Ambassador Dennis Ross – Las Vegas Rules Don’t Apply


by Lorna Tychostup

Ambassador Dennis Ross will speak at SUNY New Paltz on April 16. - Brett Weinstein Ambassador Dennis Ross

The Arab Spring left a host of toppled dictators in its wake, uncertainty where replacement factions lag in delivering promised change, and unrest where autocrats still rule. In Syria, the Assad regime’s assault on its Sunni population has produced 80,000 deaths, 60,000 missing, 200,000 imprisoned, and over 1 million fleeing refugees. Escalating violence in Iraq runs along Sunni-Shia lines yet moderate Shia are threatening to secede from the government in the face of elections postponements in Sunni-dominated areas. Beltway policy wonks wring their hands at the specter of Iranian domination enshrouded in a Shia Crescent—an arc of power stretching from Damascus through Baghdad to Tehran. The Israeli-Palestinian debacle remains the never-ending story. Mideast unrest remains linked to religious and sectarian divisions, and disagreement over Islamic governance octane levels, yet religion is the elephant in the room no one dares address.

On April 16 at 7:30pm at Lecture Center 100, the Distinguished Speaker Series at SUNY New Paltz will host scholar and diplomat Dennis Ross. Working under four administrations, Ross has over two decades of experience in Soviet and Middle East policy and played a leading role in shaping US involvement in the Middle East peace process, dealing directly with the parties in negotiations. Presently a counselor for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ross will address Mideast issues and US involvement. A Q&A will follow, moderated by Ottaway Fellow and NPR Middle East correspondent Deborah Amos. Tickets are $18 for the general public. (845) 257-3880;

Lorna Tychostup: Iraq and Syria are the most unstable countries in the Middle East, with growing-cross border instability and violence. Forcefully attempting to stem cross-border cooperation between Iraq-based groups (Sunni, al Qaeda) sympathetic to the Syrian rebels, Iraq’s al-Maliki-led government has allowed munitions from Iran and Iraqi Shia militiamen to cross through Iraq into Syria to the Assad regime.

Dennis Ross: The Iranians have invested a tremendous amount in the Assad regime and clearly demonstrate how high the stakes are by the weapons and Hezbollah [fighters] they send. They’re determined and going to great lengths to keep Assad in power. Radical Shiite groups are also coming out of Iraq into Syria. I don’t know about connections to the Maliki government but it is very strongly connected to the Iranians. Maliky fears the spillover into Iraq and worries what will happen if Assad should go. You have radical Sunni jihadis from al Qaeda in Iraq or elsewhere. Las Vegas rules don’t apply to Syria—what takes place in Syria is not going to stay there but radiate outward. The human catastrophe within Syria is also a threat to the region.

LT: Some fear the Lebanese civil war might erupt again. There is the never-ending Israel/Palestinian situation and Iranian infiltration into Iraq and the region, amid fears of a Shia Crescent.

DR: The notion of a Shia Crescent is a little hard to elevate at a time when you have is a struggle within Syria that is consuming it between Sunnis and the regime and Shia supporters of the Alawite-based regime. It’s hard to say there is a Shia Crescent when you have a major conflict within Syria radiating outward. The Iranians may fear that they are going to lose their base in Syria. In Lebanon there has been backlash against Hezbollah support for what’s going on in Syria. Almost two-thirds of the Syrian population is Sunni and they make up the vast majority of the opposition. The Syrian regime is killing its citizens and there is a reaction against that. I don’t see a Shia Crescent right now.

LT: Your op-ed in the New York Times on achieving peace in the Mideast stated, “the moment Islamists come to define Palestinian identity is the moment when this conflict will be transformed from a national into a religious one” and may no longer be possible to resolve. Through all of the skirmishes in the region you see the Sunni-Shia boundary. Iran and the Assad Alawite regime are Shia. The rebels Assad is targeting are Sunni—.

DR: Alawites are an offshoot of Shia. The Iranians may be trying to forestall the end of the Assad regime but they are not going to succeed. Sooner or later it will collapse. The question is, how much of a catastrophe is it going to produce? The most immediate problem King Abdullah is facing is 400,000 Syrian refugees [entering] Jordan. They are not Shia. At the current pace there will be 700,000 by June. That’s not sustainable. I see something different as the main source of greater instability in the area around Syria right now.

LT: Your SUNY New Paltz talk is titled “Challenges in the Middle East 2013 and Beyond.” Harvard professor Stephen Walt, who co-authored The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, says that “the pro-Israel lobbies are among the most capable for enacting political change and influencing public opinion in the US.” Mention of anything less than total alignment of US-Israeli interests and solid support for Israel in the media sets off an aggressive campaign by these powerful lobbies. Walt claims the result has been “a backlash against the most extreme neoconservative parts of the pro-Israel lobby and their tendency to smear people they disagree with baseless charges.” Have the pro-Israel lobbies saturated the American public and done more harm than good regarding a resolution?

DR: Stephen Walt has never been in a policy-making position. From the way he writes about the situation, I don’t think he understands. In all the administrations I’ve been a part of, I have yet to see a president make a decision on the national security issues that I was involved with on what one lobby or another wanted. Decisions were based on what was the right thing to do. I don’t accept the premise that the lobbyists are somehow distorting the policy. I don’t think the lobbies are the reason that the perceptions of the Israelis and the Palestinians are what they are. There is a reality in the US that creates a greater sense of commonality with the Israelis than with others. If you look at the polling, you’ll see the favorability ratings toward the Israelis are at 79 percent. You don’t have other countries in the region seen the same way.

