Dennis Ross, a controversial U.S. diplomat with close ties to Israel, served as a senior adviser on Middle East issues in the Barack Obama administration's National Security Council. Ross's resume includes stints in several other administrations, both Republican and Democratic, during which he assisted in negotiations on Middle East peace and other foreign policy issues.
Ross stepped down from his post in the Obama administration in late 2011, citing "family reasons," and returned to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy—a spin off from of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—where Ross was based prior to joining the Obama administration.
Ross has advised or supported the work of a number of advocacy groups and think tanks that are tied to hawkish "pro-Israel" factions in the United States. He has been a member of the board of editors of the Middle East Quarterly, published by Daniel Pipes' Middle East Forum; he was a letter signatory for the now-defunct neoconservative pressure group the Project for the New American Century, which helped build public support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq; he helped found the advocacy group United Against a Nuclear Iran; and he has teamed up with ideologues from organizations like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to craft policy approaches toward Tehran's nuclear program and other issues in the region. Ross is also the co-chairman of the Iran Task Force of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), an advocacy group that promotes relations between the U.S. and Israeli militaries and has been critical of the Obama administration's nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Ross has long advocated leveraging the threat of military action against Iran to exact concessions over its nuclear enrichment program while conceding that some degree of nuclear enrichment on Iranian soil be permitted.
Ross was critical of the comprehensive nuclear agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1 world powers in July 2015. In a Washington Post op-ed, Ross pointed to the "vulnerabilities of the deal—and some its more worrisome implications." He claimed that after 15 years, the deal will "legitimize the Islamic Republic as a threshold nuclear state." He added: "I would argue that the Iranians must believe that any such move will trigger the use of force—anything less, once they have threshold status, and Iran will know that it can confront the world with a nuclear weapons fait accompli at a time of its choosing."
As co-chairman of the JINSA Iran Task Force, Ross co-authored a July 2014 JINSA report, which stated that "U.S. diplomatic engagement" with Iran "must be accompanied by greater pressure." The report, co-written with fellow Iran-hawks Eric Edelman and Ray Takeyh, was criticized by some observers for providing recommendations that "do not seem to be designed to maximize America's interests, but rather Israel's."
As Iran and the P5+1 appeared close to reaching a political framework agreement over Iran's nuclear program in March 2015, Ross argued in a Washington Post op-ed that Congress should pass legislation that threatens "the use of force" against Iran if it makes a "dash toward weapons-grade production" in its nuclear program. "Incorporating these measures in legislation would send a clear signal and demonstrate that the president and Congress are unified on this issue," he claimed.
Ross also supported Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial speech to Congress in March 2015, saying at the time that Netanyahu offered "the alternative of insisting on better terms and increasing pressure on the Iranians until a more credible agreement is reached."
Ross has called for increasing U.S. military aid to Israel, including providing advanced weaponry to the country, to "compensate" Israel in the event of a deal being struck with Iran. "We might also compensate the Israelis if there is a deal by providing more bunker-buster bombs and more tankers to make them more capable of militarily acting on their own against the Iranians in the face of cheating," Ross told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June 2014. "This would reassure the Israelis that even if we felt constrained to act militarily in the face of Iranian violations of an agreement that made a breakout possible, Israel would not be left without options."
In 2013, Ross pressed for U.S. strikes on Syria, which he said were necessary to avert a war with Iran. "Should opponents block authorization and should the president then feel he cannot employ military strikes against Syria," Ross wrote in a September 2013 Washington Post op-ed, "this will almost certainly guarantee that there will be no diplomatic outcome to our conflict with Iran over its nuclear weapons." In the absence of a U.S. military strike on Syria, Ross claimed, "the hard-liners in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and around the Supreme Leader will be able to claim that there is only an economic cost to pursuing nuclear weapons but no military danger." Ross also warned that Israel would have "no reason to give diplomacy a chance and no reason to believe that the United States will take care of the problem."
