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Dennis Ross’s Diplomacy 101

Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World
By Dennis Ross
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pages, $26.

When the diplomatic history of the Bush administration is written, it will likely be little more than a catalog of lost opportunities, punctuated only occasionally by a muted victory won only after a series of deliberately obstinate first steps. One of the most consequential of these missteps came just after the fall of Baghdad in early 2003, when the Iranian government reached out to the Bush administration by sending a fax to the State Department indicating a desire to talk about Iran’s nuclear program — offering, according to The Washington Post, “coordination in Iraq, ending ‘material support’ for Palestinian militias and accepting a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The Bush administration spurned this unprecedented offer, sticking to the line that Iran’s help was neither needed nor wanted, and any discussion would be carried out on Washington’s initiative, and on Washington’s timetable. In the four years since this effort at diplomacy (however serious) was turned aside, Iran has succeeded in ramping up its nuclear program while baring its teeth in both Iraq and Lebanon, with bloody results. In May 2006, operating from a position of decreased strength, the Bush administration thought better of its initial impulse and joined with its European allies in narrow talks with Iran about its nuclear program — and only its nuclear program. All other previous offers were off the table.

And this wasn’t the first time the Bushies fumbled a diplomatic opening with the Iranians. In 2001 and 2002, Tehran offered to help in the American offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the overture was scuttled after President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” State of the Union address in January 2002, when some of the more radical elements in the administration decided that it wouldn’t cooperate with Iran no matter what the potential upside. Throw in the administration’s deft footwork in 2002 to scuttle the deal the Clinton administration negotiated with North Korea in 1994, which sealed the Pyongyang nuclear plant and allowed international inspectors into the country, and its subsequent refusal to talk to the North until recently — in multiparty talks with the Chinese, the Russians and the South Koreans — and you have a pretty grim history of American diplomacy in the first decade of the 21st century.

There’s an interesting footnote to these stories, and one that Dennis Ross brings to light in his new book, “Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World.” Despite what Bush’s many critics claim, Ross says, the administration isn’t wedded to a unilateralist foreign policy; indeed, in the case of both Iran and North Korea, when the administration finally got around to belatedly practicing diplomacy, it did so in a decidedly multilateral fashion. What’s more, in the saber-rattling that preceded the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration did try going to the United Nations in an attempt to drum up support for war, and it was successful on some level. But whereas George H.W. Bush found legitimacy for war against Iraq in 1991 by sending envoys around the world to dangle carrots and wield sticks in order to build international support to drive Iraq out of Kuwait, W. stopped his diplomatic efforts at Turtle Bay, with predictable results.

Throughout the book, Ross, who served as Clinton’s Middle East envoy in the 1990s, comes back to this envoy-heavy paradigm for practicing diplomacy, an approach he credits with the victories that the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations won when dealing with the tricky issues of German reunification, Bosnia and the first Iraq War. The current administration has largely eschewed this approach in its own ham-handed efforts at diplomacy, so much so that Ross felt moved to write a starter manual of a book on diplomacy in order to remind American policymakers that the art of diplomacy still exists. In a recent interview with the Boston Globe, Ross said that he wrote the book “for those who are candidates to lead the next administration. I worry about the legacy, about what happens to statecraft when you have eight years of an administration where it’s not practiced. People coming in need to understand it.”

At times bogging down the reader with extended chapters about the rules for negotiation and mediation, Ross finishes strong by tossing off page after page of useful ideas, although the problems he tackles — the rise of China, international terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a resurgent Iran — are much too big to be solved between the covers of a single 384-page book. But “Statecraft” reads exactly as he billed it to the Globe: a collection of ideas for the diplomats set to get back to work in 2009, once a new administration moves to Washington, D.C.

In practically every case of successful diplomacy — from the Cold War to the economic alliances of the 1990s — the situation at the bargaining table at some point appeared hopeless. But instead of pounding their shoes on the table as the Bush administration has so often done, previous administrations have kept at the messy business of diplomacy, committing, as Ross notes, the entire national security apparatus to the effort. As a result, “[t]he diplomacy was intensive and continuous, and there was an ongoing and accurate assessment of the environment, the openings, the problems, the sources of leverage and the role and effectiveness of potential partners. Finally, there was deep presidential interest and effective follow-through.”

All of which should sound familiar to those who remember a time before the dawn of the 21st century, when diplomacy was jettisoned by an administration that thought it held all the cards, but had to fold on each hand it played. While Ross’s book likely won’t change any minds as to the utility of a robust diplomatic effort, his reminder that such a course can be successful is a welcome one.

Paul McLeary writes for Columbia Journalism Review, Defense Technology International and The Guardian.


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