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America, Quo Vadis? Part 2

Mr. Wattenberg: Hello Iím Ben Wattenberg. Arguments about military strategies for the conflict in Iraq fill the news but do they squeeze out a discussion about Americaís broader foreign policy challenges in the region. Do all roads lead to the Middle East? What are the limits of diplomacy? Todayís central question is ďAmerica Quo VadisĒ the latin for ďwither goest thou?Ē To find out Think Tank is joined by ambassador Dennis Ross, a central figure in the Middle East peace process under both President George H. W. Bush and President Clinton councilor and distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of The Fight for Middle East Peace and by Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, former editorial editor of the Wall Street Journal and author of most recently War Made New: Technology, Warfare and the Course of History 1500 to Today. The topic before the house; America, Quo Vadis? Part 2. This Week on Think Tank.

Mr. Wattenberg: We are here to talk about some specifics, but specifically about the generalities of American Foreign Policy, you know, qou vadis, where are we? What did Lincoln say? ďWhere are we and wither are we tendingĒ? And I think you sort of come from -- swing from different sides of the plate, Max, youíre Ė- while thereís a blend, youíre interested in the use of military power, and Dennis, youíre interested in the uses of diplomacy. Dennis, you have specialized in the Middle East and for all the diplomacy and all the military might, it never seems to get off the dime. I mean, they still hate it each other, they still want to kill each other. Is there Ė- what do you do about something like that?

Mr. Ross: Well first youíve got to look at the basis of the conflict that youíre dealing with. There are some conflicts that I call existential. In the case of the Israelis and the Palestinians you have two national movements competing for the same space. Thatís an existential conflict. It doesnít mean...

Mr. Wattenberg: Existential meaning the right to existence.

Mr. Ross: Yes. It doesnít mean between Israelis and Palestinians that you canít find a solution. In fact I make the case in a book I wrote and having been a negotiator, that the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians actually was one that came very close to an agreement. The problem was in the case of Yasser Arafat, he couldnít give up who he was. He couldnít redefine himself. He was a revolutionary who couldnít make the transition from being a revolutionary to a statesman. But thatís an existential conflict.

A conflict Israel and Syria might be portrayed as a state-to-state conflict where itís not about the existence of the other; itís about where do you draw a border? That said, you know, most conflicts, thereís a root to the conflict, thereís a reason for the conflict and the question is can you find a way to overcome it? I remain one of those who think itís possible to overcome it, but we also have to be quite realistic. I look at where we are today, for example, between Israelis and Palestinians and when I hear people suggesting well, gee; nowís the time to go settle it, I say at a time when you have weak leaders on each side, meaning they lack very much public support...the Prime Minister of Israel has a 13% approval rating.

Mr. Wattenberg: And thatís Ehud Olmert.

Mr. Ross: Yes. And on the Palestinian side youíre basically characterized by a stalemate in paralysis...

Mr. Wattenberg: And his name is?

Mr. Ross: President Mahmoud Abbas. So what you have is two leaders; one facing a stalemate internally with Hamas, even if thereís an agreement thatís been negotiated -- weíll have to see how itís actually implemented -Ė the other is a leader who doesnít have a strong political base. When you have leaders who donít have a strong political base, thatís hardly the time where theyíre going to take on what I call the questions that go to the heart of self-definition and identity.

Mr. Wattenberg: Thereís also a powerful, if somewhat silent majority for peace in both sides.

Mr. Ross: I agree with that.

Mr. Wattenberg: And, you know, the best politics can be sometimes what appears to be the worst politics. In other words, if you do, I mean, I guess President Johnson used to say you do whatís right for the people and the people will do whatís right for you. I mean, thereís some pretty high-minded people in that racket.

Mr. Ross: It does describe leadership, but if you look at the Middle East, strong leaders take risks for peace; weak leaders tend not to.

Mr. Boot: To be successful you have to have leverage, and Iím not sure we ever really had enough leverage against either the Israelis or Palestinians to force a deal on the terms that Dennis was negotiating on. And even in the case of the Israelis, who I think genuinely do want a deal and do want that peaceful settlement, they have not been able to force the Palestinians into going along, because even though, as you say, perhaps most ordinary Palestinians would like peace, thereís the issue of the armed extremists who are actually in control of the streets and the issue always comes down to who is going to coerce the most extreme elements of society?