Ross has tried to link Middle East issues to Russia's 2014 intervention in Ukraine's civil crisis, when Russia sent troops to Ukraine's Crimean peninsula following the ouster of a Kremlin-backed leader by antigovernment protests in Kiev. "President Obama, having stated there will be a cost [for Russia], must be certain that there is one," Ross wrote for The New Republic. Specifically, Ross endorsed ejecting Russia from the G-8, boycotting all trade talks that include Russia, and imposing "targeted sanctions"—even if the Russians "withhold natural gas supplies to Europe and Ukraine and/or cease their cooperation as part of the P5+1 [nuclear negotiations] on Iran" in response.
Ross claimed that retaliation was necessary to placate "our Middle Eastern friends"—notably Saudi Arabia and Israel, who oppose the international talks with Iran—whom Ross said "believe that the U.S. is increasingly reluctant to act in the face of regional challenges." Apparently suggesting that Saudi and Israeli impressions of the United States were more valuable than making peace with Iran, Ross concluded, "Regardless of how Iran may seek to exploit any divisions [between the United States and Russia] at this juncture, most leaders in the Middle East will take comfort from signs of American decisiveness in responding to what is seen as a Russian provocation."
Shortly after stepping down from the Obama administration, Ross began publishing articles from his perch at WINEP addressing a number of issues that had been in his portfolio in the Obama administration, including Iran. In a December 2011 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Ross argued that the administration needed to step up pressure on Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. Attempting to push back against arguments that containment and assured retaliation would deter Iran from ever using a nuclear weapon—in part because of Israel's substantial though officially unrecognized nuclear arsenal—Ross painted a dire picture of the future of Middle East politics in the event that Tehran developed the bomb. "[N]early all of its neighbors," he wrote, "will seek [nuclear weapons] as well to counter Iranian power and coercion. Israel, given Iranian declarations that it should be wiped off the map, will feel it has no margin for error and cannot afford to strike second in the event of a war. But Israel won't be the only country operating on a hair trigger. Each country, lacking the ability to absorb a nuclear strike, will adopt a launch-on-warning posture in a region that has many local triggers for conflict and enormous potential for miscalculation. Containment does not address that risk."
Ross expressed tentative optimism that renewed talks between Iran and the P5+1 powers in late 2013 and early 2014 could yield results—but only if the United States maintained an aggressive posture. "For the first time," wrote Ross with Eric Edelman and Michael Makovsky in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, "Tehran presented an actual vision of the endgame for the talks with six world powers, and how to get there. However, contrary to expectations, it offered no concessions, leaving serious questions about Iranian purposes." Warning that Iran could use the negotiations "to extract concessions, undermine international resolve, and play for time," Ross and his coauthors recommended that Washington "Intensify sanctions and incentivize other countries to do the same, issue more forceful and credible statements that all options are on the table, initiate new military deployments, and make clear the support for Israeli military action if conducted"—all actions that could tank the negotiations completely.
"Reading this piece," wrote Mondoweiss' Philip Weiss in response, "it is astounding to consider that Ross was once the nerve center inside Democratic administrations, including Obama's, for making American policy on the Middle East. Ross couldn't be a more fervent advocate for the Israeli position. He says that Iran can't be trusted and that preventing a nuclear-capable Iran is 'the most pressing national security threat facing the United States'; he repeatedly calls for threats of military action and overlooks Israel's own nuclear arsenal while criticizing Iran for threatening the international 'nonproliferation' regime. … No wonder that as a negotiator Ross was called Israel's lawyer."
Although Ross expressed impatience with an incremental approach to diplomacy with Iran, he has also grudgingly accepted Iran's right to have a civilian nuclear program. He advocated for the Obama administration to present the Iranians with an ultimatum, which he called an "endgame approach." In a May 2013 Washington Post op-ed, Ross and frequent WINEP collaborator David Makovsky declared that "the United States needs to establish greater clarity about what we can and cannot live with regarding Iran's nuclear program and give further credence to the administration's statements that the time for diplomacy is running out." The Obama administration, they said, should offer the Iranians "the opportunity to have civil nuclear capability" in exchange for strict caps on enrichment and a robust enforcement regime. If the Iranians refuse, the authors claimed, "their real aims of acquiring nuclear weapons would be revealed. In such circumstances, the United States would be far better positioned to make the case to the international community that military action is warranted."
