Incentives remain at the core of the negotiating strategy which the United States and its allies have toward the Islamic Republic of Iran and its nuclear program. Tracing the Western approach is an exercise in frustration as retired diplomats and Iran’s apologists blame the United States for Iran’s failure to make a deal, even as the pot which American diplomats offer grows increasingly rich.
Too often, once a diplomatic initiative is begun, the process becomes more important than the results. Sometimes it is useful to revert to the 100,000 foot level and question basic assumptions. First, does Iranian behavior suggest that incentives work? The answer is no: Since German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel unveiled the concept of “Critical Engagement” back in 1992, successive generations of European and American governments have been trying to entice Iran. Sometimes they referred to a China model, in which economic liberalization would lead (in theory) to political liberalization; at other times they suggested that returning the Iranian regime to the community of nations would lead it to become a more responsible partner; and still other times they were downright mercantilist, trying to buy Iranian compliance. While the Iranian regime was always willing to encourage a sweetening of the pot, at no time has its behavior suggested that such a strategy will work.
Indeed, the obsessive American approach to trying to bribe Iran only humiliates the United States in the eyes of Iranian officials. The simple facts of the matter are these:
- The Iranian nuclear program is in non-compliance with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement and with multiple International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) findings and with several United Nations Security Council resolutions. There really should be no ifs, ands, or buts when it comes to American flexibility.
- Many diplomats believe that a give-and-take should form the basis of diplomatic negotiations. It should be increasingly difficult for these diplomats to defend the process, for while the European Union and United States have offered to give and give and give some more, the Iranians have not reciprocated. Why is it that the Iranian government does not itself offer some incentives?
The simple facts are these:
- The Iranian government has repeatedly approached talks insincerely, and has no intention of forfeiting its illicit nuclear weapons program.
- After two decades of diplomacy, Iranian authorities know what they need to do. Countless meetings do not elucidate it for them. It is time Western diplomats underline a choice: Tehran can abandon its nuclear program, or they can face the consequences. Rather than let the Islamic Republic profit off its defiance, the most productive thing congressmen and diplomats should do is outline just exactly what those consequences will be.
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No More Incentives for Iran
Must-Reads from Magazine
Lovely, dark, and deep.
Politico contributing editor Bill Scher isn’t the first to claim that the only responsible way for Trump-skeptical conservative to oppose the president is to register as Democrats, but his is one of the most charitable and honest of those appeals. It deserves a comprehensive response. Toward that end, I’d contend that Scher has conservative thought leaders confused with legislators and political organizers. He has mistaken those who adhere to inviolable conservative principle with influence-seekers who are bound to a constituency, not ideas. Finally, he has adopted a narrow view of the current political moment that has blinded him both to what the Democratic Party truly is and the incentives to which conservatives in political exile respond.
Scher began by noting that a few influential Trump critics in the conservative movement have left the Republican Party in the Trump era, and a few are even rooting for a Democratic takeover of one or both chambers of Congress in November. This is, in his estimation, a half-measure unequal to the gravity of the moment and generally not in this group’s interests. There is no country for a homeless pundit. They will need a tribe if they are to be effective and, ultimately, protected.
Outside the tent, Scher claims, the Democratic Party will continue to move left and become even more unappealing to those on the right. The party can serve as a haven for conservative refugees, he insists, if they’d only just throw off their partisan blinders. Ideologically diverse, accommodating, and conciliatory, Scher insists that Democrats maintain the last true big tent. “[I]f you are primarily horrified at how Trump is undermining the existing international political and economic order—hugging Russia, lauding strongmen, sparking protectionist trade wars—then becoming a Democrat is your best option,” he wrote.
This isn’t just a terrible misunderstanding of what animates Trump’s conservative critics; it is a misguided and ultimately deceptive misrepresentation of the modern Democratic Party.
Scher makes the point repeatedly that the Trump-skeptical conservative movement has utterly lost the debate and the GOP with it. In 2016, most of the party’s voters rejected the doctrinal conservatism to which they cling. What else is new? The Republican Party has not always been a conservative party. Conservatives waged a 20-year struggle to displace the progressive ethos that typified the GOP from T.R. to Eisenhower. Preserving the GOP’s ideological predisposition toward conservatism is a constant struggle, but it is one that conservative opinion makers relish.
Trump’s critics in the conservative movement abandoned him not just because of his temperamental defects, but because of his progressive impulses. The president’s skepticism toward free trade, his conciliatory posture toward hostile regimes abroad, his Keynesian instincts, his apathy toward budget deficits, and his general amenability toward heedless populism are traits that traditionally appeal to and are exhibited by Democrats. Why would conservatives join that which they are rebelling against?