Now, in a democracy like Israel, you have a political process that can take care of the extremists as weíve seen not long ago when the Israeli government decided to pull settlers out of the Gaza Strip and this was obviously unpopular with the minority of Israelis, but nevertheless the political process prevailed; there was no serious disturbance, and in fact, the evacuation took place relatively peacefully, whereas itís very hard to imagine the Palestinians being able to peacefully give up their claims on Jerusalem or so-called right of return to Israeli homes and all these other issues which theyíve been holding up for many years because in effect, the street has a veto over anything that the more modern elements might agree to. And so the issue becomes how do you coerce the extremists, and there certainly is not Ė- the Palestinian government, whatever the intentions of Mahmoud Abbas, does not have the power to coerce the extremists and the Israelis donít really have the willingness to do so because this would involve a really long term pacification counterinsurgency campaign and they really want to wash their hands of the whole problem, and so this is the basic issue you come down to is there are some very fine negotiations, but at the end of the day the Israelis, the Americans, the moderate Palestinians donít have the leverage to make an agreement stick.

Mr. Wattenberg: Trying to be fair about it, the barrier to peace and to men and women of goodwill on both sides, are the Arab extremists.

Mr. Boot: Right. And I mean, you can argue and you can certainly debate whether there is in fact a silent majority in Arab lands who want a more moderate course, and you can sort of debate that one way or the other. Itís hard to know because public opinion polling doesnít tell you very much in such repressive societies, but the reality is that whatever the broad majority may think, theyíre not the ones who are in control. Itís the extremists who are often in control or dictators who are very afraid of the extremists and therefore are not willing to challenge them. And so it almost doesnít matter in the end what ordinary people may think; they donít have the power that they have in a democracy like Israel or the United States.

Mr. Wattenberg: Well, you know, we have seen over recent decades, the most profound moment (sic) movement in human history toward democracy. I mean, the Freedom House numbers are unbelievable. And the Arab lands are by far the least. But even there, Lebanon at one point was a functioning democracy, Tunisia has some democracy, Egypt has some democracy, Jordan has some real democracy.
Iím mean Iím somewhat of a congenital optimist, but there is reason to think that the slow and halting process is toward democratic views and values, even in the Middle East. Would you buy that?

Mr. Boot: Well, I certainly buy that because when, as you say, when you look at the long term trend in history, when you start off with say, the foundation of the United States, at that time there probably wasnít a single democracy as we would define the term, not even the United States because the minority of the citizens had the vote and now today you can argue about the numbers but perhaps as many as 120 countries out of 190 are democracies of one form or another. So keep in mind that just while there arenít many more democracies now, just because the country becomes a democracy doesnít necessarily mean it remains a democracy, and weíve seen a lot of backsliding in recent years in the case of Russia for example, which made major steps towards democracy in the 1990s but is now going in reverse.
Mr. Wattenberg: Well, but Max, itís going Ė- in other words, it is two steps forward and one step back, not the other way around. I mean, the United States used to be threatened by the Soviet Unionís nuclear force and weíre not anymore. I mean, there are a lot of things we want it to be that itís not, but that process is still ascending...itís jagged.

Mr. Ross: Thereís a distinction, though because the Russians may not be a threat to us the way they once were. The question is institutionalization. Whatís happening to the development of democracy based on the institutions? Do we see a society with a rule of law today? I think the answerís no. Do we see the emergence of a free media? I think weíve seen a reverse there as well. Do we see, in fact, checks on the executive power? I think weíre seeing few signs of that. So thereís a liberalization in the financial area, although even there thereís enormous state power still, so what weíre seeing is a Ė- itís not a -Ė I think the way to look at this is democratization is a process and itís not a linear process.

Mr. Wattenberg: Absolutely not. I agree with that.