Interesting article…

A bad boss is more stressful than war, aid workers say
LONDON (AlertNet)
- It’s easier for aid workers to cope with bullets outside the door than a boss who doesn’t support them, according to a new book.

Aid agencies are starting to wake up to the idea they need to do more to look after their staff than write guidelines and hold management workshops, author Barb Wigley says.

“I was expecting the conflict and the stress, but what really brought me down was how mean my manager was to me,” one aid worker travelling to Sri Lanka told her.

Many aid workers leave jobs because of poor management, Wigley said.

Her research on workplace violence found aid workers were vulnerable to high stress from problems with managers and bureaucracies, especially when they spent long periods away from home without the support of friends and family.

“Their whole life can be absorbed by work,” Wigley said.

“They need a little bit more from their managers, because they’re working in situations with violence and insecurity.”

Wigley said managers needed a good understanding of team dynamics, of how to tell who will cope well with difficult situations, who should be evacuated from danger and how to explain security procedures like which restaurants are out of bounds.

Instead, managers often resort to bullying.

One manager told her it was difficult making decisions in highly charged situations, often working with young people on their first assignment.

He told her: “They wanted to go to an exotic location and help people in a nice way’ and they find themselves in the middle of a muddy, stinking Rwandan refugee camp with 200,000 people, some of who were the perpetrators of unimaginable horrors. It’s very tense.”

The problem is not restricted to work in remote field postings. Aid workers told her they were constantly frustrated by the dynamics of large organisations, like the United Nations.

“It starts to feel like no one cares,” Wigley said. “There ends up being a lot of conflict within organisations.”

Wigley’s research found there was a tendency in aid agencies to think that because their goals were worthy, they didn’t need to pay attention to fostering good staff relations, but that this impaired efficiency.

After a couple of decades of massive growth in the industry, agencies are starting to realise that the structures they created are not working, but it’s difficult to overhaul a whole culture, Wigley said.

“They are thinking, what the hell do we do next?” She said. “It’s hard and it’s messy and it’s much easier to hire someone to write a new set of guidelines in the hope and fantasy that will solve it, but it’s not enough.

“It means tackling the development of managers in a more comprehensive way than just throwing them into a workshop.”

She suggested coaching and peer support to improve leadership and accountability.

It was also important for organisations to show they took it seriously when staff broke codes of conduct.

“Workplace Violence”, which includes a chapter by Wigley, is published by Willan Publishing.


Another Think Tank Wizard Says Nothing

I wrote what follows as a response to an article in Foreign Policy magazine in which the author seemingly pieced together some statistics, made a few phone calls, and wrote something that totally misses the point. I am surprised FP would print something so uninformed, topical, and that once again uses the violence in Iraq as a poster child to garner readership attention instead of trying to truly inform.

I invite you to read the article, which can be found here:,0

Then read my comments below and send me your own thoughts and comments:

I am not sure many in the US government understood what was going on in Iraq before the troops left.

As someone who went there as a journalist before the war, stayed in unprotected hotels and an apt (when I was in the north), and has continually gone back – the last time working for USAID-funded projects – it was my experience that US Embassy folks rarely left the Embassy grounds. Their biggest thrill might have been to frequent a restaurant in the IZ (formerly known as Green Zone), visit the heavily secured compound where I lived for 15 months, or attend a government-related event – where when they did show up, they didn’t stick around for long and were accompanied by an small army of private security contractors.

As someone used to traveling freely, I felt totally stunted – as far as learning anything about Iraq while living in the compound. When I had Iraqi friends come to visit, expats I lived with were astounded I knew people “outside” and had contact with them. The few times I went to military bases and met the PRT folks, they seemed starved for any breath, any small amount of news of what was really going on beyond their restricted zone of non-movement.

Nothing that is happening now in Iraq is news or should be seen as surprising to anyone with any knowledge of the country. It has been a known fact for quite some time – I can only speak for myself, but I understood clearly as far back as 2004 that the minute the US pulled out of the country a Pandora’s box of Iraqi interests – criminal, political, religious, economic, etc. – would not only be be released, but also be at each other’s throats. It is only logical, that now that the stated goal of removal of the occupier has been achieved, Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence would increase as the attention shifted to the true goals: control and power.

And I have to wonder how statisticians came up with figures to show that “the fastest-growing class of violence comprises the “intimidation and murder” categories, including close-quarters shootings, under-vehicle bombs, fatal stabbings, punitive demolition of property, and the kidnap of children”? Compared to when? What years? My recollection is that these criminal activities have been flourishing all along – from the beginning.

Ah yes,and then the parting statement that the “time to get Iraq back on track is now.” According to whose track? How is rebuilding America’s “situational awareness” going to help the Iraqis get their country back up and running? As far as I could tell, most expats and US staff on the ground were at “Year Zero” just about everyday. And I would bet they still are.

And perhaps this is what is wrong with our foreign policy – you have these folks come into a country looking for large salaries and adventure (maybe), being treated like prima donnas extraordinaire, more interested in scoring a gold star on their CVs in exchange for their one, maybe 2-year stint in-country than in actually sticking around and learning about the culture that surrounds them. Gathering stats from the Internet, chatting it up with supposed “people in the know” (journos, officials, etc.), traveling between heavily securitized compounds in heavily securitized movements  does not give someone the sense of the situation as does walking the streets, eating in people’s homes, getting stuck in rush hour traffic, and living the day-to-day realities alongside Iraqis – or the people of any country where we are doing developmental work.