Book Review: Statecraft

by Editors


Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World by Dennis Ross (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007).
Reviewed by Brian Bicknell

A new book by Dennis Ross has just been published, entitled Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World. Ross has been a Middle East envoy and the chief peace negotiator for the United States under both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Both Democrats and Republicans welcome his ideas. The back of the book has laudatory remarks about its contents from Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and Brent Scowcroft. In this day of bitter partisanship, any author who can write a book about foreign policy that is embraced by both parties begs to be read by anybody who is interested in America’s role in the world.

Ross first sheds light on the differences between the current Bush presidency with both the first Bush presidency and the Clinton presidency by employing case studies such as German unification, Bosnia, and the first Gulf War. Ross then contrasts the efforts of George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush’s approach in the lead up to the first and second Gulf War. He is, not surprisingly, critical of Bush 43. His critique of Bush 43’s approach includes a failure of clear objectives, making disastrous assessments, misguided planning, weak diplomacy, and poor communication and framing of the issues.

Ross does an effective job of shedding light on the numerous mistakes made by the Bush presidency with regard to Iraq; ineffective statecraft, not understanding the culture, not sending in enough troops, and the rationale for the war itself being contradictory. While these harsh assessments are undoubtedly accurate, Ross repeats a mistake made by many other current books (such as Fiasco by Thomas Ricks, Cobra II by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, and Hubris by Michael Isikoff and David Corn) by implying that if things had been done differently we would have been successful, or at least more so, than we have been in Iraq. At one point Ross states explicitly,

“In the end, the Iraq case stands as a model for how not to do statecraft… Could statecraft effectively employed have made for a different situation with far better prospects in Iraq? I believe so” (p. 131).

Ross, like others, does not give nearly enough ink to the idea that the decision to go to war was wrong in the first place.

The sections on negotiating and mediating are especially impressive. Ross provides twelve guidelines for negotiating and eleven for mediating conflicts. These guidelines are well thought out and derive from years of experience. This section is filled with anecdotes from the author’s personal experiences on the world stage, making the book more interesting than a purely academic treatise. The anecdotes provide a compelling insider’s look at what it was like working with world leaders such as Arafat, Rabin, and Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.

With regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Ross is particularly hard on Arafat. He details how Arafat would delay, equivocate, and obstruct opportunities to peacefully resolving the conflict. He points out that Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Khomeini, and now Bin Laden have led movements designed to

“capture the passions and desires of those in a part of the world that felt left out and imposed upon…Charismatic movements depend on grievance, but in the end they cannot succeed only by what they reject. They cannot succeed only by tearing down and destroying. In the end, they must deliver, they must produce. And so our strategy for competing with radical Islam must be geared toward having the reformers deliver change and come to be seen as the purveyors of social justice. While the objective is daunting, we and our allies bring substantial resources to the task. If we also bring the kind of skill and intensive and extensive effort required for executing smart statecraft – the kind seen in past cases of statecraft done well – we will be able to marshal those resources and succeed” (p. 305).

Here Ross provides a conceptual framework for dealing with a combustible Middle East and terror in general. In addition to this overall strategic goal, Ross lays out bullet point ideas for specific and realistic tactics to achieve the overall goal.

Ultimately, the person who should read this book is the current president and the next president of the United States. For the rest of us, however, it is an instructive and compelling read and provides us with important attributes that we need to look for as we elect our next leader. And whoever that leader is, that person should nominate Dennis Ross as the next Secretary of State.

Brian Bicknell is a Bread and Circus contributing writer.