As Jonathan elaborates, in the New York Times Magazine, columnist Roger Cohen wrote an article, “The Making of an Iran Policy,” in which, according to the magazine, Cohen “gets inside the Obama Administration’s struggle with its biggest diplomatic challenge.” In the piece, we learn several things. For example, after he returned from Iran, Cohen went to see senior officials and asked them what it had been like for the administration to react to the aftermath of the fraudulent June 12 election. “Painful, was the response,” according to Cohen. “It is difficult to weigh all the different considerations,” an official told him.
We also learn that the Obama stance of directing its diplomatic overture chiefly at Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, was undermined because of events. “The theory was always that you deal with the supreme leader because Ahmadinejad is not the ultimate decision maker,” a senior official instrumental in formulating Iran policy told Cohen. “But then he takes Ahmadinejad’s side. You still have to make the effort, the ground has to be covered, but it’s hard to be very optimistic.”
We also learn that Obama’s June visit to Saudi Arabia “proved disappointing. He got neither the Saudi help on Israel-Palestine nor the Saudi acceptance of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay that he had hoped for.”
There is more. Cohen reports:
If the Saudis are difficult, they pale by comparison with the Russians and Chinese, who are partners with the U.S. in the six-power effort (known as P5+1) to curb Iran’s nuclear program. . . . But for all Obama’s efforts to multipartner — by reviving the relationship with Russia and a similar outreach to the Chinese — it is far from clear that Moscow and Beijing do not still see America’s Iran problem as a useful tool in building a multipolar world less dominated by Washington. Getting them to impose sanctions that really bite will be difficult. Iran is awash in Chinese products — trade has boomed in recent years — and it supplies 15 percent of China ‘s oil. “It’s going to be very tough,” one senior administration official told me. “The Russian calculus about Iran is only partly about their relationship with Iran and partly about their view of us. Everyone agrees it’s not a great idea for this Iranian regime to acquire a nuclear weapon, but there’s not the same urgency we have, and certainly not the same as the Israelis have.”
“Painful” . . . “It is difficult” . . . “It’s hard to be very optimistic” . . . “It’s going to be very tough” — these are the words of reality intruding on the world of make-believe. It turns out that dealing with Iran in practice is a lot harder than dealing with Iran in the context of a presidential campaign. Who knew? For starters, almost anyone who has worked in the executive branch — and certainly anyone who has dealt with Iran in a policymaking role.
During his run for the presidency, Barack Obama made it sound as if dealing with Iran — as well as North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Guantanamo Bay, and a host of other issues — would be rather quite simple: do the opposite of what the preceding administration did (regardless of the fact that the previous administration devoted a lot of time and effort to building a multilateral approach and offered conditional talks to Iran, which the latter rejected out of hand).
“Direct engagement” and unconditional talks were the chosen courses of action. Obama would make it clear to Iran that it was in its best interest to give up its quest for nuclear weapons, which after all was keeping it from fully rejoining the “community of nations.” Come, let us reason together, and all that. Obama himself would, as he put it in his Inaugural Address, “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your first.” Since his election, though, Obama has met with fists that are more clenched than ever before.
A policy of engagement with adversaries is not necessarily foolish, and in some circumstances it may be wise. It depends on facts and circumstances. The hard question has always been what happens if engagement fails, which in the case of Iran is far more likely to happen than not. And here the Obama administration seems to have little to offer beyond the threat of more sanctions against Iran, even though, as the administration is discovering, the nations that can help impose tougher sanctions are opposed to them.
To be fair to Obama — although Obama has been less than fair to those who came before him — during the campaign, he succumbed to the temptation faced by office seekers, pundits, and diplomats-in-waiting: criticizing the party in power by sketching out solutions that, on paper at least, sound both brilliant and simple. It is so much easier to critique others from the safe distance of a television studio, in blogs and essays, in columns and editorials. But the world is an untidy place; often those in high office have to act on incomplete information, under enormous pressure, on issues they would rather avoid, and choose among a series of bad options. And sometimes the wrong option is chosen.
Iran is not an easy matter to deal with for anyone, of either party. None of this is meant to argue for suspending judgment or accountability; it is simply to point out that executing a policy is more difficult than commenting on it. In his foreword to Raymond Aron’s book Memoirs, Henry Kissinger wrote:
For a man like myself, involved for many years in the mundane tasks of diplomacy, Aron’s book is not always comfortable reading. Clearly, his judgment of my efforts as a statesman is less admiring than mine of his contributions to Western thought. This is as it should be. The philosopher deals with truth; the statesman addresses contingencies. The thinker has a duty to define what is right; the policymaker must deal with what is attainable. The professor focuses on ultimate goals; the diplomat knows that his is a meandering path on which there are few ultimate solutions and whatever “solutions” there are, more often than not turn into a threshold for a new set of problems. De Gaulle characteristically summed up the dilemma in a letter cited by Aron: “It happens that I am sometimes not convinced by what you write and I know that from the outset you have rarely approved what I do. However, please believe that I admire the way in which your mind attempts to encompass the great flood that is carrying all of us toward an apparently measureless and, in any event, unprecedented fate.
My concern with Obama has less to do with his simplistic assertions when he ran for office than with his unwillingness to adjust to changing circumstances now that he has won. According to the Cohen article, the policy of direct engagement with Iran “goes deep with the president. He’s driving Iran policy. The Iran gambit lies close to the core of his refashioned global strategy, America’s ‘new era of engagement.’”
Will Obama, upon learning that the “policy of engagement” may have been founded upon false premises, adjust to reality? Having settled on one course of action, will he be able to show the intellectual suppleness to embrace another? Will he come to understand that the leaders of repressive regimes are immune to his charm and reasonableness and may even view them as weaknesses? And if engagement fails as a strategy, will he show the strength and creativity necessary? These questions are ones we can never fully know the answers to in advance of electing a president. But they are ones that a president will have to answer over time, in the crucible of events.