Mideast Peace: The Art of Statecraft

Former U.S. Middle East Envoy Dennis Ross’ new book is called “Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World.”

I haven’t read the book, but in part at least it seems to be meant as a critique of the Bush administration’s practice of the rarefied art of statecraft — a critique that in general I can get behind. When Ross talks about the book, he seems mostly to talk about statecraft as diplomacy (I can’t say whether the book’s focus is as narrow). But the tools of statecraft include not only diplomacy, but all the instruments of state power, including public diplomacy (or propaganda), economic measures, covert action, military power, etc.

When you take all of the criticisms of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, and Iraq in particular, over the last several years and search for the commonalities among administration critics from the left and the right, what you usually find are arguments about means rather than ends: criticisms concerning the administration’s great reliance on military power, for example, rather than concerning Bush’s support of, say, democracy promotion as a general principle.

And criticisms about means are often just criticisms of statecraft. How did the United States win the Cold War without it becoming a hot war, for example, and could we better bring ALL the instruments of statecraft to bear in the current conflict with Islamists? Could we have avoided the situation in Iraq if our plan for countering Saddam Hussein relied to a greater extent on instruments of power other than military force, or even if we had a greater respect for the difficulty of accomplishing non-military goals there? The 2008 presidential candidate, whether Democrat or Republican, who can make this kind of critique the basis for formulating a post-Bush foreign policy might find himself (or herself) with a message that has a broad appeal.

Anyway, back to Dennis Ross. On the Charlie Rose show this week, following Bush’s Monday speech on the Middle East, Ross used Bush’s framing of the Middle East issue as a lesson in statecraft. In order to appeal to the Saudis, whose support is going to be pivotal if the United States hopes to shore up Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas, the administration could frame the Hamas vs. Fatah issue in a much more persuasive way, Ross argued. And he said the way in which issues are framed, as in any negotiation, is essential to success in diplomacy.

Here’s how Bush framed the competition between Hamas and Fatah in Palestine:

The conflict in Gaza and the West Bank today is a struggle between extremists and moderates. And these are not the only places where the forces of radicalism and violence threaten freedom and peace. The struggle between extremists and moderates is also playing out in Lebanon — where Hezbollah and Syria and Iran are trying to destabilize the popularly elected government. The struggle is playing out in Afghanistan — where the Taliban and al Qaeda are trying to roll back democratic gains. And the struggle is playing out in Iraq — where al Qaeda, insurgents, and militia are trying to defy the will of nearly 12 million Iraqis who voted for a free future.

Here’s what Ross said about Bush’s formulation:

I was not persuaded that today’s speech is going to be the right kind of framing of the issues because in a sense we’re not focusing on what really is at stake right now. What really ought to be at stake is are we going to preserve the Palestinians as a cause that is national, or are we going to deal with the Palestinians who have become an Islamist cause? This is not extremist vs. moderate, it’s basically secular vs. Islamist. . . . Fatah represents a secular nationalist movement.

And later:

When you say extremist vs. moderate, I’m not sure it’s going to be very compelling. I think what you have to do is you have to go to the Saudis and you to say to the Saudis, ‘Look, if Hamas wins this competition and takes over the Palestinian movement and the Palestinian cause, there will be no settling it. We will have a religious conflict, not a national conflict than cannot be settled. If you are concerned that Iran is exploiting this issue now and putting you on the defensive, it will be far worse later on if Hamas is in fact the arbiters of the Palestinian future.

Which approach would be more compelling from the Saudi Arabian point of view? Here’s the video so you can watch Ross for yourself:

For more on this issue, see Frida Ghitis’ commentary piece, in which she also highlights the importance of Saudi participation in Bush’s upcoming international meeting.

More World Politics Review