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The Changing Nature of American Diplomacy


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Later this hour, we'll talk about women in combat. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced today that the Pentagon will lift the military ban on women serving in combat roles. So we want to hear from women in the Armed Forces. What changes now?

800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. But first, the changing nature of diplomacy. After her testimony yesterday on the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton returned to Capitol Hill this morning to introduce the man nominated as her successor, an entirely ceremonial service since John Kerry served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 28 years, the last four as its chairman.

As he took his turn in the witness chair, Senator Kerry intoned administration policy on the Middle East, on China and on Iran.

SENATOR JOHN KERRY: We will do what we must do to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And I repeat here today: Our policy is not containment, it is prevention. And the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance.

CONAN: So far, sanctions have failed to change nuclear policies in Iran or for that matter North Korea. U.S. policy toward the Taliban lies mostly in the hands of the military and the CIA. And while the United States talks with Egypt's new president, the Palestinian branch of his Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, remains off-limits, while the Middle East peace process remains moribund.

Does the second Obama administration provide an opportunity for a breakthrough? Joining us now is Ambassador Dennis Ross, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He's on the phone from his office. Nice to have you back.

DENNIS ROSS: Nice to be with you. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And New York Times columnist Roger Cohen. He wrote a piece titled "Diplomacy is Dead" in Monday's New York Times. He joins us on the phone from Jerusalem. Welcome to you, too.

ROGER COHEN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And Ambassador Ross, a Secretary Kerry would be in charge at the State Department, but would he be in charge of policy: Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East? Other portfolios were assigned to special envoys. And some say you ran a lot of the Iran policy when you worked for President Obama at the White House.

ROSS: Well, I do think that you're in a phase right now, both with Iran and I think also at least with the Israelis and the Palestinians, where I think the White House would be quite happy to have the new secretary take on more of a role because you may well be at a point where, in the case of the Israelis and the Palestinians, you're going to need some effort to try to get a new dynamic, new talks, something happening to end the stalemate there, a stalemate that only deepens the disbelief on each side, a stalemate that basically only builds a, you know, more frustration more than anything else.

And I think in the case of Iran, if you hear what Senator Kerry said today in his testimony, if the objective is prevention, and you look at the way the Iranian nuclear program is continuing, something is going to have to happen this year diplomatically, or the prospect of the use of force goes up very dramatically.

So I think in each of these areas you're likely to see the secretary, the new secretary, if anything be given a kind of encouragement from the White House to do more.

CONAN: And just to - we'll get to Roger in just a minute, but in his piece, he said in order to do that, well, you actually have to talk to these people. Both sides have to be willing to talk, of course, but that requires taking some political risks.

ROSS: Well, I think in the case of the Iranians, there's never been a reluctance on the part of the administration to engage them directly. There's been a reluctance on the part of the Iranians to engage in any kind of bilateral talks with us. But I do believe that there 'will be more of an effort, whether under the guise of the 5-plus-1 or in terms of our own efforts at outreach, again, against the backdrop of the objective being prevention. And with the nature of the Iranian program continuing, unless something changes in terms of their behavior, the likelihood that force goes up as a possibility is becoming greater if in fact you don't have some kind of diplomatic breakthrough.

So I think - I do think that you're going to see some diplomatic initiative on our part, just given the context, and I think between the Israelis and the Palestinians, you know, in effect after our election and after the Israeli election and after the formation of what will be a new Israeli government that almost invariably is going to have a stronger, centrist party in it, this will be the time to explore something.

CONAN: Roger Cohen, let us turn to you. You concluded in your piece that effectively any kind of a breakthrough by American diplomacy hasn't happened for 20 years or more.

COHEN: That's right, Neal. Well, it's been almost that since the peace in Bosnia, which I would call the last major U.S.-led diplomatic breakthrough that put an end to a war that had taken 100,000 lives in Europe. I guess I started thinking about this during a conversation with a friend, Bill Luers, who used to be the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, among other places. He was telling me that when he's on Capitol Hill, he's worked a lot behind the scenes on Iran to try and build bridges. Now he said he feels he can't even use the word diplomacy or diplomatic on Capitol Hill. It somehow feels wimpy. It feels like diplomacy is about concessions. And he talks certainly of political solutions when he's there.