"These ideas," wrote Ali Gharib for the Daily Beast, "suffer most from their own premises and assumptions"—namely that most Iran experts agree that not only would U.S. military action be unlikely to erase Iran's alleged nuclear capability, it would harden the resolve of Iran's leaders to develop nuclear weapons. The result, wrote Gharib, "would be either perpetual war—'mowing the lawn,' as the Israeli euphemism has it—or invading and occupying Iran." Gharib also pointed out that "an incremental step toward a broader agreement," which Ross and Makovsky dismissed out of hand, "might be necessary exactly because…there is a tremendous lack of confidence between the two sides," especially with leading congressional hawks committed to "putting the kibosh on diplomacy." Opining that the two authors were offering what amounted to a threat of war cloaked in reasonable-sounding language, Gharib concluded, "Ross and Makovsky proffer a deadline exactly as the missing ingredient to striking a deal. When it does not get made, we will be at war."
Ross expressed skepticism regarding the June 2013 election of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate who has advocated improved relations with the West. Dismissing analysts who argued that the United States should offer the new Iranian president an olive branch to jumpstart negotiations, Ross wrote in theNew York Times that "it would be foolish to think that lifting the pressure now would improve the chances that he would be allowed to offer us what we need: an agreement, or credible Iranian steps toward one, under which Iran would comply with its international obligations on the nuclear issue." Ross went on to advocate offering Rouhani the same ultimatum he had argued for previously.
Some experts disagreed with this approach. Continuing with "threats of war and international economic sanctions," noted Vali Nasr, "will not provide Rouhani with the cover for a fresh approach to nuclear talks, and it could undermine the reformists generally by showing they cannot do better than conservatives on the nuclear issue." National Interest writer and former CIA analyst Paul Pillar added, "The Iranian electorate has in effect said to the United States and its Western partners, 'We've done all we can. Among the options that the Guardian Council gave us, we have chosen the one that offers to get us closest to accommodation, agreement and understanding with the West. Your move, America.'"
Noting that Ross had earlier predicted that Iran's Supreme Leader would never "allow" the moderate Rouhani to win, journalist Jim Lobe quipped, "In light of Ross's previous assessments regarding how the supreme leader signals his intentions on nuclear negotiations, would it be unreasonable to expect that Ross would not only be somewhat humbler with respect to his understanding of Iranian politics, but also rather hopeful about prospects for a real deal? … The answer is not really."
In the Obama Administration
Ross's first appointment in the Obama administration was as the State Department's special advisor for the Gulf and Southwest Asia.The initial State appointment in February 2009 came after months of speculation about whether Ross, regarded by some as an unsuitable diplomat for the Middle East because of his strong ties to Israel, would be given any post at all. According to some observers, the State post was considerably lower ranked than Ross had hoped.
Ross's hawkish track record on Iran, which includes endorsing a 2008 report by the Bipartisan Policy Center described by one observer as a "roadmap to war" with Iran, was another source of controversy. Elaheh Koolaee, a former member of the Iranian Parliament and a professor at Tehran University, told the Inter Press Service, "Some people in Iran or in the Middle East may be under the impression that Obama's promise of change in U.S. foreign policy may have a far reaching extent. … Mr. Ross's appointment shows a continuation of existing U.S. foreign policy in the region [from the Bush administration], not a change."
Timemagazine reported, "It is somewhat surprising to see Ross emerge as an official member of Obama's team. … When Ross left the State Department in 2000, he was so critical of Yasser Arafat that some friends thought he was considering working for George W. Bush, who cut ties with the late Palestinian leader."
Some observers pointed to the ultimate failure of the initiatives crafted by Ross as the most surprising aspect of the Obama campaign's decision to use him as an advisor. One former Bill Clinton official told Time, "If Obama wants to embody something new that can actually succeed, it's not just a break from Bush that he's going to need, but a break from Clinton."
