The departure of Dennis Ross removes one of the most experienced foreign policy hands and Middle East specialists from the ranks of the Obama administration. There will be those who will lament the fact that with Ross gone there will be no high-ranking figure in the State Department with his understanding of the issues and background on the conflict and conclude that Foggy Bottom will be the poorer for his absence. But they will be wrong.
Though Ross’ intentions may have been as pure as the driven snow, his was a unique record of failure. From his start as one of James Baker’s little helpers during his campaign of pressure on Israel in the administration of the elder George Bush, through his final days as one of the architects of Barack Obama’s attempted ambush of Benjamin Netanyahu last May, Ross’ career must be seen as inextricably tied to a peace process that promised much but delivered little but sorrow. After so many mistakes and missteps, the surprise is not so much that Ross is leaving the government but why a person linked to so many foreign policy disasters was allowed to hang around the corridors of power so long.
Though Ross was only a minor player in the drive by Baker to hammer the Jewish state into concessions, he hit his stride during the Clinton administration as Washington’s chief apologist for Oslo. Though he was not involved in the negotiations that created that blueprint, he spent much of the decade whitewashing Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority’s backtracking on terror and incitement in order to keep U.S. aid flowing to the Palestinians. As he later acknowledged, that was a crucial mistake, because it fed the false hopes that attached to Oslo and helped set up the bloody denouement of the second intifada.
Ross took a break from diplomacy after Clinton left office and was highly critical of George W. Bush’s decision to cut off relations with Yasir Arafat because of his involvement with terror and corruption.
After vouching for Obama’s pro-Israel bona fides to Jewish audiences during the 2008 election, Ross was rewarded with a job in his administration. Though many assumed him to be Israel’s best friend inside the current State Department, Ross deserves as much blame as anyone there for Obama’s decision to distance the U.S. from the Jewish state. This has resulted in Washington picking unnecessary and destructive fights with the Netanyahu government that did nothing to advance peace and encouraged the Palestinians to ditch the process altogether.
He was also given responsibility for directing America’s efforts to restrain and isolate Iran in the last two years following the embarrassing collapse of Obama’s attempt to “engage” Iran. There are those who wish to give Ross credit for heightening Iran’s isolation during this time. But even if we acknowledge the limited success of that campaign, it must be judged to have been totally inadequate to the challenge. The sum total of the U.S. effort was a package of weak sanctions that have done nothing to stop the Iranian nuclear program. As we have just seen, the accompanying push to appease Russia in a vain attempt to get them to back strong sanctions has backfired, with Moscow serving as Iran’s diplomatic protector.
During the 20 years of Ross-style peace processing, Israel was pushed to offer land for peace, but when it did so, all it got in return was terror and increasing isolation. Ross’ lengthy career is a tribute to the persistence of a failed concept that continues to do damage. Though it is not likely Obama will replace Ross with anyone better, it is also true that in terms of the results of his strategies, he couldn’t do much worse.