Scher’s contention that the Trump-skeptics in conservative ranks would have more influence over the Democratic Party than the GOP is bizarre. The anti-Trump right is far too small a contingent to have any impact on the evolutionary trajectory of the Democratic Party, even if they were to abandon the principles that led them into the wilderness in the first place. They do, however, enjoy influence over American politics wildly disproportionate relative to their numerical strength.
Trump-skeptical conservatives are ubiquitous features on cable news. Their magazines and websites are enjoying a renaissance. They haunt their comrades who have made their peace with Trumpism. Most critically, they represent the strain of conservatism to which the majority of the Republican Party’s congressmen and women are loyal because it was that brand of conservatism that led them into politics in the first place. The worst-kept secret of the Trump era is that this president receives his highest marks when he’s doing conventionally conservative things. When the president behaves as he promised to on the campaign trail, Republicans rebel and often rein in his worst impulses. It’s not much, but it is a sign that a partial restoration of the status quo ante is not unthinkable.
Scher frequently cites exceptions within the Democratic firmament as though they do not illustrate the rule. He claims that the Democratic Party is not “a rotten cauldron of crass identity politics, recreational abortion, and government run amok.” As evidence, he cites the fact that a handful of pro-life Democrats have managed to resist the party’s purge of that formerly-common view, but that is an admission of heterodoxy. The Democratic Party’s fealty to divisive identity politics is hardly a figment of conservative imaginations. From Salon.com to the New York Times opinion page, many on the left, too, have soured on the party’s attachment to racial and demographic hierarchies. And as for the party’s reputation for profligacy, Democrats can renounce the works of the 111th Congress—the last time the party had total control of Washington—whenever they muster up the gumption.
Scher believes it is inconsistent for conservatives to support a Democratic takeover of one or more legislative chambers and not support the Democratic agenda, but there is nothing inconsistent about it. Conservatives who think the GOP-led Congress has proven an insufficient check on the GOP-led executive are placing a vote of confidence in the Constitution, not the progressive agenda. If the cohort formerly dubbed #NeverTrump conservatives believe Democrats would be a better governing party than the GOP, they should certainly register Democratic at the nearest opportunity. If they believe that, though, they’re not #NeverTrump conservatives at all. They’re just #NeverTrump.
Conservatives are no strangers to being torn between their principle and their influence. Conservative opinion makers have been compelled to choose between proximity to power and their core values before. Those who chose temporary isolation in order to shield conservative beliefs from being disfigured by those who do not cherish them might not enjoy the gratitude they’ve earned. But they left behind a markedly more conservative country than the one they were born into.
The lessons of recent history are clear: Those who are content to sacrifice their principles for access and influence preserve neither in the long run.
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Podcast: Who are centrists, and should we cater to them?
Polls say a majority of Americans believe both Republican and Democratic politicians are out of the mainstream. So where is the mainstream? Who represents the mainstream? Are there centrist politicians any longer? Or are “centrists” just soft liberals in disguise and therefore represent very little? It’s a podcast from 30,000 feet. Give a listen.
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In on the act.
The behavior of many attendees of Donald Trump’s campaign-style rally in Florida on Tuesday night was barbaric. There’s no other way to put it. The footage of rally-goers’ menacing and shouting profanity at reporters in slavish observance of the president’s goading was unbecoming of the citizens of a republic that values a free and independent press. The normalization of the radical anonymous conspiracy theorist “Q,” who is conspicuously obsessed with the idea that child sex trafficking is a popular liberal pastime, is disgraceful. A target of last night’s frenzied crowd, CNN’s Jim Acosta claimed that the “the hostility whipped up by Trump and some in conservative media will result in somebody getting hurt.” Indeed, this was a hostile assembly, and such crowds are capable of astonishing violence. But, as he later learned and revealed, Acosta was probably not in that kind of danger.
When Acosta descended from the podium on which he broadcasts, he calmly approached his abusers and invited them to speak—most of them happily accepted. This isn’t the first time that Acosta has served as the object of a mob’s derision, only for their ire to transform into celebrity-worship when the cameras go off. No one should minimize the potential for savagery here; it would not be the first time that the president has incited his followers to acts of violence, and the media figures and outlets Trump singles out endure harassment and credible threats from the president’s most unhinged fans. But there is a performative aspect to the Two Minutes Hate directed toward Acosta. He serves as their foil, the heel who absorbs the crowd’s fury in the ring only to sign autographs for his hecklers backstage. And there’s some evidence that Acosta relishes that role.
