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Ambassador Ross: Big changes on horizon in Middle East

dennis ross

Ambassador Dennis Ross and SIS Dean James Goldgeier discuss U.S. policy in the Middle East.

When President Bill Clinton tapped Ambassador Dennis Ross to become Middle East envoy in 1993, the region looked very different than it does now. A coalition of nations had just fought in the Gulf War. Iraq had been weakened and peace seemed to be a natural extension of that conflict.

Ross and his fellow diplomats were able to broker a number of historic peace agreements including the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace in 1994, the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement in 1995, and Hebron Accord in 1997.

Today, there is a markedly different context for the peace process in the region, Ross said Monday during a discussion with SIS Dean James Goldgeier. The Arab “Awakening” as Ross has termed the Arab Spring, the rise of Hamas and Hezbollah, and Iran’s push toward nuclearization, have changed the Middle East and the global approach to peace in the region.

Dramatic changes in the region are only just beginning. With regard to Middle East policy during the second Obama administration, Ross suggested that some sort of diplomatic initiative would take place with Iran in 2013 because of the country’s advancing nuclear program. On Saudi Arabia, Ross said there was evidence transition was coming because political appointments in the country were being shaped by ability and not influence.

Ross, who serves on the SIS Dean’s Council, spoke at AU as a part of the Dean’s Discussion series co-sponsored by the Center for Israel Studies. He is currently the Zeigler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Formerly, he served for two years as special assistant to President Obama as well as National Security Council senior director for the Central Region, and a year as Special Advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for The Gulf and Southwest Asia.

During the hour-long talk, Ross began with an assessment of the Arab Spring uprisings and an explanation of why he views the changes as an awakening rather than a spring.

“Spring connotes a kind of very rapid change all for the better. Everything will flower soon and we’ll have this wonderful springtime. The despotism of the past will be replaced by enlightenment and that was never going to be the case,” Ross said. “It’s an awakening because you have many in the Arab world for the first time seeing themselves as citizens, not subjects. That’s a profound difference. Citizens have rights, they have expectations, they have demands, they can hold their government accountable. And that’s profoundly significant if in fact that accountability can be created.”

This awakening will take place over generations, Ross said. Institutions of accountability, like a functioning judiciary, need to be crafted and that won’t happen overnight. In order for the various democratic movements in the Middle East to succeed, Ross outlined four guiding principles he feels “should be the core on which we build our approach to all the countries in the region.”

1.  Respect for minority rights: “Egypt is mostly homogenous — 90 percent Sunni, 10 percent Coptic Christian — but that’s not the case throughout the region. So respect for minority rights is tremendously important, but it’s also a practicality. Because if the 10 percent of the population feels there’s no security there and they leave, who will invest in the country? Respect for minority rights is going to be important for every country in the region going through change. “

2.  Respect for women’s rights: “Don’t exclude half your population. Again, it’s a practicality. In Egypt, 56 percent of the women are illiterate. Now is there any prospect that Egypt is going to become a successful society if that doesn’t change? If the new constitution they’re drafting right now is shaped in a way that excludes women or treats them as second-class citizens, it’s very unlikely. “

3.  Respect for pluralism: “This says that there should be a competitive political space. At a time when you have this awakening and people see themselves as citizens, if you don’t do that, it’s a prescription for ongoing upheaval. Again it’s what you’re seeing in Egypt today. “

4.  Respect for international obligations: “Egypt has a treaty with Israel. Who is going to invest in Egypt if they don’t respect that treaty?”

Whether the U.S. and allied nations support these nascent democracies depends on how well they embrace these principles, Ross explained. “You live up to these principles, we’ll mobilize support on the international stage for you. If you don’t, don’t expect us to provide support,” he warned. “I would say we pursue the peace issue, but we pursue it with our eyes open.”