Commentary Magazine


Negotiations: The Never-Ending Story

As champions of “soft power” America and her allies have adopted an attitude of unprecedented powerlessness that has left the West with no other way to deal with our enemies than through negotiations. Unwilling to back these negotiations up with even the threat of tough action–shrinking from so much as further sanctions against Iran–Western diplomats find themselves trapped in an endless cycle of appeasement and protracted, yet fruitless, negotiations and peace conferences.   

In recent days both Secretary of State John Kerry and the EU’s foreign-affairs representative Baroness Ashton have made announcements proposing an extension to the various Middle East negotiations they are involved in overseeing. To no one’s surprise, Kerry is now saying that the time period for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will need to be extended beyond the original, and always improbable, nine-month period that the State Department had set. Far more disturbingly, Baroness Ashton has suggested an extension on the five-month-long negotiation period over Iran’s nuclear program–an unbelievable suggestion given that the round of negotiations in question hasn’t even begun yet.  

Indeed, Baroness Ashton’s comments about the Iranian negotiations are by far the most concerning. A consensus seems to be forming among many intelligence experts who say that if Iran wished to produce nuclear weapons it could possibly achieve this within a month to six weeks. As it is, the next round of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, which are being overseen by Kerry and Ashton as part of the P5+1 grouping, are due to run for five months starting from February 18. During that period not only does Iran receive relief from some of the sanctions but it is also permitted to continue with enrichment of uranium and so far has not been obliged to dismantle any of its nuclear infrastructure.

Speaking at the security conference in Munich over the weekend, Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif had been pushing for precisely such an extension. This is hardly surprising given the benefits Iran derives from the current arrangements. For Ashton to be voicing such suggestions before negotiations are even underway seems recklessly irresponsible considering the gravity of the stakes involved. Yet, State Department spokespeople have also started hinting that the real time frame they have in mind may be more like six months to a year. In fact the phrase used by deputy State Department spokesperson Marie Harf was “six months, or a year or at any time.” Yes, any time. The message to the Iranians is clear. No need to get serious now, if you keep playing for time then really you can have all the time you need.

The Western powers seem to have adopted an attitude of hyperbolic weakness, in which the fear of assertive action is more frightening than the worst acts taken by our enemies against us. Paralyzed by this attitude, the U.S. and its allies refuse to employ any leverage to pressure the Iranians to cease what is after all an activity proscribed by six separate UN Security Council resolutions. Under this self-imposed attitude of powerlessness, the Western nations can do nothing but negotiate endlessly and offer ever more concessions to the Iranians so as to keep them at the negotiating table and avoid being exposed to their own publics for what they really are: appeasers.

This attitude of defenselessness to the will of the intransigent is even on display in America’s dealings with those whom the U.S. has nothing to fear from, in this case the Palestinians. Kerry’s latest suggestion that he won’t oblige the negotiating parties to accept his final-status parameters within the time frame he set has arisen out of the refusal by the Palestinians to accept the Jewish state. The nine-month period allotted to negotiate a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse was always wildly unrealistic, but it at least recognized that the negotiations couldn’t be allowed to run indefinitely. Given the number of concessions the Palestinians had demanded from the Israelis before even agreeing to join peace talks, it was clear what their attitude to the whole process was going to be. Kerry set up the time frame precisely to compel both sides to take the talks seriously, and now he’s caved on just about his only ground rule.

The Ashton-Kerry mindset is one that appears to fundamentally loathe the use of Western power and is besotted with the notion of peaceful dialogue and coexistence in a world in which all parties are believed to be rational and reasonable. Yet, when you bring such an attitude to the unreasonable and the calculating you find yourself being strung along endlessly. The Palestinians know Kerry will not be secretary of state forever and the Iranians know that if they just drag talks out long enough they will get the concessions they need and will likely be able to achieve nuclear weapons beneath the radar, hidden behind the charade of august negotiations, in elegant European cities.      

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