And I think the atmosphere has become very difficult for the kind of patient, persistent, discretion, boldness at times that you need for successful diplomacy. And there's a lot of name-calling. There's a lot of changeableness. And there's an unwillingness, often, to talk to bad guys. You don't do diplomacy with your friends.

CONAN: You quoted Richard Nixon, 100 years old just recently, but in his breakthrough, he's - you say you quoted him as asking about the Chinese, what do we want, what do they want, and what do we both want.

COHEN: Well, yeah, I think if you look at the Shanghai communique, the breakthrough between U.S.-Chinese relations now, what, 40 years ago, there wasn't a whole lot that the U.S. and China agreed on. All they agreed on was that, in essence, was that we'd be better off having relations, starting a relationship, than not having one. And look at what came out of that.

And I think with Iran, you know, we've piled on the pressure. We've wielded the cudgel. We've - and it's hard. It's very hard to get these guys to the table. But I think there have been one or two opportunities over the last few years where with more flexibility and with a political atmosphere not dominated by this atmosphere where our representatives in Congress feel they have to score points, whether it's on Cuba or in Iran or on Israel-Palestine, if there's a little more space, we could - political space, we might not find ourselves where we are today.

CONAN: Dennis Ross, political space, does that provide a problem?

ROSS: Well, I think, you know, I definitely think that there has not been the kind of political space that any administration would like when it comes to dealing in diplomacy. I mean, the fact is we've seen a lot of issues highly politicized. That said, I also do think that the administration now, you have a certain reality, at least with regard to Iran. I think the administration has built its credibility, in a sense, by having an objective of prevention, which is to say we're not prepared to accept or live with an Iran that has a nuclear weapons capability. You put yourself in a place where that's your objective, and it's simply reasonable, if you're trying to achieve this through non-military means, to see what diplomatic possibilities exist.

I do think it's almost inconceivable that we would end up using force without having demonstrated to ourselves and to others unmistakably that we had exhausted, credibly, all possibilities. And that means, I think, including putting something very serious on the table that would make it clear we are prepared to accept an Iran with a civil nuclear capability but not one that can be converted into nuclear weapons.

And if that's put on the table and the Iranians respond, that's one thing. And if that's put on the table and they reject it, then you're in a position to sort of say look, we tried everything. But to put yourself in that position, you actually have to be prepared to put that kind of a proposal or that kind of an initiative out there in a way that is clear for everybody to see.

CONAN: And you know, and I'm sure Roger Cohen knows as well, if such an offer were made, there would be plenty of people in Congress to say that's giving in.

ROSS: Well, you know, I think if you're able to demonstrate unmistakably that what you're putting on the table is something that allows them to have a civil capability but not to convert it because of the limitations and restrictions that are part of this, I suspect that you'd find more support.

I don't think anybody's enthusiastic about the idea that you want to use force. The idea is to achieve a particular objective. If you can achieve that objective through peaceful means, I think everybody would accept that.

CONAN: And let me turn back to you, Roger Cohen. Ambassador Ross said a Secretary Kerry, presuming he's confirmed, would have more scope, more influence over policy. Why is that important?

COHEN: Well, I think when we've had a strong secretary of state, whether it's Jim Baker or Kissinger or others, we're in a stronger position to - generally to achieve things. At least that's the historical record. I think President Obama started out the first term with a number of envoys, the late Richard Holbrook to Afghanistan, Mitchell to the Middle East. It didn't really work.

And I think Senator Kerry knows the world very well. He's got some strong ideas. And I think if he can be given some space to go to work, then, you know, let's see. I mean, one of the difficulties, as I mentioned in the column, is that the United States is not as dominant as it was. But nobody has really taken America's place. It's kind of nobody's world.

And I think we saw that somewhat with Iran, where at one point the administration sort of pushed Brazil and Turkey to take a prominent role, and some of the goals that Dennis was just describing were met, not entirely, but, you know, the general scheme was a scheme that was just outlined there.

