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President Obama speaks from the Oval Office on
Dec. 6 about U.S. foreign policy. (Saul Loeb, Getty Images/Pool)" border="0"/>
President Obama speaks from the Oval Office on Dec. 6 about U.S. foreign policy. (Saul Loeb, Getty Images/Pool)

You've heard prescriptions for peace in the Middle East from plenty of high-profile pundits and politicians, and corresponding calls for conflict from others. But personally put to the test, some might have a problem pinpointing the region on a map.

Ambassador Dennis Ross isn't one of them. As an adviser to four U.S. presidents (Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton and Obama) and chief Middle East negotiator for two of them, he knows the area and its actors as much as anyone in America.

Ross is qualified to paint an accurate picture of where this roiled region is headed and what, if anything, the United States can do about it. Last week he spoke to WorldDenver, which promotes our international profile, and because he's an old friend, we talked together before the speech.

One verdict from the ambassador: if we are to combat the likes of the Islamic State, we can't go it alone. Another verdict: notwithstanding some presidential candidates' carpet-bombing bombast, we are in this mess for the long haul. Neither conclusion is comforting, but as I often preach, life isn't always a fairy tale with a happy ending.

Ambassador Ross knows that firsthand. Although he was on President Obama's first-term team, he just wrote a piece for the online magazine Politico with the headline, "How Obama Created a Mideast Vacuum."


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Ross says of the president's pursuit of proactive options for Syria, after he'd agitated to get us out of wars, "When he looked at Syria, he saw Iraq." And while the president rightly asked with regard to each option, "Tell me where this ends?", he failed to ask the other key question, "Tell me what happens if we don't act?" We didn't, not decisively, and what happened, in addition to barrel bombs and death and demolition throughout the country, was the spread of the Islamic State.

But while it can be instructive to look back on blunders by past presidents — especially if we could have any faith that succeeding presidents might be mindful of such mistakes and avoid them in the future — our challenge today is to figure out how to deal with the hand we're holding now.

I've made it clear in preceding columns that I subscribe to the credo also articulated by Ross: "Our choices ... should not be reduced to doing nothing or putting massive numbers of troops on the ground."

For example, he says, one choice still open to us, which falls between impotent inaction and inserting infantry, is to use air cover — "no fly zones" — to create a safe haven for refugees on accessible Syrian soil. Surely the Europeans would help, if only in their self-interest to diminish the deluge of refugees across their own borders. This not only could curtail the humanitarian crisis that this woeful war has produced, but it could provide a single place where Sunnis who abhor the jihadists, who also have Sunni roots, might speak against them with one voice. In other words, for the first time anywhere, organize the opposition.

Then, using that one clear and conspicuous voice, trigger a campaign to discredit the Islamic State. That doesn't mean everyone would shout to the rooftops that the Islamic State is a bunch of brutal barbarians; we've tried that, but recruits keep rolling in. What it means is, we'd marshall our Sunni allies to warn the world that for all its apocalyptic acclaim, it is a fringe sect of Islam that misreads and mistreats the Koran.

America's options are lamentably limited. There is no guarantee that we could successfully orchestrate a safe haven or an effective Sunni-based propaganda campaign — or that Sunni leaders would make this a priority, or that it would work — but the alternative is to cede to the terrorists of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda and others, and let them spread their evil unabated. Which is no option at all.

Greg Dobbs of Evergreen was a correspondent for ABC News for 23 years, then for HDNet television's "World Report."

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