But in June 2009, Ross abruptly shifted to the NSC, a move first reported by Israel's Haaretz. Ross's portfolio at the NSC reportedly encompassed an immense region stretching from Pakistan to Israel. In addition, according to the New York Times, Ross served as the Obama administration's "senior Iran policy-maker."
According to Haaretz, unnamed "diplomatic sources" in Israel speculated, among other reasons, that Ross might have been moved out of State and into the NSC because of a book he cowrote with David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). In Myths, Illusions, and Peace—Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East, written before Ross was tapped to serve in the administration, Ross and Makovsky express views at odds with the approach taken by the Obama State Department, including arguing that the United States must delink Iran policy from issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
According to Nathan Guttman of Forward, some experts saw Ross's move to the NSC as an "olive branch to Israel," which has chafed at Obama's supposedly tough line on Israeli policies toward Palestinians. Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator, told Guttman, "It's clear that if Obama wants to advance something on Iran, and on the Israeli-Palestinian front, he will need to reach a modus vivendi with Israel, and that will require someone who knows the Israelis well."
At the time of the NSC transfer, it was unclear whether the move would strengthen or diminish Ross's ability to influence administration policy, and to what degree the new post would clash with the work of other diplomats, like that of George Mitchell, special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When asked about this, White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs said, "I think what the President has done is simply add to a very strong national security team with Dennis and I think—I can assure you, given the list of countries, that they'll be plenty busy. I don't think that anybody should, though, believe that this will conflict or supersede the important work that special envoys are doing on the ground in many of these places, even as somebody is here at the White House coordinating a series of people dealing with an important region of the world."
Ross's role in the administration came under scrutiny in March 2010 shortly after a heated diplomatic exchange erupted between the United States and Israel over continued settlement expansion in Jerusalem. Politico's Laura Rozen wrote that during debates in the White House over how to respond to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's intransigence on settlements, Ross arguedthat "Washington needs to be sensitive to Netanyahu's domestic political constraints including over the issue of building in East Jerusalem in order to not raise new Arab demands, while other officials including some aligned with Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell are arguing Washington needs to hold firm in pressing Netanyahu for written commitments to avoid provocations that imperil Israeli-Palestinian peace talks."
One unnamed official told Rozen that Ross "seems to be far more sensitive to Netanyahu's coalition politics than to U.S. interests. And he doesn't seem to understand that this has become bigger than Jerusalem but is rather about the credibility of this administration."
Rozen's story spurred a heated debate of its own. The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg accused Rosen of letting "an anonymous administration official to hijack her blog and accuse the National Security Council's Dennis Ross of dual-loyalty." Goldberg's colleague, conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan, countered that because Goldberg is unable to question Rozen's expertise on Middle East issues, he "argues that an Obama official has 'hi-jacked' her blog. [Goldberg] calls this Obama official's statement an accusation of 'dual loyalty,' of 'treason,' of the fruit of a 'neo-Lindberghian climate.' But isn't the comment conceivably, substantively true? After all, a united Jerusalem under Israel's exclusive control for ever—Netanyahu's and Palin's and Cheney's position—has been Ross's position in the past." Sullivan pointed to a 2008 Jerusalem Post interview with Ross, in which the diplomat stated, "The fact of the matter is, Jerusalem is Israel's capital. That's a fact. It's also a fact that the city should not be divided again. That's also a fact."
Ross left the Obama administration in 2011 to rejoin WINEP.
Commenting on his resignation, Chas Freeman, a U.S. diplomat who served as head of the Middle East Policy Council in Washington, said: "None of the issues in his charge prospered during his tenure, which saw the collapse of any pretence of a peace process between Israel and the Arabs, a deepening of the Iranian conviction that a nuclear deterrent is necessary to deter Israeli or American attack, and the collapse of American prestige and influence among the Arabs and in the Islamic world more generally."