That doesn’t excuse any of this behavior. Indeed, it makes it worse. In his conduct as America’s chief executive, Donald Trump has inflamed and aggravated tensions to serve his own narrow ends. That objective is so transparent, though, that most who participate in this performance must do so knowing it is a farce. In willingly suffocating their better angels with a pillow, Trump and his allies may be radicalizing the truly unhinged who cannot see through the act. Perhaps more depressing, the Trumpified Republican Party is acclimating itself to behaviors and policies that would have been considered unspeakably callous not all that long ago.
In that speech before a group of veterans last week, Trump implied that media reports of businesses or individuals hurt by his trade war were pure fabrications. “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news,” Trump said to cheers. “What you are seeing and what you are reading is not happening.” That goes for polling data, too. At least, polling that the president doesn’t like. “Polls are fake, just like everything else,” Trump insisted this week before citing his own standing among Republicans as determined by—what else?—polls.
The only way to avoid feeling insulted by this naked contempt for the audience’s intelligence is to convince yourself that this is all a game. Maybe rally goers think that blind displays of fealty to the president frustrate all the right people. Maybe they love being swept up in the performance art of it all, and Jim Acosta might as well be the Iron Sheik to Trump’s Hulk Hogan. The bottom line is that the audience believes they’re part of the act.
But Trump’s acolytes are endorsing or excusing shameful behavior that no one should tolerate from public servants or the government of which they are a part.
Donald Trump is fond of reciting portions of civil-rights activist Oscar Brown Jr.’s 1963 poem, “The Snake,” from behind the lectern to impugn foreign refugees fleeing war and poverty abroad as sleeper agents who seek only to do Americans harm. This isn’t just agitation; it’s policy. The United States took in just 33,000 refugees last year, the lowest intake in over a decade and well below the quota. This year, administration officials led by immigration antagonist Stephen Miller hope to resettle only 15,000 refugees, a decline that experts contend is designed to allow the private charities and public mechanisms that facilitate resettlement to atrophy permanently.
At first, Trump was happy to defend his “zero tolerance” policy, which became a euphemism for breaking up families at the border to deter future border crossers. He incoherently blamed “Democrat-supported loopholes” for the policy while simultaneously insisting that a secure nation cannot have a “politically correct” immigration policy, all to the sound of applause. Only when the backlash became so great did he back off this draconian policy, and his fans cheered him for that, too.
The public outcry that erupted following the termination of “zero tolerance” has abated, but the horrors have not. In testimony before Congress on Tuesday, a Health and Human Services official confessed that they knew the “separation of children from their parents entails significant risk of harm to children.” The psychological abuse associated with this policy has occasionally led to outbursts among incarcerated children, leading U.S. government officials to administer regular doses of psychotropic medication to their charges without the consent of a parent or guardian—a practice that a district judge halted in a sweeping ruling on Monday.
The president’s rallies exemplify the post-truth moment, in which his supporters adopt Trump’s penchant for moral and intellectual malleability as though it was a virtue. As Jonah Goldberg observed, the president’s vanguard has seamlessly transitioned from claiming that there was no evidence that the president welcomed the interference of Kremlin operatives in the 2016 election to contending that welcoming such interference would not violate any statutes to insisting that cooperation with hostile foreign powers for political gain is just best practice. Likewise, when Trump’s crowds chant “lock her up” nearly two years into the Trump administration, they know that’s not going to happen. It’s the kind of banana republicanism that owns the libs, and that’s all that matters.
For Trump’s fan base and his phalanx of enablers in the conservative press, this is all a big gimmick, and they think they’re in on it. It’s all just talk, and so the stakes must be low. Anyone who over analyzes the impact of a presidential pronouncement just doesn’t get him—not like his infinitely forgiving admirers do. But this is not a game. The behavior of the most powerful man on earth matters. Pretending it does not only to posture as self-righteous is no nobler than the hysterics to which Trump’s perspectiveless critics are prone. They are players occupying two different roles on the same stage, both taking their direction from the president.
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Peace, Bread, Canned.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic Party’s newest rock star, appears to believe that the negative attention she has received from people on the right is a function of the threat she represents to their political preeminence. As Charles C.W. Cooke ably demonstrated in National Review, nothing could be further from the truth. Republicans surely hope that she keeps talking without interruption between now and Election Day.
Ocasio-Cortez’s habit of advertising stereotypically profligate and invasive progressive shibboleths has tended so far to be limited to cable-television interviews, and she could perhaps be given some leeway for having to think on the fly. But she has no excuse for her latest instant classic, which was written down, edited, and published with what was presumably some forethought. “New York City is experiencing the highest rate of homelessness since the Great Depression,” she wrote. “For every 1 person experiencing homelessness here, there are ~3 vacant apartments.”
