Diplomat Dennis Ross

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Richard Bloom / Corbis

Dennis Ross, former Middle East envoy.

Few people in the world are as practiced in the diplomatic arts as Dennis Ross. After all, he served as a distinguished Middle East envoy for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. But in his new book, Statecraft: and How to Restore America's Standing in the World, Ross pulls no punches when assessing the actions of the current Administration: "After nearly four years of warfare, Iraq has been a disaster, costing thousands of lives, requiring the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, stretching our forces and reserve system to the breaking point, and becoming a magnet for terrorists and hostility toward the United States throughout the Muslim world." TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs spoke with Ross about what he would advise doing in order to bring peace to the troubled Middle East:

TIME: Why did you write this book?
Dennis Ross: I decided to write it because I feel the concept of statecraft is not well understood, as this Administration has frequently demonstrated. It frequently does ideologically based assessments rather than reality-based assessments. It doesn't really understand how you mobilize resources from others in a way that builds your leverage and takes advantage of possible vulnerabilities of adversaries.

TIME: How could your principles of statecraft repair the damage you say the current Administration's policies have exacerbated in the Middle East?
Dennis Ross: The most important thing is to identify very clear objectives, frame those objectives in ways that others can agree on, and approach situations as they are, not as you wish they were. We went into Iraq on a faith-based premise that once Saddam Hussein fell, everything would fall into place and not fall apart. We didn't have a reality-based assessment. We went in not understanding so much of what we were going to have to deal with. If you are going to involve American forces, you really have to know what you're getting into and what you're exposing them to as well, and you have to be able to shape plans that reflect the reality and also draw on what you and others can do to affect it.

TIME: So should the U.S. now set itself more limited objectives there?
Dennis Ross: Well, in Iraq, what we're now trying to do is to prevent the worst from happening. We're going to have to forge a containment strategy that is designed to (a) ensure that the instability within Iraq doesn't spread outward, and (b) to prevent the jihadists' going in and out. That requires a strategy with all the neighbors as well. Iran does not want to see Iraq collapse, because of how a convulsion there could affect them. The Saudis the same. The Saudis and Iranians won't agree on what they want for Iraq, but they can agree on what they might fear about Iraq. So, part of what you have to do is work to forge agreements between the neighbors on how they're going to contain what's going on within Iraq. I might still look to soft partition as a way of trying to manage a transition within Iraq that produces stability. But you have to have a fallback objective because you want to prevent the worst from happening.

The objective of the surge has been to create an environment secure enough to allow the Iraqi government and sectarian leaders to forge a political compromise, which they haven't been willing to do for the last four years. But they're still not doing it. Maybe 10 or 15 years from now, we're going to see an Iraq where the central government has very limited powers, provinces have extensive autonomy, and resources are shared. But can that transition be managed in a way that limits and contains conflict, or will it continue until the Iraqis are so exhausted by the sheer brutality that they stop? I would have hoped for the former. I'm afraid it's the latter.

That's why we need a containment strategy. I wouldn't favor simply withdrawing, but I think we do have to redeploy, to have more of a training mission and an anti-terror mission. And I think the key is going to be working out the rules of containment with all the neighbors.

TIME: Many critics have chided the Administration for refusing to talk to Iran. What's your own view?
Dennis Ross: We shouldn't be afraid to engage. I don't think that talking is a form of surrender. I have 12 rules in the book for how to negotiate. One of the key things is making certain that you have more leverage. You don't want to be in a position where you need the other side more than they need you.

Iran's vulnerabilities are economic. The sanctions that have been adopted at the U.N. are part of what I call a slow-motion approach to diplomacy, and here again you have a mismatch between objectives and means. We have slow-motion diplomacy matched against their fast-paced nuclear development. So, we have to ratchet up the economic pressures on the Iranians. And the Europeans, who are desperate for us to talk directly to Iran, hold the key. I would offer to join the Europeans in direct talks with Iran, but only if the Europeans are prepared to cut off their economic lifeline to Iran. If Iran thinks it is actually going to be cut off economically, which has not been the case in the sanctions so far, then you have a chance to change their behavior.

TIME: Changing focus, should the U.S. be talking to Hamas?
Dennis Ross: I wouldn't be in favor of talking to Hamas right now. Hamas has just carried out a military coup in Gaza. If we were suddenly to change our posture, they would say, "You see? The world is adjusting to us. We don't have to adjust to the world." Instead, I would focus on the following: Hamas now in Gaza has a responsibility. We should not cut off humanitarian assistance. But there should be no developmental aid unless Hamas is going to play by the rules. If Hamas is going to play by the rules, then you begin to change how you might deal with that. I wouldn't be surprised, by the way, for the Israelis to figure out a way to deal with Hamas, because they need to find a way to ensure that rockets are not going to fire out of Gaza. But Hamas also needs the Israelis. They're going to have to contend with an unbelievably impoverished area where unemployment approaches 70 percent. So they're going to have an enormous task in front them, and will have their own reasons to figure out a way to try to preserve calm. They have to make choices.