So that’s how Arafat did it

Dennis Ross is perhaps the least successful diplomat in American history. And his lack of success isn’t down to bad luck. Ross concluded that Yasser Arafat was a legitimate peace partner for Israel, and embarked on the fool’s errand of trying to bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians on that basis. Has any American diplomat ever misjudged an important matter so thoroughly?
Ross now brings his analytical powers and judgment to bear on Iraq. He accuses President Bush, who has brought about both regime change and the rise of a constitutional government that’s just about holding together, of engaging in “stagecraft” to the exclusion of “statecraft.” In the process, Ross has produced a column in which almost everything he says makes no sense.
For now, I’ll skip over the attack on Bush and begin with his Ross’s shockingly silly key recommendation. Ross proposes that the U.S. announce that we will withdraw from Iraq, and that we then start a bidding war among various Iraqi factions over the terms of our defeat. The side that presents itself as the most cooperative will be rewarded by dictating when and how we withdraw. And we’ll punish any side that comes across as insufficiently cooperative by doing the opposite of what they want. Sort of like one might do with one’s kids, I guess.
Ross thus simultaneously criticizes Bush for lack of statecraft and proposes that we outsource our foreign and military policy to Iraq’s sectarian leaders (does al Qaeda in Iraq get to bid too?). Let’s pretend this is a serious proposal and consider the possibilities. What if none of the major factions — Shiite, Sunni, or Kurdish — wants us to leave at all (which is probably he case)? What if there are divisions within, say, the Shiite community over what we should do. How many factions get to play the game? What if a faction (or more than one) fakes us out by only pretending to cooperate or by lying about what it really wants and then being uncooperative? What if two very cooperative factions want us to do opposite things? Finally, how do we determine relative levels of cooperation? Can this be made into a reality tv show?
Ross also proposes, inevitably, that we get the Iranians involved. Our leverage for doing so, he says, is that they don’t want us to leave Iraq (never mind that they have actively promoted precisely the violence that might have enabled the Democrats to force a quick withdrawal). But Ross has just proposed that we leave Iraq on terms dictated by an Iraqi faction to be named later, thus removing our alleged leverage with Iran.
Now to Ross’s attack on President Bush. First, Ross claims that, in invading Iraq, Bush “didn’t commit enough troops to seize all the reputed sites of WMD, much less prevent the WMD materials from being smuggled out of the country if they had been there.” But the U.S. did take control of all reputed WMD sites. And there was no way for Bush to know in advance what number of troops would be necessary to prevent the smuggling of WMD. Even after the fact, Ross does not say what that number was.
Next Ross asserts that the administration had no plan for stabilizing Iraq other than toppling Saddam Hussein. That’s ridiculous too. Since the administration could not know exactly what the situation on the ground would look like after Saddam’s fall, the administration did not have a fixed, inflexible prescription. But in response to the situation it ended up facing following Saddam’s removal, the administration implemented a plan that included democratic elections, the establishment of a constitutional government, the building up of iraqi security forces, and a substantial American presence to provide security while the other processes played out. The strategy was flawed in some respects, and has been modified accordingly. But that’s no basis for claiming that the administration had no ideas other than toppling Saddam or that it was just indulging in stagecraft.
Ross then dismisses the surge on the theory that it can’t provide enough security to bring about political reconciliation. His evidence is the statement of one Sunni member of a security force who says he plans to fight the government. But the Sunni forces aren’t fighting the government, and both Fouad Ajami and Lindsey Graham have returned from Iraq with reports that national reconciliation is beginning to occur on multiple fronts now that the Sunnis have turned against the insurgents and the Shia feel that much less threatened. This doesn’t mean that things will work out, but given the progress that’s taken place due to the surge, it’s absurd for Ross to assert that the administration is not engaging in statecraft.
Ross, of all people, should understand that working with Arab leaders and Arab factions is a tricky proposition. He should be the last person to equate difficulty in this enterprise with lack of serious effort. Lack of serious effort — stagecrarft instead of statecraft — occurs when a great power farms out its decisionmaking to the Arab leader who puts up the best front.
Like Yasser Arafat.
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