Some commentators in Israel shared this dismal view of Ross's tenure. Writing in the liberal daily Haaretz, Barak Ravid opined: "Over the past two and a half years Dennis Ross, Middle East adviser to the U.S. president, has been one of the most central people in the White House in everything that has to do with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He has whispered in the ear of U.S. President Barack Obama, maintained a secret and direct channel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his envoy Isaac Molho, and undermined U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell. Despite his central role, his influence on Jerusalem's actions was minimal. Despite the fact that he is considered to be Netanyahu's man in the White House, he did not manage to get almost anything from the Israeli prime minister. In Ramallah, his status is even worse. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pushed him aside and effectively declared him a persona non grata. As far as Washington was concerned, he had a far greater impact: mainly a negative one."
On the other hand, observers from the neoconservative right in the United States lamented Ross's departure from the administration, arguing that without him the Obama administration would no longer have a "pro-Israel" adviser to shield it from criticism. Elliott Abrams, the Iran-Contra veteran who served as a top Middle East aide in the George W. Bush administration, told Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin: "Now that facade will be removed, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Ross tired of that role and tired of defending a president whose feelings about Israel were as cold as Ross's are warm. This is going to hurt the White House in the Jewish community, because they have no substitute for Ross and no one with his credibility with most Jewish organizations."
From Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton
Ross got his start in high-level policymaking working under Paul Wolfowitz at the Pentagon during the Carter administration, where Wolfowitz headed a project called the Limited Contingency Study. The results of this study, writes author James Mann, "would play a groundbreaking role in changing American military policy toward the Persian Gulf over the coming decades."
The study, coauthored by Ross, was aimed at assessing potential vulnerabilities outside of Europe. Under Wolfowitz's direction, it became the Pentagon's "first extensive examination of the need for the United States to defend the Persian Gulf." It stated, "We and our major industrialized allies have a vital and growing stake in the Persian Gulf Region because of our need for Persian Gulf oil and because events in the Persian Gulf affect the Arab-Israeli conflict." It went onto to assert that if the Soviet Union controlled the Gulf's oil, it would "probably destroy NATO and the U.S.-Japanese alliance without recourse to war by the Soviets." It also assessed whether countries within the region could also threaten to take control of oil fields, specifically Iraq, which the study argued had "become militarily pre-eminent in the Persian Gulf, a worrisome development because of Iraq's radical-Arab stance, its anti-Western attitudes, its dependence of Soviet arms sales, and its willingness to foment trouble in other local nations."
After the election of Ronald Reagan, Wolfowitz became head of the State Department's Policy Planning staff, where he assembled a team of advisors. It included a number of figures who later became closely involved in neoconservative-led campaigns, including Ross, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, James Roche, Zalmay Khalilzad, Alan Keyes, and Francis Fukuyama. Discussing this period, Mann points to Ross in arguing that "not everyone on [Wolfowitz's] staff was a neoconservative. … The fact remained, however, that Wolfowitz's policy planning staff turned out to be the training ground for a new generation of national security specialists, many of whom shared Wolfowitz's ideas, assumptions, and interests."
Also during the Reagan presidency, Ross "served as director of Near East and South Asian Affairs on the National Security Council staff … and as Deputy Director of the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment," according to his biography on the website of the Harry Walker Agency, a speakers bureau.
During the administration of George H. W. Bush, Ross was appointed head of State's Policy Planning Staff, where "he played a prominent role in U.S. policy toward the former Soviet Union, the unification of Germany and its integration into NATO, arms control negotiations, and the development of the Gulf War coalition." Mann writes that Ross and Wolfowitz, who had been given a post in the Dick Cheney-led Pentagon where he crafted the notorious 1992 Draft Defense Planning Guidance, were two of the administration's most vociferous proponents of using the U.S. military to defend Shiite and Kurdish rebellions after the end of the first Gulf War. Describing the opposition to this, Ross told Mann, "Bear in mind, there was this kind of group thinking that was cemented by meeting almost daily over a six- or seven-month period of the president, [James] Baker, Cheney, [Brent] Scowcroft, [Robert] Gates, and [Colin] Powell. They had gone through a period of incredible emotional stress. You'd had experts predicting that America was going to lose fifty thousand dead. The group went through a period of high anxiety [before the war] and then exhilaration."
