In light of his reported appointment as coordinator of the Obama administration’s Iran policy, it is useful to review Dennis Ross’ comments at the June 2008 AIPAC Policy Conference, where he participated in a foreign policy roundtable with Israel’s former Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh and former Deputy Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Liz Cheney.
The final question asked each panelist to make a prediction: “What do you predict we will be talking about next year at this policy conference as it relates to the US-Israel relationship?”
Here is the principal part of Ross’ answer:
We will be talking about Iran. That will be the A, B and C of the issues, because the fact is we will be coming to a point where Iran will be much closer to the brink than it is, and we’re going to have to deal with it. . . .[W]e’re beginning to run out of time. A year from now, the fact is we will be at a point where either we will have begun to change the Iranian calculus, or we won’t, and then you’re going to have to deal with two different possibilities: one possibility — which many people in this town are already prepared to sign up to — live with Iran nuclear weapons, thinking you can deter or contain it; or the other, you have to actually think about using force against it. If you don’t like the two outcomes, then you better come up with a third way, focused on how you change the Iranian calculus.
Ephraim Sneh gave this answer:
A year from now Iran will be very, very close to the completion of its first nuclear bomb. I predict there will be no government in Jerusalem which would allow it to happen. The question that will be on the agenda next May is, if nothing has been done until now in sanctions . . . we will have to decide what to do. Our assumption is that we may face the problem alone. This is our historical record. We were always in the first line against evil. In the Thirties, in the 67 war, in the attrition war, in the Yom Kippur War we actually fought not only against the armies of Syria and Egypt, but we faced the Soviet military technology. Now again we are in the first line against Islamic fascism, against Iran. If we are alone, we will have to act alone. This will be the subject of May 09.
Liz Cheney concluded her answer by saying, “I agree that we will be talking about Iran, but I hope that we will not be talking about it because nothing has been done about it.“
At least intellectually, Ross understands that his “third way” diplomacy is not likely to be effective unless it is backed by a credible threat of force. In “Statecraft,” he wrote:
Like other neoliberals, I share the doubts about too optimistically using force for effecting political change. But losing credibility in being able to use or threaten force is not good for the effective exercise of statecraft. . . . Statecraft is unlikely to be effective if it has to be conducted literally with our arms tied behind our back.
The ironic part of the “third way” is that its prospects for success depend on whether the new administration credibly communicates to Iran that, if the third way fails, the fallback will be the use of force. If that message is sent, diplomacy will stand a chance. If it isn’t, it won’t.