And we had Iran seemingly getting on board to that. And then there was this, you know, tilt toward what I call the cudgel, toward sanctions. So, you know, that feels to me like one of those opportunities in this - to me it would have been a good thing to show that emergent powers like Brazil and Turkey now can play a constructive role.

And it didn't work out in that case, but I think more and more I look at Syria. You know, more and more we're going to have to work very closely not only with our allies in NATO, Japan and our traditional allies but with the emergent powers of the world that are not yet ready to lead but want to feel that their voice is heard and that they're contributing.

CONAN: More with Ambassador Dennis Ross and New York Times columnist Roger Cohen about the nature of diplomacy in some of the immediate crises that loom as the secretary of state, would be, John Kerry, begins his testimony on Capitol Hill. Stay with us. A little bit later in the program, we'll be talking about the new policy on women in combat. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Just in the past 24 hours, North Korea threatened another nuclear weapons test, senators grilled Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on what happened in Benghazi, and John Kerry, likely the next secretary of state, addressed diplomatic efforts on Iran, Syria and other challenging areas.

We're talking today about the changing nature of diplomacy and whether or not a second Obama administration could provide an opportunity for a breakthrough. In a few minutes, we'll switch topics and talk about the end of the Pentagon ban on women in combat. We'll want to hear from women in the Armed Forces. What changes now?

800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Right now back to diplomacy. Our guests are Ambassador Dennis Ross, a diplomat with more than two decades' experience in Soviet and Middle East policy, currently counselor with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And Roger Cohen, the columnist for The New York Times. His column, "Diplomacy Is Dead," ran on Monday. We've posted a link to that at npr.org.

Ambassador Ross, in his piece, Roger Cohen points to Syria as a place where, when U.S. policy does not have a definitive goal or take the lead, not much gets done.

ROSS: Well, I think he's right. I think, you know, it's a reminder. We can talk about the diffusion of power, we can talk about more constraints on us, but there remains a kind of unmistakable reality that when the U.S. is not seen as being kind of the lynchpin, either in terms of action or at least in terms of mobilizing others to join with us, very little tends to get done.

And in the case of Syria, you know, you have what is a humanitarian disaster, tragedy, but it also asks you to look at what is - what's at stake there. One of the things about Syria, when there's a conflict in Syria it's not likely to stay within Syria. It's likely to radiate outwards. And the last thing wants to see or should want to see is a failed state in Syria.

And I'm afraid that the longer this conflict goes on, the longer it takes to get Assad to leave, the greater the likelihood that you're going to have an outcome where the state itself at best is fragmented, where the nature of conflict, which is primarily sectarian, becomes so deep and so unbridgeable that you're looking at what is likely to be not only a conflict, as I said, that stays within Syria, but it begins to radiate outward against all of its neighbors, and that should be a source of real concern because it has a regional set of implications.

CONAN: Yet you hear the administration spokesmen, and they say, well, we have problems arming the rebels because, well, we don't know in whose hands those weapons could end up. And there's the signal case of Libyan weapons ending up all over the place to provide an example of what can go wrong.

We have China and Russia blocking any action in the Security Council.

ROSS: That's all true, and it's - the concerns are fair, but you have to look not only a the cost of action, you have to look at the cost of inaction. And you have to look at the balance of forces in the opposition and who's in a position to influence that balance of forces. If we rely on others to be providing the means, it is going to be others who have some potential for influencing it, and today you look at who seems to be getting most of the weapons and most of the money, and it's not those who would represent those groups that would represents a more secular outlook, a more inclusive outlook, a more tolerant outlook.

And so I think we have to think pretty hard about whether or not there is more that we will need to do.

CONAN: Roger Cohen, let me turn back to you, and you're in Jerusalem today, just after the Israeli elections, and there's a civil war underway in Syria that spilled over into Lebanon, political unrest in Jordan, as well. Of course the Muslim Brotherhood has just taken charge in Egypt, and there was just an election pretty much on domestic issues.

COHEN: Yeah, well, you know, under Prime Minister Netanyahu since 2009, I believe there has not been one single Israel killed by a suicide bomber in Israel, and that has a lot to do with the strong cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank on security.

