Escaping the Conflict Trap: Toward Ending Civil Wars in the Middle East
Everything was so much clearer during the Cold War. The United States used its diplomatic, economic, and military might to contain and outmaneuver the Soviet Union. Then, as the Cold War was winding down, the United States engaged Mikhail Gorbachev's rapidly declining regime as a source of leverage to manage and resolve conflicts across the globe.
Through sustained diplomatic negotiations, Washington took advantage of the shifting geopolitical landscape to negotiate settlements and aid transitions in Afghanistan, Central America, Southeast Asia, and southern Africa while laying the foundations for Europe's post-Cold War security architecture. This approach helped the United States defeat Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, launch the Madrid phase of the Middle East peace process, and facilitate the unification of Germany. Thanks in large part to the United States' vision and diplomatic skill, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the emergence of over a dozen states in its wake was a remarkably peaceful affair.
The collapse of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s broke this pattern. The West was confused at first, and it took several years of strategic drift before U.S. officials reasserted leadership and managed to contain the violence in 1995 -- showing again how much can be accomplished by harnessing effective diplomacy to a realistic strategy.
But these accomplishments stand in sharp contrast to most of the United States' foreign policy record since. The decline of U.S. diplomacy began during the Clinton administration and reached its low point during the first term of George W. Bush. Since the mid-1990s, U.S. officials have generally shunned broad strategic undertakings and been wary of mounting sustained diplomatic campaigns or mediation initiatives. In other words, they have shied away from statecraft, the subject of an important new book by the veteran Middle East peacemaker Dennis Ross.
Statecraft is the art of developing an effective geopolitical strategy and executing it through the intelligent use of all appropriate instruments of power. Like a general on the battlefield, a foreign policy strategist must analyze prevailing political and diplomatic conditions and the underlying balance of forces and then exert overwhelming influence in order to shape events at crucial points. It is creative diplomacy that translates this strategic energy into action. Effective statecraft is vital, and the United States is unlikely to regain its reputation and restore its capacity for global leadership without it.
Statecraft receives less attention than the military interventions and wars of choice that have characterized U.S. foreign policy over the last dozen years, but Ross' book recalls how much was accomplished when it was still in fashion. Statecraft includes case studies of German unification under the umbrella of nato, the Gulf War, and Bosnia (before and after the United States got serious there, in 1995). Statecraft, for Ross, is what has been missing from U.S. foreign policy in the Bush years, most notably in the lead-up to the Iraq war and in the catastrophic occupation that followed.
Liberally drawing on his personal experiences in U.S.-Soviet affairs, the Gulf War, and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Ross explains the arts of negotiation and mediation. Statecraft is especially useful for readers lost in today's mostly strategy-free foreign policy environment. Ross identifies the key ingredients of effective statecraft: clearly defined objectives and policy consensus within government; accurate, realistic assessments of obstacles and of the resources required to overcome them; and the systematic integration of all tools of power in a sustained and intense diplomatic effort.
A profound misunderstanding of the relationship between strategy, power, and diplomacy lies at the heart of the current crisis in U.S. foreign policy. Above all, the United States needs smart statecraft. Washington must pull together its wits, wallet, and muscle to create realistic policies and set them in motion through agile diplomacy. Smart statecraft does not dispense with hard power; it uses hard power intelligently, recognizing both its potential and its limits and integrating it into an overarching strategy.
Diplomacy, contrary to the current misconception, is not about making nice, exchanging happy talk, and offering concessions. It is the engine that converts raw energy and tangible power into meaningful political results. In other words, diplomacy is all about the intelligent use of power. Diplomacy is not an alternative to coercion and other forms of power; its effectiveness depends on their skillful use.
