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The Missing Envoy

By Matthew Yglesias on January 22, 2009 at 3:15 pm

"The Missing Envoy"

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I’m watching Hillary Clinton announce the appointment of George Mitchell as a special envoy to the Israeli-Arab conflict, and Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy to India-Pakistan. Both excellent choices. Also interesting is that Dennis Ross, who’d been widely rumored to be a third envoy—tasked with Iran—wasn’t at the event. Perhaps the President and Secretary of State are having some doubts about Ross? I have some doubts myself. After leaving the Clinton administration, where Ross was widely criticized in the Arab world for being too tight with the Israeli side during the Camp David process, Ross went to the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, a pretty neoconnish outfit. More recently, he was a member of a task force that recently released a report on Iran policy whose lead author was the very neoconnish Michael Rubin. The report’s basic point of view was that talks with Iran are fine and well, but the basic point of holding such talks would be to garner more support for military action—not to actually produce a breakthrough.

Ross’s recent writing and speaking on Iran hasn’t been terribly clear, but I don’t see much of anything in it to suggest that he’s optimistic about the idea of diplomatic engagement leading to real results. He told The Jerusalem Post on April 17, 2007 “I favor engaging Iran, but only if it is guided by an understanding that penalties more than inducements are the key to altering the Iranian position.” The general view isn’t against diplomatic engagement, but it’s primarily oriented toward the idea that engagement will help persuade allies to engage in more coercion, not that the engagement should be undertaken in good faith in the way I took Obama to have been arguing during the campaign. And while skeptical about the use of unilateral preventive military force in Iran, Ross believes it—rather than deterrence—to be the best option if diplomacy fails. He’s written that “the alternative of using force to prevent or forestall the Iranians’ going nuclear does not look much better” than letting Iran go nuclear. But he does think it’s better.

And he’s wrong. As Joe Cirincione and Andrew Grotto wrote in their CAP report “Contain and Engage”, “The third option, to conduct military strikes against Iran’s known nuclear facilities, is the option least likely to achieve U.S. national security objectives.” You can see Cirincione and Grotto talk about contain and engage, which I think is close to the strategy Obama articulated during the campaign, here:

This isn’t wildly inconsistent with what Ross has written—as I’ve said, I don’t think he’s been terribly clear—but it’s important that before any envoy is appointed the president make sure he’s on board with a serious, good-faith effort to negotiate a resolution to the nuclear standoff and not just use negotiations as a PR ploy.

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