This bizarre and frankly irrelevant observation would not have crossed my transom if it wasn’t for the fact-checking venue PolitiFact, which performed the kind of friendly logical gymnastics it reserves only for Democrats to assure me that this was the articulation of a perfectly valid policy proposal. That is to say, if it weren’t for PolitiFact, I’d have assumed that Ocasio-Cortez was only clearing her throat toward no nobler end than posturing as self-righteous for her fans. These helpful fact-checkers have bent over backward to convince me otherwise. The appropriation of housing to redistribute to the homeless in New York City is, indeed, a genuine and achievable policy proposal.
PolitiFact determined that there are approximately 62,000 homeless individuals in New York City, and there are 79,190 empty units on the market today in the city. If they were simply appropriated by the government, sacrificing all the capital and labor dedicated to their construction and maintenance in the process and making no qualitative distinctions between available apartments, you could theoretically fill these units with homeless people. And since many homeless individuals are part of a family, that would seemingly justify Ocasio-Cortez’s claim.
Oddly, PolitiFact also expanded the pool of available units to include vacant apartments, including those units that are the sporadically occupied conveniences of the “the super-duper-well-to-do,” undergoing renovation, held pending sales, or held pending a legal dispute. According to one expert’s ominous euphemism, the number of apartments in private hands could decrease dramatically “with a few nudges or tweaks of the law.”
Viola! PolitiFact found, “in the main,” Ocasio-Cortez’s math holds up. But the question remains: Do they think they are helping the self-described Democratic Socialist from Queens? The non-sequitur she fired off into the ether of Twitter was designed only to signal her good intentions. She surely wasn’t advocating for a Bolshevist program of dividing the property of the wealthy up into Kommunalka. Right? After all, no sentient person with even a tenuous grasp of the problem of homelessness in New York City—a problem that has only been exacerbated by Ocasio-Cortez’s comrade in Gracie Mansion—could think this was a reasonable policy.
The city has seen costs associated with housing the homeless soar since New York abandoned Mike Bloomberg-era incentives for shelter operators to place families with independent housing. The average shelter stays increased significantly under de Blasio, up to an average of 550 days for adult couples without children. “More than 71,000 homeless have exited shelter under de Blasio, according to the city, which plans to update performance metrics for providers,” a report from the Manhattan Institute read. What’s more, the city is throwing billions into shelter construction even though, as of May, “61,945 homeless people, including 15,023 homeless families with 22,538 homeless children” were sleeping each night in a municipal shelter. That’s an 85 percent increase from 10 years ago.
How does New York City come up with those figures? The city performs an exhaustive count of not just the homeless population but the services available to them, even going so far as to pay hundreds of performers to behave as the homeless to see if census takers catch them. Last year, it was estimated that only 5 percent of the city’s homeless population was unsheltered, and that was almost entirely by choice. The fact is that a small portion of the homeless population in New York City takes no advantage of supportive housing because they have a history of incarceration, drug addiction, or mental illness despite the services available to them. For this relatively small homeless population, being on the street is preferable to support and care.
Ocasio-Cortez didn’t seem to know any of this. PolitiFact didn’t seem to care. Instead, both seemed more interested in making a political point about the city’s capacity to dissolve the bonds of private property by appropriating the ill-begotten gains of the landowners and redistributing them. It can only be a threat because it’s certainly not a new idea. “There is already a sufficient quantity of houses in the big cities to remedy immediately all real ‘housing shortage,’ provided they are used judiciously,” Friedrich Engels wrote in 1872. “This can naturally only occur through the expropriation of the present owners and by quartering in their houses homeless workers or workers overcrowded in their present homes.” Conservatives who accuse Ocasio-Cortez of flirting with Marxism are not exaggerating.
Between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s inflated sense of her own intelligence and political acumen and her economic illiteracy, Democrats are going to find themselves increasingly uncomfortable with their party’s newest celebrity. By contrast, conservatives cannot believe their luck.
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End the global diplomatic offensive.
It wasn’t long ago that the president’s supporters justified their commitment to selectively hearing what Trump had to say, dismissing his more intemperate outbursts and mocking those who declined to follow their lead. But from trade wars to draconian border-security policies, Trump has recently demonstrated that he meant much of what he promised on the campaign trail. Therefore, we are best served by taking the most powerful man on earth both literally and seriously, even if that is sometimes politically inconvenient. And it is hard to envision a more inconvenient set of circumstances than those around Donald Trump’s proposed summit with the theocrats in Iran.