Ross' conception of statecraft emphasizes the need for foresight. It is not enough to have a goal and a plan. The effective statesman must anticipate the challenges of introducing and following through on a policy decision. The major diplomatic breakthroughs of the late 1980s and the early to mid-1990s were the result of sustained, intense efforts on the part of high-level U.S. officials featuring adroit maneuvers, nonstop interactions (often face-to-face) with their foreign counterparts, the continuous management of their domestic bureaucratic and political base, and the regular reevaluation of realities on the ground. Ross makes a powerful case for relying on "reality-based" intelligence assessments, in contrast to ideologically driven or "faith-based" intelligence and just plain wishful thinking. Moreover, he emphasizes that effective statecraft requires careful management of the political-bureaucratic process so that everything stays on track both at home and abroad.
There is no single model of effective statecraft. As Ross notes, there are benefits and drawbacks both to diplomatic efforts personally managed by the president or the secretary of state and to integrated, interagency efforts spearheaded by senior officials. German unification is an example of the first model. It worked in that case partly because, according to Ross, Gorbachev had limited capacity to resist the United States' "diplomatic onslaught." On the other hand, Ross offers some trenchant observations about the drawbacks of the highly personalized (and brilliantly successful) endeavors led by George H. W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker.
But it is the second model, of interagency team efforts, whose success Ross illustrates in Statecraft. This was the formula utilized in southern Africa to negotiate peace in Angola and Namibian independence during the Reagan years, in the Bosnian peace process led by then Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke in 1995, and in Ross' own Middle East peace initiative during the Clinton years. Perhaps surprisingly -- given its broader record -- the current Bush administration used a similar approach to end Libya's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (with the help of the British) in late 2003 and to negotiate the 2005 north-south agreement in Sudan. This model also facilitated the partially successful six-party talks with North Korea. Not surprisingly, given his own experience, Ross sees certain advantages to this approach.
As a veteran who led the eight-year diplomatic marathon in southern Africa (1981-89), I am inclined to agree. Interagency teams save top government officials from being overwhelmed by the daily (if not hourly) demands of statecraft for months on end. This model, however, can only succeed when the executive branch is relatively united, the lead envoy is given real responsibility, and the effort is spearheaded by a person of relentless perseverance who can operate in choppy political, congressional, interagency, and diplomatic waters. Its success depends on a clarity of purpose, a commitment to the principle of delegation, and backing from the top.
Statecraft, as these cases convincingly illustrate, is demanding and often exhausting work. There are risks, and success is not guaranteed. It requires major governmental and political resources and the same kind of hourly, year-round planning and execution as the conduct of a military campaign.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
In a conference with reporters in January, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned against overestimating diplomacy's role in international affairs, arguing that diplomacy is inextricably tied to underlying power dynamics and is not a particularly useful tool at the wrong historical moment or in the wrong strategic environment. "You aren't going to be successful as a diplomat," she declared, "if you don't understand the strategic context in which you are actually negotiating." For Rice, diplomacy is not just "dealmaking."
Fair enough. Diplomats do not simply travel around harvesting the low hanging fruit. They must also know when and how to plant the right trees in the right soil, carefully nurture and ripen the fruit, ward off infestations, and select the proper moment for harvest. Unfortunately, as Ross underscores in a scathing chapter on the road to war in Iraq in 2002 and 2003, the Bush administration ignored almost every principle of foreign policy strategy.
How did the United States reach the point where it needs schooling in such basic precepts? U.S. political elites are fond of declaring that everything changed on 9/11 -- that the events of that day were a historic watershed requiring a return to a bipolar view of the world. This new perspective has reinforced the United States' long-standing discomfort with the practices and requirements of diplomacy and negotiation. Now that Washington once again has a tangible adversary -- variously described as "freedom-hating terrorists," "Salafist jihadis," or "Islamofascists" -- U.S. leaders have convinced the American public that foreign policy is an "us-versus-them" contact sport in which the primary tactics are military and coercive. As the extent of U.S. isolation has become clear over the past two years, however, U.S. officials have started to correct course, moving back toward more activist diplomatic engagement. But as the dismissive official response to the Iraq Study Group report illustrates, the concept of negotiated outcomes and diplomatic engagement with troublesome or nasty regimes remains neuralgic in the U.S. body politic.
