POMED Notes: Big Changes on Horizon in Middle East
On Monday (11/27), the American University School of International Service (SIS) hosted a talk with Ambassador Dennis Ross as part of their “Dean’s Discussion” series. Ross served as envoy to the Middle East under President Clinton and was on President Obama’s National Security Council staff. During the discussion Ross spoke with SIS Dean James Goldgeier on Iran’s nuclear goals, the Arab Awakening, and how the Palestinian peace process affects the future of the region.
For full event notes continue reading, or click here for a PDF.
Ambassador Dennis Ross began by addressing the Israel-Palestine peace process and how it should no longer be at the center of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Ross asserted the peace process was in the world’s interest during the Clinton administration due to historical factors such as the end of the Cold War, the coalition formed against Saddam Hussein, and the Yitzhak Rabin administration’s policies in Israel. Although the current conflict with Hamas is a reminder that the Palestinian issue is not going away any time soon, it is also not a priority due to Iran’s nuclear developments, the conflict in Syria, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. Ross suggested that Syria is rapidly becoming the predominant focal point, as it serves as a proxy for Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and Iran. The idea that the U.S. can shape the region is an illusion, Ross argued, as is the notion the peace process can be settled if the U.S. were more serious in its approach. In Ross’ opinion, the U.S. is not party to the conflict, and the free will and self-determination of those involved makes it impossible to “impose peace” if they are not ready.
On the Arab Awakening, Ross argued that “spring” was an incorrect term as it suggests instant change or enlightenment, whereas the movement in the Middle East would likely be a slow generational change, characterized by a paradigm shift where individuals began to realize their status as citizens rather than subjects. This slow change in perception, Ross stated, is what makes the movement an “awakening,” and the concept of being a citizen will lead to institutions of accountability for their governments, and hopefully functional democracies. Ross laid out four principles which he believes the U.S. must require adherence to, by any nation requesting U.S. support: respect for minority rights, respect for women’s rights, respect for pluralism, and respect for international obligations. The U.S. needs to adopt an approach of, “You live up to these principles, and we’ll mobilize support on the international stage for you. If you don’t, don’t expect us to provide support,” Ross asserted. He also stated the monarchies have been relatively effective in staying ahead of revolutionary problems, but they will ultimately have no choice but to show real effort in reforming and experimenting with political inclusion. Namely, Ross pointed to the financial issue Jordan is facing with the International Monetary Fund and the similar problem Egypt’s new government will be facing given its pursuit of loans and economic assistance.
“2013 will be a decisive year, one way or another,” Ross stated, especially because of developments in the Gulf. He noted that Iran’s nuclear program is progressing and if a decision is not made soon, by 2014 or 2015 the U.S. will no longer be able to take preventative measures against Iran’s nuclear program. Though sanctions are “having a real” and “brutal” effect, Ross argues Iran will continue with their nuclear program, regardless, and it will eventually have to be addressed. Saudi Arabia’s “biological clock” was also addressed as a factor in the gulf region, and how as succession of crown princes becomes more frequent and problematic, it will have great implications for political stability. Finally, Ross addressed the issue of Bahrain noting that although the U.S. has a vested interest in maintaining the presence of its 5th Naval Fleet in the gulf, it does not have an interest in radicalizing the Bahraini population or increasing instability. Ross concluded the U.S. must pressure the king to act on the Bahrain Independent Commission Inquiry suggestions for reform, while also pressuring al-Wefaq to not be outflanked by radicals and to maintain its position as the dominate voice of the opposition. Ross stated Iranian influence in Bahrain is not a reality, but eventually will be without reform, and noted the U.S.’s influence in Bahrain is greatly exaggerated given the revenue provided by Saudi Arabia.