President Bill Clinton appointed Ross as his special envoy to the Middle East. Ross' Harry Walker bio recounts a number of successes during the period: "As the architect of the peace process, he was instrumental in assisting the Israelis and Palestinians in reaching the 1995 Interim Agreement, and he successfully brokered the Hebron Accord in 1997. He facilitated the Israeli-Jordan peace treaty and intensively worked to bring Israel and Syria together. Mr. Ross has been credited for managing the peace process through periods of crisis and stalemate."
But the peace process failed to produce any enduring agreements to the Palestinian situation; Ross endeavored to explain this failure in his 2004 book The Missing Peace. According to New York Times reviewer Ethan Bronner, Ross points to two explanations, "one simple and one messy but no less true or important. The simple answer is that in the end Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, was the principal cause of the failure. … The second explanation, the messier one, is that neither side had taken sufficient steps to grasp the needs and neuroses of the other." Although Ross considers Israeli culpability, he appears to emphasize the failures of the Arabs and Palestinians. Ross writes, "The kind of transformation that would make it possible for the Arab world to acknowledge that Israel has needs has yet to take place." Regarding the United States, Ross writes, ''Our great failing was not in misreading Arafat. Our great failing was in not creating the earlier tests that would have either exposed Arafat's inability to ultimately make peace or forced him to prepare his people for compromise.''
Ross' role in the Clinton administration was later assessed by the international relations scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their controversial 2006 paper for Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy." Mearsheimer and Walt wrote, "During the Clinton Administration … Middle East policy was largely shaped by officials with close ties to Israel or to prominent pro-Israel organizations—including Martin Indyk, the former deputy director of research at AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] and co-founder of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP); Dennis Ross, who joined WINEP after leaving government in 2001; and Aaron Miller, who has lived in Israel and often visits there. These men were among President Clinton's closest advisors at the Camp David summit in July 2000. Although all three supported the Oslo peace process and favored creation of a Palestinian state, they did so only within the limits of what would be acceptable to Israel."
Ross criticized the paper, telling the New York Sun that it had a "lack of seriousness" and was "masquerading as scholarship."
The Post-9/11 Period
During the presidency of George W. Bush, Ross continued his policy work as a consultant to and fellow at WINEP, authoring policy papers, penning op-eds, and providing congressional testimony on Middle East issues. He repeatedly joined forces with neoconservatives, signing open letters for PNAC, advising advocacy groups like United against Nuclear Iran (whose leadership include former CIA director James Woolsey and hawkish weapons proliferation expert Henry Sokolski), and joining AEI scholars Michael Rubin and Reuel Marc Gerecht in discussing Mideast policies with their counterparts at the Brussels-based Transatlantic Institute, a think tank founded by the American Jewish Committee to serve "as an intellectual bridge between the United States and the European Union." Ross also served on the board of the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, an independent think tank that promotes "the thriving of the Jewish people via professional strategic thinking and planning on issues of primary concern to world Jewry."
In 2006, Ross joined a cast of neoconservatives and foreign policy hawks in supporting the I. Lewis Libby Defense Fund, an initiative aimed at raising money for the disgraced former assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney who was convicted in connection to the investigation into the leaking of CIA agent Valerie Plame's name. Ross served on the group's steering committee along with Fred Thompson, Jack Kemp, Steve Forbes, Bernard Lewis, and Francis Fukuyama. The group's chairman was Mel Sembler, a real estate magnate who serves as a trustee at AEI and has funded the group Freedom's Watch.
Commenting on his reason for supporting the fund, Ross, who served with Libby under Wolfowitz in the Reagan State Department, said, "He's been a friend of mine for 25 years and I believe in him as a person and that he has a right to defend himself. It's a measure of friendship that you're there when people need you, not just when it's convenient."