It also has a lot to do, of course, with the separation, barrier wall, whatever you want to call it, and other factors. Nonetheless, Israelis, while they know they're living in a hostile, difficult, environment, I think they feel as a result of what I've just described probable more comfortable than they've felt in a long time, comfortable enough, anyway, to focus very hard on domestic issues in this particular election and to push forward a relatively unknown Yair Lapid, ex-TV anchor, to a position of considerable influence.

So, you know, that is the reality behind that. Nevertheless, of course, as we all know, cycles of violence keep returning to Israel, to this neighborhood, in the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. And I think looking ahead a few years, there's no reason to believe that that wouldn't once again be the case if the Palestinians feel that the considerable strides they've made in the West Bank do not result in progress towards statehood.

CONAN: As you look at the various crisis areas in the world, I'm going to ask you both and being with you, Roger Cohen: Where is the point of greatest need for a breakthrough, and where is the point of greatest opportunity?

COHEN: Well, I think without question the point of greatest need is Iran. Another war with a Muslim country, and in this case a very large Muslim country, a war that would drag Israel for the first time into a war with the Persians - Israel's been at war with Arabs, it has never been at war with Iran.

This would have an absolutely devastating effect, I think, on all kinds of fronts: in Afghanistan, in Iraq and elsewhere. And of course it would be absolutely radicalizing and polarizing at a moment when, as you describe, Neal, and as Dennis Ross was saying, the Middle East is in a moment of delicate transition.

So I think that's where the greatest need is, and I would have to say that that's probably - you know, because there's such a great need, there has to be an absolutely relentless search for opportunity there, also, however difficult that may be.

And we're seeing right now Iran procrastinating. Iran loves to procrastinate, loves ambiguity, loves opaque zones, hates clarity, and once again we're seeing that in a silly argument over what the location of further talks should be.

So I don't underestimate the difficulty, but we have to be creative about looking for opportunity in order to avert what would be a devastating third conflict for the United States in a Muslim nation so soon after the president has worked so hard to try and extricate us from Iraq and Afghanistan.

CONAN: And Ambassador Ross, the greatest need and the greatest opportunity?

ROSS: I do think it's had to see areas outside of the broader Middle East that are presenting the same degree of need, although I guess maybe there are places in Africa, where you look at the Congo, I mean, there are places where you can see a need outside of the broader Middle East.

But in terms of conflicts that have the greatest potential to escalate both vertically and horizontally, it probably remains in the Middle East. And I do think that the - I think the reality of the Iran nuclear program, as I said, the combination of the pace of what they're doing in terms of development and our objective of prevention, that puts you in a place where I think it creates a need.

If you're going to avoid the use of force, then this is the year to try to do it. So I would say, you know, it's - the need is clearly there. It's harder to find places where there's an opportunity that you know is going to be something that you can exploit. I do think, however, sometimes when the need is great enough, then that gives you a reason to try to see what you can do and see if you can turn it into an opportunity.

I think - I do think Iran is sort of number one. I think number two probably relates to Syria again because, as I said, I am - it's not just the sheer disaster of what's happening from a humanitarian standpoint, which if anything is really a blight on the international conscience, but I also think the danger of this radiating outward and becoming a broader regional conflict should also not be underestimated. So I think that's number two.

And number three I would say is the Israelis and Palestinians. Again, I just -w hat I worry about more than anything else is that the two sides become so convinced that nothing can be done, and that's what you see in the polling. It's not that either the mainstream in Israel or the mainstream among Palestinians have rejected the two-state outcome. They both embrace it. They just don't believe it'll ever happen.

And the longer that goes on and the deeper the disbelief, at a certain point, failure will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that will not serve Palestinian interests in terms of his desire to have a state. But it will also not serve Israeli interests because there's a demographic clock that is ticking. And so I think that those three - I guess I would list them in that order. There are needs. And the question is: How much can we do to create an opportunity out of the needs?

CONAN: Ambassador Dennis Ross, thanks as always.

ROSS: My pleasure.

CONAN: Dennis Ross, currently a counselor with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Roger Cohen, thanks to you as well.

COHEN: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: Roger Cohen, a columnist for The New York Times, with us on the phone from Israel.

Women in combat coming up. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.