“I’ll meet with anybody,” said the president, stating the obvious, alongside Italy’s prime minister on Monday. “I would certainly meet with Iran if they wanted to meet.” When asked if he would set any terms for such an unprecedented meeting, Trump demurred. “No preconditions. If they want to meet, I’ll meet.”
The recklessness that would lead an American president into a room with a representative of the fundamentalist regime in Tehran, much less a head of government, is hard to imagine. But so, too, is the irrationality that compelled the president to perform acts of embarrassing summitry with his Russian and North Korean counterparts. So, even if it’s obvious, we’re obliged to illustrate why the meeting he has envisioned would be one of Trump’s worst ideas to date.
The Iranians have demanded that Trump consider reversing his decision to withdraw from the JCPOA as a precondition for the meeting, and that would be a disastrous prospect. When Donald Trump made the correct decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear accords, he did so after re-certifying Iranian compliance several times. In January of 2018, he warned that it would be the last time he would agree to waive sanctions on Iran in observance of a deal that was far too lenient on Tehran. The fact that Iran was nominally in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was an indictment of the agreement, not a defense.
The deal as negotiated provided outside inspectors no access to suspect military sites, some of which the International Atomic Energy Agency claimed showed signs of being expanded. In 2016, German intelligence confirmed that Iranian negotiators had been caught trying to obtain “high-level” nuclear technology without UN Security Council permission. Joint Iranian-Russian efforts to build “installations for heavy isotope production” at the underground military facility Fordo continued apace. In April, a remarkable Israeli intelligence operation captured thousands of physical documents from Iran detailing the extent of their pre-JCPOA nuclear-weapons research. Those documents, which were deliberately concealed from inspectors in a civilian warehouse, suggest that Iran’s nondisclosures were designed to ensure that it could pick up on nuclear-weapons production where it left off when the JCPOA expired. Then, it would be unlikely that the financial and diplomatic benefits Iran enjoyed as a result of the deal could be rolled back.
In the interim, Iran has continued to earn its title as the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism. It destabilizes the Middle East through proxy forces like Hezbollah. It exacerbates conflicts and abets crimes against human dignity in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. It supports and collaborates with the world’s most abusive criminal regimes, including those in North Korea, Venezuela, Russia, and Cuba. It is a horribly governed, repressive theocracy that long ago sacrificed its legitimacy and regularly enforces its rule by violently suppressing anti-government protests.
Even despite the years of effort Barack Obama and his administration put into legitimizing the Iranian regime, neither the president nor his subordinates provided Iranian President Hassan Rouhani or his predecessors with the propaganda coup of a face-to-face meeting. Donald Trump would be unwise to build on the precedents Obama set, particularly when considering his questionable record of engineering diplomatic breakthroughs with other rogue states.
The president’s sit-down with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un was an unmitigated waste of American diplomatic capital. In the seven weeks that elapsed since that meeting, North Korea has taken some cosmetic steps toward compensating Trump for the propaganda victory Pyongyang has sought for over a quarter century. It has repatriated to Americans the bodies of some U.S. soldiers who died in the Korean War, shuttered a likely defunct nuclear test site, and dismantled portions of one missile-testing facility. Elsewhere in the country, though, missile-construction facilities are still being built, nuclear weapons facilities are still active, and intercontinental missile production continues. In sum, progress toward a reliable North Korean nuclear deterrent that can target the U.S. mainland has not been significantly arrested. Progress toward diplomatic normalization with North Korea has, however, progressed far more rapidly. On balance, Pyongyang’s position is stronger today and America’s is weaker.
Trump’s servile performance in Helsinki alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin seems similarly ill-conceived in retrospect. The president undermined his intelligence agencies and Cabinet officials and legitimized the Russian regime toward no discernable end, and for what? Since the Trump-Putin summit, Moscow has declined to acquiesce to American and Israeli requests for its help in forcing Iranian soldiers and proxy forces out of Syria. It was revealed that Russian cyber-espionage outfits allegedly sought to access private data associated with a Democratic Senator up for reelection, and Russia has been implicated in ongoing efforts to destabilize American politics through influence campaigns on social media. This is on top of Moscow’s complicity in grotesque human-rights abuses both at home and abroad, its continued occupation of sovereign Ukrainian territory, and its efforts to persecute human-rights activists and American diplomatic officials.
The fact that Trump is even considering the prospect of a meeting with Iranian officials given these embarrassments suggests that serious people should take him literally. Trump’s willingness to make concessions to rogue states, whether he views them as concessions or not, is a real threat to U.S. interests. The sooner that Trump is disabused of the notion that he is a competent negotiator, the sooner we can lessen the risks associated with his proclivity for fraught diplomatic endeavors.