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Ross supported the advocacy work of PNAC, a neoconservative-led letterhead group that advocated overthrowing Saddam Hussein in response to the attacks, even if he was not tied to the them. Ross signed two PNAC open letters on the situation in post-war Iraq, both published in March 2003. The first of these, "Statement on Post-War Iraq," was issued on March 19, 2003, the day before the United States began its invasion. The letter argued that Iraq should be seen as the first step in a larger reshaping of the region's political landscape, contending that the invasion and rebuilding of Iraq could "contribute decisively to the democratization of the wider Middle East." Other signatories included Max Boot, Eliot Cohen, Thomas Donnelly, Joshua Muravchik, and several other core neoconservatives.
Ross was just one of several so-called liberal hawks who signed the letter. Tom Barry of the International Relations Center counted six of the twenty-three signatories as representing this group: "Among the Democrats were Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution and a member of Clinton's National Security Council staff; Martin Indyk, Clinton's ambassador to Israel; Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute and Democratic Leadership Council; Dennis Ross, Clinton's top advisor on the Israel-Palestinian negotiations; and James Steinberg, Clinton's deputy national security advisor and head of foreign policy studies at Brookings." According to Barry, this "clearly demonstrated the willingness of liberal hawks to bolster the neocons' overarching agenda of Middle East restructuring."
In the aftermath of the invasion, Ross—as well as a number of neoconservatives—expressed deep skepticism about the course of the war and the future prospects in Iraq. In 2007 congressional testimony, Ross stated: "The administration was never unified in its purpose or execution. Our assessment was faith-based not reality-based, leaving the Bush administration assuming that everything would fall into place when Saddam was removed, not fall apart. When it fell apart the administration was left without a workable strategy and it has grappled for the last four years with trying to come up with one."
However, in critiquing Bush's Mideast policies, Ross has limited his criticism to issues of implementation, while giving the White House high marks for its objectives. He told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in July 2007: "The larger purpose of the Bush administration has been democratic transformation, believing that ultimately the way to defeat terrorists is to produce democratic governments to replace the oppressive and corrupt regimes that breed anger and alienation throughout much of the Muslim world. Much like in Iraq, the President's goals are laudable and far-reaching. The problem has been that the president promoted an ambitious agenda of transformation but has presided over an administration that has consistently sought to employ only minimalist means. Trying to get by on the cheap has characterized the administration's approach whether it was in Iraq or Afghanistan or even on pushing a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
Ross' approach to Iran appears to have grown increasingly belligerent over time. In 2007, he sought to preserve a role for diplomacy in U.S. efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, arguing in congressional testimony: "The Europeans, Japanese, Indians and the Arab Gulf states represent the economic lifeline to Iran. They see the use of force against Iran as worse than an Iran with nuclear weapons. If they thought their current posture of slowly ratcheting up pressures on Iran—and not cutting them off from credit guarantees, new investments, or provision of gasoline—made the use of force more and not less likely might not they change their behavior? Similarly, if the Bush administration offered to join negotiations now with Iran on the nuclear issue in return for these countries cutting the economic lifeline might not they agree to do so?"
During the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections, Ross participated in two study groups aimed at influencing the next president's policies toward Iran. During 2007-2008, Ross co-convened WINEP's 2008 Presidential Task Force on the Future of U.S.-Israel Relations, which drafted the June 2008 report Strengthening the Partnership: How to Deepen U.S.-Israel Cooperation on the Iranian Nuclear Challenge. A number of Democratic and Republican policy-makers, as well as such leading hawks as James Woolsey, Vin Weber, and James Roche signed the report. Several advisors to the Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign also signed the document: Ross, Anthony Lake, Susan Rice, and Richard Clarke.
Arguing that Iran's nuclear program "hovers above all other items on the U.S.-Israel agenda," the WINEP study proposes that the next U.S. president, upon taking office, should immediately initiate a policy forum to discuss options on how to "compel a change in Iranian behavior on the nuclear issue." Among the items the forum should cover are diplomatic engagement and political and economic pressure, as well as "coercive options (such as an embargo on Iran's sale of oil or import of refined petroleum products), and preventive military action."
