One of the more disappointing aspects of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent Iran diplomacy is the willingness to sacrifice allies for the sake of ephemeral diplomatic deals, and the willingness to reward intransigence with concessions, all the while believing that incentive brings flexibility rather than contempt.
The Obama administration—or at least its chorus—has been particularly noxious in addressing criticism. Rather than addressing argument with argument, it has sought too often to smear those who disagree with the president or distrust Iranian motives. Hence, Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen smeared the Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s Mark Dubowitz, suggesting that he acted on the instruction of Israel. Ali Gharib, a prolific tweeter and one-time “Open Zion” editor whom Peter Beinart lamented had been spuriously accused of anti-Semitism, implied that congressional opposition to Obama’s policy on Iran was because Israel controlled Congress. Then again, as many defenders of Chuck Hagel suggest, perhaps attributing opposing views to dual loyalty is not really anti-Semitic after all.
Perhaps it would be comforting for those slurred to believe that such behavior is simply the domain of the Obama administration, or motivated by disdain for Israel in certain policy circles. The problem is larger, however. It is a theme I explore in my forthcoming book, Dancing with the Devil, a study of a half century of U.S. attempts to engage rogue regimes and terrorist groups. It is not limited to the resentment with which Israel is treated as it dissents, nor did such practices start in 2009, when Obama took office.
In 1993, the Clinton administration was engaged in a full-court press to engage North Korea which at the time was, much like today, threatening its neighbors and pushing ahead with a covert nuclear program. Whereas the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations had long coordinated with Seoul, South Korean warnings and its incessant urging of caution antagonized American diplomats who did not want South Korea’s analysis of North Korean politics, intentions, and diplomatic strategy to get in the way of a deal. When South Korean President Kim Young Sam tired of having his concerns dismissed or, even worse, belittled by diplomats who could not speak Korean and considered themselves experts on the region after just months on the job, complained to journalists that North Korea was leading America on and manipulating negotiators “to buy time,” the State Department was furious. When he repeated his criticism the following year, Clinton blew his top. In hindsight, of course, the South Koreans were right.
The goal of diplomacy should never be to reach a deal; rather, it should be to solve the problem. Alas, diplomats and presidents in search of a legacy often refuse to see the forest through the trees. They single-mindedly focus on getting to yes regardless of whether the cost of the deal outweighs the benefit. When evidence about an adversary’s behavior or intentions threatens forward diplomatic momentum, there are two possible actions: good presidents recalibrate policy to reflect the reality of an adversary. Bad presidents ignore evidence and slander those presenting it. Obama and Kerry appear intent on securing their legacy, although probably not in the way they intended.