Ross attributes U.S. political failures in Iraq to the Bush administration's confused objectives, dismissive and arrogant style, ideologically warped assessments, misguided planning, and poor framing of the issues. A contradictory diplomatic strategy at the United Nations resulted in the worst of all worlds: a failed effort to obtain Security Council support for the invasion. After the debacle in New York, U.S. leaders spoke of the "failure of the un" and the "failure of diplomacy." What failed, in fact, was Washington's un diplomacy.
Ross asks whether "effective statecraft" could have produced a better result in Iraq. He argues that it might have -- if there had been "Baker-type management of the un Security Council," an international rather than a U.S. administration of Iraq, "a realistic assessment of what we were getting into," and better military plans for the postinvasion phase. In this view, a measure of competence in planning and executing the overthrow of Saddam would have led to a much more successful outcome.
But this was a war of choice -- and U.S. leaders made the wrong choice. Better planning and intelligence assessments might have slowed the lurch to war, and an improved interagency process could have stopped it altogether. A more "realistic assessment of what we were getting into" should have convinced U.S. leaders to use the enormous power then at their disposal to further contain Saddam and focus more on Afghanistan, Iran, and peace in the Middle East. The real failure, in short, was strategic. The decision to overturn Iraq's balance of sectarian power in favor of the Shiites handed a massive gift to the Iranians while creating a power vacuum, a humanitarian tragedy, and a magnet for new terrorist recruits. The United States did not merely lose the strategic initiative; it threw it away.
The United States' problems go deeper than any one administration or any single strategic blunder. They are more fundamental than the post-9/11 Zeitgeist of paranoia and hysteria stimulated by executive branch rhetoric, supine congressional "oversight," scaremongering by media talking heads, and the drumbeat of the homeland security lobby.
The New York Times columnist David Brooks has noted that democracy in the United States takes politicians "who are reasonable in private and it churns them through a public process that is almost tailor-made to undermine their virtues." He adds, "Perpetually kissing up to the voters destroys the leadership qualities the voters are looking for in the first place: tranquillity of spirit, independence of mind and a sensitivity to the contours and complexity of reality." Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of foreign policy. Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke's provocative book, The Silence of the Rational Center, reminds readers that there is nothing new about the American weakness for oversimplified big ideas and media-enhanced political conformity, especially in times of real or imagined crisis. Nor is the remedy for this condition self-evident.
In a brief section on what he calls "the American approach to negotiations," Ross reminds us that negotiations require mutual adjustment, exploring the possibility of accommodation -- even with adversaries -- and examining what could be offered to obtain a change in the other side's behavior. Those requirements, however, run counter to a deeply ingrained American self-image of exceptionalism -- one that, the thinking goes, requires the United States to selflessly pursue the greater good. This explains the American distaste for dealing with ugly regimes or engaging with troublesome adversaries lest Washington legitimize them. It accounts for a predilection for foreign policy "concepts that seem to require minimal diplomacy and negotiation," as Ross puts it. It also explains the often brittle and categorical quality of pronouncements made by senior U.S. officials and the presumption that the United States is best placed to define for others what their national interests are.
EVERYBODY HATES DIPLOMACY
There is something profoundly ironic about American attitudes toward negotiation and diplomacy. The U.S. Constitution is founded on principles and structures that require a nonstop search for compromise and accommodation. Outside the realm of foreign and national security policy, the United States is a nation of problem solvers and negotiators. Yet, as Ross suggests, U.S. elites and the general public alike have always been a little uncomfortable when such concepts are applied to foreign policy.
The reasons for disliking diplomacy are legion. Engaging in serious diplomacy would mean reviewing the way Washington advocates for and deploys its principles. It might necessitate a glance in the mirror and asking why the United States believes it is uniquely empowered to interpret the Creator's higher purpose for people in other lands. International negotiation has a nasty tendency to remind its practitioners that the laws of gravity affect them, too, and that international life is a two-way street in which one may have to give in order to get. Negotiators run the risk of achieving agreement and then having to take yes for an answer when they are emotionally accustomed to confrontation.
