have moved in a linear way. It was still going to be very problematic. It was still going to be hard. But we basically—if you were to create a prescription for all the things not to do, that’s what we did.

QUESTIONER: Well, there’s a follow-up on that. We shouldn’t leave that point, because there’s a lot of positive things that came out of our venture in Iraq, that are continuing to come out. One of the things is Libya. We haven’t talked much about Libya. We need to point out that people are looking at this in terms of we don’t want it to happen to us. Now, that’s a possibility for the leaders in Iran. They’re looking at it right now and they’re saying: Look at Iraq.

ROSS: That’s not what they’re saying at all.

QUESTIONER: Oh, I know they are.

ROSS: They are not. They have spent the last year moving closer to nuclear weapons. If they were so afraid, why would they be doing that?

QUESTIONER: How about North Korea? You were involved in that arrangement.

ROSS: No, I wasn’t, but I’ll tell you something. There are 8,000 spent fuel rods that have been reprocessed in the last two years. Is that good?

QUESTIONER: No. But the point is, let’s talk about Libya for just a minute.

ROSS: All right, let’s talk about Libya. I agree with you, let’s talk about Libya.

QUESTIONER: All right, that’s fine. Let’s invite them to this meeting you propose. I think it makes a lot of sense, they come in there and be the luncheon speaker and say, “Why did we do as we did?” We seem to, in this country, some people, not even want to think about Libya.

ROSS: I’m quite happy to think about Libya. Let’s look at why Libya did what it did. Libya is the one case where sanctions actually worked. They did. For 10 years he tried to get out from under them. And I’ll tell you a little story. He began trying to use the Palestinians to get to us to lift the sanctions. I know because the Palestinians came to me when I was a negotiator. And I was not the one responsible for dealing with Libya, but I obviously passed it on. And what he was told was he had to perform certain things. He had to give up the terror, he had to give up the weapons of mass destruction. And he tried to give up the minimal. So during the Clinton administration, he gave up certain things. That’s what led to, in fact, the decision for him to accept responsibility for [the bombing over] Lockerbie, [Scotland, of] Pan Am 103. But he wasn’t prepared to give up the WMD. But the process had begun then. Now it was continued in the Bush administration.

If you ask me what was the decisive element that brought him about, it wasn’t Iraq. It was actually something different. The administration, to its credit, with others, came up with an initiative where basically we intercepted a cargo meant for Libya out of the A.Q. Khan network, and when that happened and he realized, you know what, I’m never getting the sanctions lifted, I might as well bite the bullet, then he did.

Now is that because of Iraq? Honestly I don’t think so. I think it’s because of something else we were doing which was useful.

Look, my point here is to lay out where we are. I said to you I was a supporter of the war. By the way, the administration was quite happy to have me as a supporter of the war because I can do a fairly good job of explaining why it makes sense.

But I also think we have to be honest about where we are. The first sign of wisdom is understanding where you are. If you don’t understand where you are, there is no way you’re going to be able to deal with the problems you face. We can’t see the world as we might like it to be; we have to see it as it is. Then we have to contend with it. Then we have to shape it.

Now is it impossible to succeed in Iraq the way I said? No, but we’d better understand where we are, what we have to contend with, what our problems are honestly. Then we have a chance at least to produce what I said, an Iraqi government that will be a loose federalism. We’re not going to have a strong central government there; we’re going to have regional autonomy. Now if that new Iraq is an Iraq that isn’t a threat to its neighbors and is decent towards its own people, I’ll count that a success. [Applause.]

YOUNG: Thank you, Ambassador Ross.

ROSS: Thank you very much.










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