The report pleads for Americans to try to see the Iranian situation from the Israeli perspective, arguing: "Americans should recognize that deterrence is, in Israeli eyes, an unattractive alternative to prevention, because, if deterrence fails, Israel would suffer terribly." The report also assails what it sees as the growing criticism in the United States of the U.S.-Israeli relationship (i.e. the Mearsheimer-Walt paper on the "Israel Lobby"), stating, "[The] U.S.-Israel relationship has come under unprecedented attack. Some of these critics argue that Israel has manipulated the U.S. government to act counter to the American national interest, which—if properly understood—would see Israel as a liability ... We reject that critique."
Ross helped produce the 2008 report Meeting the Challenge: U.S. Policy Toward Iranian Nuclear Development, which was published by a study group convened by the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), a policy group led by several former government officials, including Sen. Daniel Coats (R-IN) and Sen. Charles Robb (D-VA). The lead drafter of the report was AEI's Michael Rubin, an outspoken proponent of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. Other participants included Sokolski; Michael Makovsky, a former aide to Douglas Feith in the Donald Rumsfeld Pentagon; Stephen Rademaker, the husband of AEI's Danielle Pletka who worked under John Bolton in the State Department; and Kenneth Weinstein, CEO of the Hudson Institute.
The report argues that despite Iran's assurances to the contrary, its nuclear program aims to develop nuclear weapons and is thus a threat to "U.S. and global security, regional stability, and the international nonproliferation regime," a conclusion that stands in stark contrast to the CIA's November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which found that Iran had put its efforts to develop nuclear warheads on hold. The report states, "As a new president prepares to occupy the Oval Office, the Islamic Republic's defiance of its Non-Proliferation Treaty safeguards obligations and United Nations Security Council resolutions will be among the greatest foreign policy and national security challenges confronting the nation." In contrast to many realist assessments of the situation, the report contends that "Cold War deterrence" is not persuasive in the context of Iran's program, due in large measure to the "Islamic Republic's extremist ideology." Thus, even a peaceful uranium enrichment program would place the entire Middle East region "under a cloud of ambiguity given uncertain Iranian capacities and intentions."
The report advises that thenew U.S. president bolster the country's military presence in the Middle East, which would include "pre-positioning additional U.S. and allied forces, deploying additional aircraft carrier battle groups and minesweepers, emplacing other war material in the region, including additional missile defense batteries, upgrading both regional facilities and allied militaries, and expanding strategic partnerships with countries such as Azerbaijan and Georgia in order to maintain operational pressure from all directions." In addition, the new administration should suspendbilateral cooperation with Russia on nuclear issues to pressure it to stop providing assistance to Iran's nuclear, missile, and weapons programs. And, if the new administration agrees to hold direct talks with Tehran without insisting that the country first cease enrichment activities, it should set a pre-determined compliance deadline and be prepared to apply increasingly harsh repercussions if the deadlines are not met, leading ultimately to U.S. military strikes that would "have to target not only Iran's nuclear infrastructure, but also its conventional military infrastructure in order to suppress an Iranian response."
Calling the report a "roadmap to war," Jim Lobe of the Inter Press Service wrote, "In other words, if Tehran is not eventually prepared to permanently abandon its enrichment of uranium on its own soil—a position that is certain to be rejected by Iran ab initio—war becomes inevitable, and all intermediate steps, even including direct talks if the new president chooses to pursue them, will amount to going through the motions (presumably to gather international support for when push comes to shove).… What is a top Obama advisor [Dennis Ross] doing signing on to it?"
In 2007, Ross published Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), described by Publisher's Weekly as an "avowedly 'neo-liberal' rebuke of Bush's unilateralist, 'faith-based' foreign policy blundering. Indeed, with its call for virtuoso state craftsmanship and its detailed proposals on everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Iranian nuclear ambitions to relations with China, it could well be Ross' application for the 2009 secretary of state opening."