Mr. Ross: We have to be -Ė I mean, I couldnít do what I did being a negotiator in the Middle East as long as I was -- if I also, like you, wasnít a congenital optimist. I always think thereís a way to try to move ahead, but I think itís very important to color your perceptions with an important awareness of reality. In the Middle East what weíre facing today are sectarian divides that have become much more pronounced. This is going to color what the region looks like for some time to come. When the Saudis broker a deal between Fatah and Hamas, theyíre not doing it because theyíve now decided, gee, letís go ahead and letís see if we can create inter-Palestinian peace because itís a good in and of itself. Theyíre focused on how do they wean Hamas away from Iran, because thereís a larger struggle going on in the region. Now, how you look at that, you know, is going to form what you do. It might be good in some respects; it might not be so good in other respects. If youíre trying to negotiate an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, inter-Palestinian peace with Hamas being the arbiter of what may happen in the future is not exactly a prescription for producing peace given their rejection of Israel. The Saudis may well want to take the Palestinian issue off their back in this larger sectarian struggle. They may really like to see a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but if theyíre focused on weaning Hamas away from Iran, thatís actually an approach that focuses on inter-Palestinian peace, but not peace between Israelis and Palestinians. So weíre dealing with what is a complex reality I think in the Middle East and perhaps elsewhere also.

Mr. Wattenberg: Well, let me ask you. Youíre both so reasonable here, and yet I knowÖ
Mr. Ross: Thatís because weíre both such reasonable guys. Mr. Wattenberg: Öyou donít share the same...

Mr. Boot: It canít last forever (laughter).

Mr. Wattenberg: Well, give me an example of something that you disagree about.

Mr. Boot: Well, I disagree with Dennis on the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. I donít think that there is a realistic chance of success and I think President Bush has been right not to try to breathe life into that corpse. I donít think there is any life there and I think we ought to try a different direction, which is to pursue long term change in the Middle East that will one day make an end to the conflict possible. But I donít think given where the Palestinians are right now and have been for the last several decades itís possible to negotiate an agreement that they will stick to. And so I think that this is -Ė I mean I think Dennis did about as good a job as anybody could possible do of trying to bring the two sides together, but at the end of the day the agreement just was not there because the Palestinian side would not agree to it, and I donít think thatís likely to change anytime in the near future, so you know, I think there are a lot of people now who are saying for practical reasons we ought to restart the Israeli/Palestinian peace process and I descend from that view.

Mr. Ross: They made a mistake in my mind from walking away from the peace process. They made a mistake because in fact, things didnít have to get as bad as they are now. I agree, when I say today, I agree with you that now is not the time to try to resolve the conflict, I am in favor of greater activity to try to contain it, to limit it. We had a moment, Iíll tell you, in 2005 that was lost. An act of statesmanship, an act of state...

Mr. Wattenberg: What was the moment?

Mr. Ross: The moment was Arafat does the end of 2004; Abu Mazen is elected on a platform of nonviolence. For the first time in the history of the Palestinian movement we have a Palestinian leader who is emphasizing nonviolence as the right course, and we have Ariel Sharon make the decision to withdraw from Gaza and pull out all settlers, taking on his own settler constituency. We parlayed those three developments by sitting on the sidelines.

Mr. Wattenberg: We, being the United States.

Mr. Ross: Being the United States, yeah. And weíre not solely responsible...

Mr. Wattenberg: No, I understand.

Mr. Ross: In effect, by sitting on the sideline, by doing Ė- by being much too inactive, being involved only episodically, we took those three developments and it got parlayed into Hamas winning an election. It didnít have to be that way, so what you want to do is be active and recognize... this is what I mean by see things as they are, understand what you can effect, use the means at your disposal to effect it. We didnít do that.

Mr. Wattenberg: Could we have done something else? I mean...

Mr. Ross: Absolutely.

Mr. Wattenberg: What could we have done?

Mr. Ross: Iíll give you two examples of what we could have done. Iíll give you more than two examples. In the case of Abu Mazen, having spent an enormous amount of time negotiating with him, I know that heís not a ready decision-maker. When he won an election on the platform of nonviolence, the most important thing was to prove to Palestinians that his way worked as a way of shaping the future. That meant that he had to make decisions, we had to push him to make decisions, but we also had to deliver for him. We did neither. At a time when the per capita income on the Palestinian side had declined by one third over the preceding four years at a time when they had very high unemployment, at a time when Palestinians who used to work in Israel couldnít. This was the point where we should have gone to the Arab states who had money, meaning the Gulf States. They did not have a cash flow problem given the increase in the price of oil. We should have focused with them and made it clear to them privately that if they didnít help weíd get public about the fact that they werenít helping. We should have worked to create a billion-dollar fund to provide a social safety net because Hamas was competing with its own; to build housing, because Palestinians were the backbone of the Israeli construction industry; to provide what would be pensions for a large part of the security organization that was largely corrupt among the Palestinians. Had we pushed in this direction and put Abu Mazen in a position where he was acting and got the Israelis as well in the circumstances where he was acting to be somewhat more flexible with regard to what they would allow with regard to movement, then you might have put the Palestinians in a position where suddenly a new leader who believed in nonviolence was showing that his way worked, which would have credited him, made him more confident and discredited Hamas in the process. We didnít do any of that.

