By Donna Mo

Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross stumped his UC Santa Barbara audience last week when he asked whether the Trump administration has a policy for the region. Some said no. Others were unsure. Only three said yes. 

“I actually think there is a policy – but not a strategy,” said Ross, a former special advisor on the Middle East during the Obama and Clinton Administrations.            

Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross speaks to students at UC Santa Barbara about the Trump administration’s Middle East policies.

Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross speaks to students at UC Santa Barbara about the Trump administration’s Middle East policies.

Speaking at the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center’s Taubman Symposium in Jewish Studies, Ross pointed out that Trump’s actions concerning the Middle East have a pattern – favoring counter-terrorism and counter-Iranian policies, and a desire to resolve to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which President Trump refers to as “doing the ultimate good.”

But, he said, there are flaws in the Trump administration’s approach to all three of these Middle East policy areas, and those shortcomings prevent long-term progress.

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Ross believes that Trump’s preference for military tactics to fight terrorism isn’t enough to combat groups like ISIS because ISIS is first and foremost an ideology. “You cannot defeat an ideology through the use of military force,” he said. Instead, he says the only way to defeat terrorist groups like ISIS is to discredit the ideology from within the region.

Ross also said Trump’s approach doesn’t consider the aftermath of an ISIS defeat. “ISIS emerged from what was Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” he said, adding that the group’s appeal comes from its ability to “reflect frustration, a sense of injustice, a sense of repression.” People look to radical groups when they feel they are being treated unfairly and defeating ISIS would leave a “vacuum” for another terrorist group to take place, Ross said. To completely defeat ISIS, the United States needs a plan for reconstruction, security, governance, and inclusion, he said.

Ross has over two decades of senior diplomatic experience. He served under the first Bush administration, was the special Middle East coordinator under President Bill Clinton, and was both special assistant to President Barack Obama and special advisor to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Ross is currently a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, D.C.

His interest in foreign diplomacy began when he was young. “I always had an interest in it, even when I was a kid,” Ross said. It started with the Vietnam War and then the Soviet Union. His interest in the Middle East only developed as a result of tensions between the US and the Soviet Union in the Middle East. “I became increasingly interested in the Soviet Union, so the Middle East was almost in some ways derivative,” Ross said in an interview with HFA before his address.

Ross’ recent talk marked the fifth time that he has spoken at UC Santa Barbara. He said he keeps returning because of the students. “We actually had a meeting before with 18 students and I like hearing from them. It’s part of the reason why I keep coming back,” he said. 

When it comes to Trump’s counter-Iranian policies, Ross believes that the president will continue to threaten Iran with economic sanctions as part of his policy to put maximum pressure on Iran. “The president really believes it. He believes that maximum pressure has worked on North Korea. He uses that as a model,” Ross said.

Last May, Trump announced that the United States would pull out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, which lifted sanctions on Iran while forcing it to reduce its nuclear program. Trump intends to put maximum pressure on Iran to renegotiate for a better deal, Ross said. The problem is that maximum pressure is only effective if the other five countries agreed to pull out of the deal as well. “When we’re the only ones that pull out, it’s hard to put maximum pressure,” Ross said.

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As for the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict, Ross says he would love to see it resolved “but not in this context and time” because the distrust between both sides is too high. Israelis believe that Palestinians would never accept Israel as a Jewish state while Palestinians believe that Israelis would never accept Palestine as an independent state. As both sides fight for control over the same land, Ross suggested what could be that start of a solution: for Israel to stop building outside their existing settlement blocks and for Palestinian authorities to stop paying Palestinians to commit acts of terror against Israelis. This would signal to other side that they are ready to take a step towards resolving the conflict.

Ross criticized the US-backed Israeli policy towards the Gaza Strip. “We have completely cut off the Palestinians,” says Ross. The Gaza strip, a Palestinian territory that borders Israel and Egypt, has been cut off from electricity, clean water and food by the Israeli government. With both sides continually fighting and rejecting all proposals for peace, he predicts that the conflict won’t be resolved any time soon, and he fears that it will soon be too late to find a workable compromise.

Donna Mo is a fourth-year Communication major and Theater minor. She is a Web and Social Media Intern with the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts.