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Iraq: Former U.S. Diplomat Urges Cautious Diplomacy

By Andrew Tully
WASHINGTON, December 13 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Many Americans welcomed a December 6 report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group as a potential blueprint for peace and stability in Iraq.

Others -- mostly on the political right -- dismissed the report with words like "surrender" and "defeat."

But some observers have both praise and criticism. Dennis Ross, who served as special U.S. envoy to the Middle East under former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and who is now with the Institute for Middle East Policy, addressed a Washington gathering on December 12.

Not As Easy As They Seem To Think

Ross said he supports the Iraq Study Group's overall recommendation for a strong diplomatic offensive in the Middle East, but suggested that the group of 10 experts might have made too many easy assumptions in their assessment of the situation.

Overall, Ross said, if U.S. President George W. Bush's administration decides to take the diplomatic route, it shouldn't expect quick results, and should be ready to follow through with decisive action.

Most importantly, Ross said, the United States should be careful what it promises during any negotiations.

"If you launch a grand initiative that is proven to be hollow very quickly, you will actually leave us worse off," Ross said. " We already have a credibility problem in the region. What we don't need is once again to make grand pronouncements and then to be found wanting. What we don't need is once again to look like we're going to launch serious diplomacy, have it prove hollow, and the message in the region, especially for the Islamists, is to then say, 'You see? Diplomacy never works, only violence works.'"

Iran And Syria

A key recommendation by the commission is that Bush drop his reluctance to speak directly with Iran and Syria, two of Iraq's neighbors who some believe could have enormous influence on the country's future.

Ross agrees with the idea of talks, but warns that it would be a mistake for the United States to expect more from Iran and Syria than they can reasonably deliver. He cautioned that talks might give both countries an inflated sense of their own importance, which could make them more demanding.

Instead, Ross suggested, the United States should engage Iran and Syria only as a part of wider negotiations with all of Iraq's neighbors.

"But when you deal with all the neighbors -- whether you do it through the international group that the [Iraq] Study Group is suggesting, or you do it through some kind of regional conference -- know what you want," he said. "You'd better prepare it. Have a very clear agenda. Know what your aims are. Know what kinds of commitments you're seeking from them. Have some mechanism to review how they do on their commitments. In other words, treat the Iranians and the Syrians as part of a collective, don't single them out. Don't make them more important than they are."

The Answer Is Inside Iraq

In Ross's view, the Iraq Study Group put too much emphasis on indirect ways of ending the insurgency in Iraq and the sectarian violence between the country's Shi'ite majority and Sunni minority.

Ross said the most direct route to solving Iraq's internal problems is not through Iran or Syria, but in Iraq itself.

"If tomorrow we got the Syrians and the Iranians to do every single thing we wanted them to do, we would still have an insurgency in Anbar Province," Ross said. "We would still have Shi'ite militias; we would still have a fundamental divide where Sunnis have yet to make the emotional adjustment to the reality that they're no longer dominant in Iraq, and Shi'ites -- even though they are the majority numerically -- psychologically they act as if they're still the minority. So therefore they have to guard whatever it is they think they've gained."

If the United States doesn't deal with what's going on inside Iraq, Ross said, it doesn't matter what it does outside Iraq. He said while Iraq and Syria can certainly make contributions to peace in Iraq, those contributions wouldn't be decisive.

Ross also disagreed with another point made by the Iraq Study Group: if the United States tries to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the boost in credibility it would get could help change the situation in Iraq for the better.

There's no doubt that the United States should work harder on the Middle East peace process, Ross said, and he agrees with the study group that much of what goes on in the Middle East is interconnected.

But Ross said a renewed U.S. engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should only come as a parallel effort to a diplomatic push in Iraq.


Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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