Mr. Boot: Well, I think thatís a very optimistic scenario for what could have happened and I donít mind supporting Mahmoud Abbas; I donít mind supporting the more modern forces within the Palestinian authority, but we have to realize that although Abbas was elected he never had a strong base of support and never really controlled the street, which was controlled either by Fatah thugs or by Hamas thugs and there often is not that much difference between the two of them other than that they hate each other and are both competing for power.

So I, you know, I think we may have been exaggerating the extent to which the forces of moderation were actually in the driverís seat of Palestinian society, and thereís a real -Ė been a real danger in the past where in the 1990s, you know, we spent the whole time basically trying to follow the model that Dennis suggested, which was building up Yasser Arafat, whom at the time we were led to believe was like Abbas, somebody who was interested in peace and interested in giving up his bad old ways and the result of that was that we essentially empowered the Fatah security force which became the Al-Aksa Martyr Brigade and which undertook acts of terrorism against Israel and also terrorized their own society. Thatís a very important part of it. I mean, all these groups claim their raison díetre is fighting Israel, but in fact, much of their energy is spent fighting one another and extorting and terrorizing their own citizens. And these are essentially gangs of criminals who justify their conduct with this very extremist, nationalist and religious rhetoric. So, I mean, these are the real groups that youíre dealing with on the ground in the Palestinian authority, and I think that the essential point that we come back to is one I raised before which is who is going to coerce the extremist? And Iím not sure that Mahmoud Abbas ever had -- I know he didnít have the power to coerce the extremist; Iím not sure he even had the willingness to do so because this would have required a decisive break with the very people who were supporting him within the Fatah movement of which he was the designated successor to Yasser Arafat.

So I, you know, Iím somewhat less optimistic the Dennis here about the odds of success and I donít think that -- itís hard to say that the Bush policy has been any great shakes, but I donít think the Clinton policy was any great shakes either because that led directly to the second intafada.

Mr. Ross: Max is correct when he talks about the fact that theyíre not the only ones who are responsible for carrying out violence, but my point was with regard to Abu Mazen, itís possible if weíd done everything I suggested things wouldnít have worked, but the one thing for sure, by doing nothing, youíre guaranteed failure. I think that thereís Ė- you certainly -Ė I think you have to understand one thing about Palestinian society today. Palestinian society is very much a reflection of the Arafat legacy. Arafat was an icon. He put the Palestinian movement on the map; he gained it a kind of international standing in recognition, and so he was seen as someone who embodied the movement and ruled it for forty years, but he created the following: one, he had a system governed by corruption. Why? Because corrupt officials would be completely dependent upon him. Two, he emphasized factionalization because he wanted nobody who could bring to be a competitor of his and he worked to have the factions competing with each other for his favor. So thereís corruption on the one hand; thereís factionalization on the other and heís determined to prevent any institutionalization. Again, because that would have limited his power. So when he goes, there is a vacuum and it didnít produce any kind of immediate internal struggle because everyone was afraid. Abu Mazen wins an election with 62% of the vote, running on a platform of nonviolence. Some people like to say that heís against violence just because itís counterproductive. The face is he gave a speech to the Palestinian legislative council back in 2003 where he said itís unjust; it takes a just movement and makes it unjust. So he was campaigning against violence as something that wasnít just tactfully wrong, but also strategically wrong. And what Iím saying is when he got elected, we had a stake in his success. We should have done much more than we did to try to make him successful, but we should have required something of him.

