Ross -- a key player in both the Oslo accords and the failed 2000 negotiations at Camp David -- offered his remarks at a June 21 program at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Branch on Vine Street. Ross is currently promoting his latest book Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World, a treatise that has fueled some speculation that the longtime diplomat may be eyeing a top post in the State Department in the next administration.
"Good statecraft always marries objective and means, bad statecraft always has a mismatch between objective and means. How do you think we are doing in Iraq?" Ross posed to the audience in the crowded auditorium. In his view, Bush has too often based considerations and calculations for what to do in Iraq on hope and ideology rather than evidence.
For the record, Ross -- now a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy -- stated that American troops are in the middle of a civil war, and that at this point the best-case scenario would involve the "soft partition" of Iraq into Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish entities.
When it comes to Iran, Ross said that it's possible that talks and heavy economic pressure could still act as a deterrent, while the current policy of diplomatic isolation fails to exert leverage on Tehran.
"There is unanimity on having nuclear weapons, if it's cost free," he said of the Iranian leadership. "There isn't unanimity if it's going to cost you something."
He added that the Iranian elite is comprised of three factions: the Revolutionary Guard, the Mullahs and the reformers. The guard -- the camp associated with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- probably wants nuclear weapons at all costs. But Ross argued that the mullahs, who largely run the country, and the liberalizers are more pragmatic and susceptible to heavy economic pressure.
He suggested that the United States enlist the help of Saudi Arabia, which he said fears the prospect of a nuclear Iran almost as much as Israel. With its substantial investments in European companies, the Saudis could persuade foreign governments to enact truly crippling sanctions on Iran, and possibly force Iranian leaders to reconsider, according to Ross.
During a question-and-answer session, one woman asked why the United States "didn't do anything" to prevent India, Pakistan and Israel from obtaining nuclear weapons, but is making such a big deal out of the Iranian nuclear program.
The question drew scattered applause. One man yelled out, "Hello, hello, wake up and smell the coffee!"
Ross interjected that it was a fair question, but that Arab nations haven't exactly been trembling in fear that Israel would drop a nuclear bomb.
"As soon as Iran has nuclear weapons, there are at least three or four states that feel they have to have nuclear weapons," he said. "That tells you something about the nature of the regime."
Another audience member asked what Ross' take was on recent developments: Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza, Fatah forming a new government in the West Bank, and the decisions of America and Israel to resume sending Palestinian aid via Fatah.
Ross replied that -- despite Fatah's own violent history, which includes countless acts of terrorism and a long record of corruption -- the United States must support the group in its struggle against Hamas. That's because, according to Ross, Fatah espouses a secularist, national ideology, while Hamas stands for radical Islam.
"National conflicts can be really difficult to settle, but they are possible to settle," he offered. "You can't settle a religious conflict."