Such successful negotiations may produce deals that serve not only U.S. interests but also those of detested enemies. Effective diplomacy requires continuous adaptation that is not governed by reference to some words engraved on stone tablets. In a coalition, it may entail accommodating the political needs of one's negotiating partners. Good diplomacy may require U.S. policymakers to read books about the history and cultures of the regions in which the United States wishes to operate, an approach that could require policymakers to listen to experts and cope with contending viewpoints.
No wonder so few voices are raised for diplomacy. Even Ross, one of the United States' most distinguished diplomats, shies away from directly advocating diplomacy, arguing instead that "negotiations" are "the most essential tool of statecraft." The distinction has more than semantic importance.
In fact, diplomacy is the transmission belt that puts strategy into action. Diplomats are the ones responsible for integrating a nation's messages and articulating its goals in order to advance the national interest. Diplomats are a country's primary negotiators. It is therefore a little disappointing when a leading diplomat, such as Ross, declares that "coercion works best" and stresses the importance of obtaining authorization to use force "where diplomacy has failed" -- apparently overlooking the fact that coercion is often an aspect of diplomacy, not fundamentally opposed to it. After all, diplomats are the leading practitioners of negotiation in times of war as well as peace.
Although Statecraft is a book about the how of foreign policy, it also addresses the what of foreign policy. Ross describes himself as a neoliberal who believes that core U.S. political values should have a central place in foreign policy. Ross aligns himself with the "realistic Wilsonianism" of the political scientist Francis Fukuyama and presents a manifesto "not just for preserving idealism but for developing the means, the tools, and the mind-set to be able to pursue idealism." This approach emphasizes the intelligent and tough-minded use of U.S. power while remaining sensitive to the way issues are framed and committed to working with others.
Successful diplomats must always be conscious of other parties' need to know how an agreement serves their interests and how it can be sold back home. As Ross notes, "Between countries -- regardless of whether they are democratic or authoritarian -- there will need to be an explanation, either for publics or for powerful constituencies." The core concept is empathy, and it requires a capacity to listen. Ross is quick to add, however, that empathy should be balanced by "tough love," a readiness to use power and influence to press the other side to cooperate. Ross' "tough love" principle can be used in mediation as well as negotiation -- provided the United States is prepared to apply it equally firmly to all sides.
Readers will find some of the policy prescriptions in Statecraft more compelling than others. Ross asserts that the United States should be wary of dealing with and supporting "so-called moderate Islamists"; he would prefer the United States engage with the "liberal, moderate, secular elements" he sees as natural allies. He goes on to argue that Washington must figure out who the Islamists really are, discern the different factions among them, and then articulate to an international audience "why there are basic criteria that they should meet before [policymakers] individually or collectively deal with them." This prescription for engaging the Muslim world while delegitimizing radical Islamists echoes Ross' powerful appeal for reality-based intelligence assessments, as distinguished from the faith-based or ideological variety. But do U.S. policymakers and regional experts agree that there is a credible secular and moderate opposition in leading Middle Eastern societies? How, exactly, can Washington shift the political balance in favor of the moderates when opposition movements in the Muslim world are increasingly dominated by some form of political Islam, especially if -- as Ross correctly states -- it is up to Muslims themselves and not Americans to discredit the radicals?
Promoting liberalization and improved governance by existing regimes without further destabilizing the Middle East is one challenge. Telling Islamist opposition groups that they must pass a U.S. political litmus test on the use or support of violence while trying to isolate the radicals is quite another. The record in other regions suggests that successfully pressuring armed militants to abandon violence and participate in democratic elections requires a favorable political climate. In Northern Ireland and South Africa, armed militants turned away from violence and entered mainstream politics only when the framework of an acceptable political deal was on the table, providing them with a product they could sell to their supporters. The sequence of events was of crucial importance.