Mr. Boot: Well, I think, you know, Ben, since you want some disagreement between Dennis and myself, Iíll deliver some disagreement because I think essentially the policy that weíve been following, or we were following under the Clinton Administration is the policy Ė- and the Palestinian authority -Ė is the policy that weíve been following throughout the Middle East for many decades, which is essentially to put our promotion of liberalism, democracy and human rights, put that on the back burner and make our policy be dependent upon these strongmen who we would think of as being moderates in the region and would keep the extremists at bay. So in the way that weíve, for many decades supported Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or the Saudi royal family or various other friendly tyrants in the Middle East, so in the 1990s, we and the Israelis under Yitzhak Rabin decided to support Yasser Arafat in very much that same mode. And in fact, Rabin actually once said that, you know, that Arafat doesnít have all these human rights groups that we have in Israel, so he could really deal in a strong way with the extremists.

Now, of course, the problem with that is when you have a government whose basic legitimacy is only based on force, theyíre not going to take on the extremists, or they may take on some extremists, but theyíre going to support their own extremists. And when you think about all these leaders, whether itís Mubarak or Arafat or so many others, the way they basically stay in power is by channeling the anger of their own population, which properly ought to be directed at them for not delivering jobs, for not delivering freedom, for not delivering opportunity. They take all that anger and challenge it (sic) and channel it towards outside objects of hatred -- Israel, the United States, the Zionist conspiracy, all this propaganda that they feed to their people and unfortunately that creates a very corrosive climate in which itís impossible to make true long term peace. And thatís what we learned when the second intafada broke out when Arafat turned down the very good deal that he was offered by the Israeli government with American brokers.

Mr. Ross: It wasnít by the Israeli government; it was by us.

Mr. Boot: Well, right; it was the one that you brokered in the Oslo process. He wasnít interested in peace because his power ultimately depended on a state of war, or creating this perception that a state of war existed, and the same thing is true throughout the region. And I think one good -Ė I think I completely agree with President Bushís policy which is weíre going to leave that old reale politick thinking behind; weíre going to try to promote liberalism, democracy and human rights in this region which has been so resistant to it for so many years. The problem...

Mr. Ross: Is that what weíre doing now in Egypt?

Mr. Boot: Well, of course the problem is weíre not doing it. The problem is we havenít done it very successfully and now weíve backed away from it and so Iím actually critical of President Bush for backing away from his original policy, and of course for being so ham-handed in his execution, which gets back to the point we were talking about before where you have to have not only the great ideals, but you have to have the wherewithal and the wisdom to execute the and thatís where President Bush has fallen short.

Mr. Wattenberg: You are saying that the incumbent President Bush is too soft and you would probably say heís too strong. Is that right?

Mr. Ross: Well, no I think the last point that Max made I would agree with. I think in a sense one of the problems we see with this administration is that frequently itís talking at the level of slogans, but it doesnít have, it doesnít act with the means to carry out the slogans. Iíll give you an example in Syria. I would say that the administrationís policy towards Syria right now is a policy that is tough rhetorically and soft practically. It turns Teddy Roosevelt on his head and thatís the mistake. I think where we agree...

Mr. Boot: Absolutely. I agree with that.

Mr. Ross: ...is basically you have to create a blend between objectives and means. The wherewithal you have to carry out your policies have to be connected. They have to be integrated. The administration I think has fallen off the tracks, not because its ideals were necessarily wrong, but because it really didnít have any idea of how it was going to carry them out.

Mr. Boot: Right and the administration is just driving me up the wall here because President Bush gives these very eloquent statements about how we will support democracy everywhere and democrats who are in jail know they have a friend in the United States, and meanwhile Ayman Nur whoís the great liberal opposition leader in Egypt is rotting in jail while weíre giving two billion dollars a year to the Egyptian government. We canít square that circle.

Mr. Wattenberg: Max, I mean, presidents and generals cannot be realistic. I mean, a general cannot say a charge Ė- we have a 64% chance of success; you have a 23% chance of being killed; the artillery (unintelligible) may come from the left or may come from the right; you werenít properly trained; the missiles are going to...you gotta say ďGo, follow me.Ē It may be a lie that weíre going to win, but you canít engender passion by being realistic. I mean, thatís not the way the world works.

Mr. Ross: But you got to have the means. You canít Ė- if youíre going to engender the passion, what youíre going to end up doing is undermining the source of your passion by showing you canít do what you say.

Mr. Wattenberg: O.K. on that note we will have to end it for the moment. Dennis Ross, Max Boot Thank so much for joining us on Think Tank and Thank You. Please remember to send us your comments via email we think it makes our program better. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.

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