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Former Mid-East Envoy Speaks

The Jewish Student Union sponsored an appearance by former Mid-East envoy under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Dennis Ross. Introduced to a standing room-only crowd by ASUO President Jared Axelrod, Ross began his speech with discussion of Iraq, it’s history, and the current occupation. Sunni insurgency, said Ross, was a given with the overthrow of Iraq. Shia militants under the overarching authority of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani were restrained after the invasion, until the bombing of the Golden Dome at Samarrah, at which point discipline in the ranks of the Shia hierarchy was unenforceable, leading to the wider sectarian violence of today. The Iraqi governments complicity in the activities of Shia death squads and the Mahdi Army stems directly from it’s sense of it’s own insecurity, Ross asserted, pointing to the execution of Saddam Hussein. “It was a message,” said Ross.

Recounting his testimony earlier to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ross outlined three options. The first, requires the Iraqi government to change it’s behavior and broker real political agreements, which in turn requires the United States must threaten to draw down forces to bring the Shia to the negotiating table. This option, said Ross, was unlikely to succeed. The second option, is a Bosnia-style “soft partition.” Although much of Iraq is geographically divided along sectarian lines, there are still many mixed areas. This would result in widespread ethnic cleansing, which Ross concedes has already begun. The third option is containment of the sectarian conflict. This option does not attempt to “solve” the sectarian conflict, but rather create a regional conflict in which neighboring countries work together to keep the onflict from spilling over the borders, while the U.S. redeploys its forces. “I would try for option #1,” said Ross “but position myself for option #3.”

Moving on to the topic of Iran, Ross confessed to being “less pessimistic than some… though that’s not saying much.” Ross seemed incredulous that Iran’s nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes, based on Tehrans refusal of Europe’s offer of Light Water Reactors, which could be used for energy but not weapons. Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it is developing nuclear power, in the same wording that Iran has used, indicates that Saudi Arabia is not confident in America’s deterrent power, and would probably lead to Egypt developing nuclear capabilities as well. A middle east with several nuclear powers apparently does not lead Ambassador Ross to an optimistic state of mind. On the other hand, Iran does have several constituencies. The first is the face of the Revolutionary Guard, as epitomized by President Ahmedinejad, the second is the Mullahs who have become wealthy and are fearful of increased international isolation, and the third are the reformists epitomized by former President Khatami. The fact that two of these three factions are wary of isolation, and the fact that opinion seems to have swung against the Ahemdinejad faction means that Iran may well be containable. Ambassador Ross said that Russia and China are not the keys to influencing Iran, but that the economic power of Europe and Japan can be used to convince Tehran that it has more to lose from belligerence than it has to gain.

Addressing the Palestinian question, Ross disabused the audience of the notion that Fatah-Hamas rivalry is the main stumbling block to further negotiations. Hamas in Palestine is well aware of Palestinians’ economic hardship (worse per-capita income loss than our Great Depression), but that any pragmatism on it’s part is vetoed by the Hamas movement based in Damascus. Even were this split to be fixed though, the competition between Islamist Hamas and secular Fatah may have reached the point of no return. On his most recent trip to the region, Ambassador Ross said he was not encouraged by the virtual civil war that is occurring in Palestine. The combination of a divided Palestinian leadership and a weak Israel government makes the situation especially difficult. If you add the approval ratings of Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, Palestinian President Abu Mazen, and George W. Bush, you still don’t make to 50%, said Ross. Right now, a major peace initiative is unrealistic according to Ross, for the simple reason that there is currently no way to make a meaningful improvement in the day-to-day lives of people in the region. “One thing we don’t need in the middle east right now, where I would like to say that are credibility is low right now,” said Ross “is another grand initiative that very quickly proves hollow, because that will simply prove that diplomacy doesn’t work.”

  1. Niedermeyer says:

    Student: link has been fixed. The new version of Webpress has what I believe to be an inferior linking function. Of course operator error is the prime suspect here…

    Jon: Thanks for the heads-up. I just went off the EMU website, which only listed the JSU. Thanks to Hillel as well for bringing a great speaker.

    Everyone: I typed this damn thing out as the speech was underway, so yeah, the grammar and style suck. So sorry.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Hey Ted – Oregon Hillel actually brought Dennis Ross. JSU played a very small role.

  3. A Student says:

    FYI – The Wikipedia link that you put on there for Ambassador Ross isn’t working, Ted.

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