A number of Ross' guidelines presuppose a capacity to take advantage of other states' actions and create seemingly inexorable momentum -- making other parties feel that the train is leaving the station and they need to get onboard. Leaders and strategists dream about lining things up in this fashion. Good strategies always center on developing the capacity to attract others, move them forward, and build momentum that translates into persuasive influence. Some of the book's favored historical cases show the United States at the peak of its post-Cold War power and credibility. However, the coercive side of statecraft may prove less effective in dealing with today's most pressing problems.
Failed and failing states; the angry ferment, or "awakening" (to use Zbigniew Brzezinski's apt term), within Islamic societies; the quest for nuclear weapons by dangerous regimes; Internet-empowered nonstate actors linked to terrorist or criminal networks; the rise of China and other Asian powers -- these challenges may not be overcome by the tough-sounding model of statecraft outlined by Ross. The U.S. strategic arsenal will need to include containment and conditional or constructive engagement as well as the more coercive forms of diplomacy. These options deserve especially serious consideration when it comes to dealing with Iran.
Looking ahead, it will be important for U.S. policymakers to design strategies for a wide range of challenges and opportunities -- not only those centered in the Arab and Islamic world. Failing states demand multilateral responses and carefully devised burden sharing by the leading powers to help build state capacity and foster improved standards of governance. Other problems, such as localized conflicts and confrontations, will require stable regional security architectures, especially in Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf.
U.S. statecraft faces a particular challenge, as well as a significant opportunity, in the need to build a new institutional regime for the control of nuclear weapons. The time is right to introduce creative new approaches that could lead to the eventual elimination of these weapons, as proposed by several distinguished veteran statesmen (such as Max Kampelman, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and George Shultz). Success on this front could provide powerful new leverage in dealing with troublesome actors seeking access to the most dangerous technologies.
Reducing the number of violent, seemingly intractable conflicts is a core responsibility of the world's leading nations, and it will yield rich dividends in terms of other national interests. Whether Washington takes the lead in sustained mediation initiatives or provides indirect support to others doing so, few activities better illustrate the United States' capacity for leadership. Now more than ever, Washington needs to return to a peacemaking tradition that goes back to the times of Theodore Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter.
But it is not enough to succeed at peacemaking: the greatest challenges often arise after peace agreements are signed and political transitions have occurred. No matter what it is called -- "peace building," "nation building," or "postconflict stabilization and reconstruction" -- implementing war-to-peace transitions deserves to be a high priority in U.S. diplomacy.
Ross' book aims to restore statecraft to its proper place in the tool kit of U.S. foreign policy. But there are serious obstacles along that road. In contrast to the well-funded U.S. military, the civilian instruments of statecraft are grossly underresourced. This imbalance creates a climate in which top officials are more inclined than ever in U.S. history to turn to military options, if only because the military is perceived to be capable of getting things done. The other obstacle is cultural. Public discourse degrades and misconstrues these concepts, turning "diplomacy" into a term of ridicule or abuse. Neither political party has a monopoly on the provincialism and naiveté that produce such attitudes. Well before Bush became president, Americans began growing tin ears to match their hubris, tuning out natural partners and friends while imagining that talking to adversaries or rivals was, by itself, doing them a favor.
Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan knew better. What matters is not whether one talks to adversaries but what one says to them, which strategies of engagement are set in place, and how competently they are executed. They knew that effectiveness in foreign policy is not about outputs, such as force or rhetoric; it is about outcomes, such as political settlements or changes in behavior. Thatcher and Reagan would have understood instinctively that giving orders, issuing public demands and pronouncements, and declaring expectations is not statecraft.
Tomorrow's historians will note that the attacks of 9/11 created an unprecedented opportunity for leaders in Washington to mobilize the country to address a range of major challenges to U.S. national interests. Sadly, that opportunity has been squandered. The next administration will have less freedom of maneuver, a reduced global standing, a constrained resource base, and a highly skeptical public to contend with. Under these circumstances, the U.S. foreign policy community should welcome Statecraft as an important contribution to the vital debate about how the next president should define and implement foreign policy. One can only hope that this debate will include experienced and adult participants who will take inspiration from Ross' book.