Commentary Magazine


Topic: Wendy Sherman

Obama Gets Iran and North Korea Wrong

According to the Obama administration, they’ve learned their lessons from the disastrous American diplomatic effort that failed to stop North Korea from becoming a nuclear power. According to a feature in today’s New York Times, the administration rejects the notion that their diplomatic initiative with Iran is a repeat of the foolish disastrous efforts of the Clinton and Bush administrations that accomplished nothing but paving the way for the regime in Pyongyang to go nuclear. But the argument that their crafting of a far more specific agreement with much greater incentives built into it to persuade Iran to forebear from violating its restrictions will succeed where past efforts with North Korea failed doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. More to the point, and as the Times reports, officials in South Korea say President Obama has compounded the mistakes of his predecessors on North Korea with neglect. Rather than profit from past errors, it appears the administration has blundered on both nuclear fronts.

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According to the Obama administration, they’ve learned their lessons from the disastrous American diplomatic effort that failed to stop North Korea from becoming a nuclear power. According to a feature in today’s New York Times, the administration rejects the notion that their diplomatic initiative with Iran is a repeat of the foolish disastrous efforts of the Clinton and Bush administrations that accomplished nothing but paving the way for the regime in Pyongyang to go nuclear. But the argument that their crafting of a far more specific agreement with much greater incentives built into it to persuade Iran to forebear from violating its restrictions will succeed where past efforts with North Korea failed doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. More to the point, and as the Times reports, officials in South Korea say President Obama has compounded the mistakes of his predecessors on North Korea with neglect. Rather than profit from past errors, it appears the administration has blundered on both nuclear fronts.

As the Times reports, while President Obama’s foreign policy team concentrated all of their efforts in recent years on trying to appease Iran, the North Koreans took advantage of the distraction. South Koreans say Pyongyang’s mad rulers have gone “on an atomic spending spree” that Washington can no longer stop:

Satellite photographs of the North’s main nuclear facility at Yongbyon, released in 2013, have shown a doubling in size of the nuclear enrichment plant there, which the United States did not know about until 2010, and American officials strongly suspect there is a second one. A consensus is emerging that the North most likely possesses a dozen or so nuclear weapons and could be on the way to an arsenal of as many as 20 by the end of 2016.

The administration’s excuse on North Korea is that the cat was out of the bag long before Barack Obama arrived in the White House. That’s actually true as it was the Clinton administration and its chief negotiator Wendy Sherman who paved the way for North Korea to get a bomb with deals that Pyongyang quickly renounced after it received the Western bribes that were intended to entice them to renounce their nuclear ambitions. That doesn’t excuse the fact that the North Koreans have rightly come to the conclusion that Washington won’t do much no matter what they do. But since Obama rightly opposes negotiations that will recognize North Korea as a nuclear power and there is little short of war that the U.S. can do to force it to give up its weapons, some of the criticism of his conduct here is unfair.

But the problem is not so much that Obama hasn’t tried to learn from his predecessors’ folly but that he has asked the wrong questions about them and come to some terribly incorrect conclusions.

As Times Washington correspondent David Sanger notes, attempts to draw exact analogies between the North Korean and Iranian situations are not accurate. The agreements signed with North Korea were not as specific as the framework that has been drawn up with Iran. There have been some inspections of Iranian facilities though not as intrusive as would be necessary to ensure that they are not cheating and without being transparent about past nuclear military research. Moreover, the Iranian economy is sufficiently complex and dependent on foreign trade that the West had some real leverage over Tehran with the enforcement of tough sanctions.

Though the two rogue nuclear programs are different, what was the same was the fact that Sherman took on the same role with Iran that she had with North Korea. It’s true that she has not repeated the same exact mistakes she made before. But the problem is that instead of gaining from the experience, all it has done is to inspire her and her bosses to make different and perhaps even more tragic errors.

But what’s interesting about Obama’s policy toward the two countries is that while he thought getting tough was appropriate with North Korea, he rejected the same idea with Iran. This made no sense since not talking to Pyongyang did nothing to prevent them from rapidly expanding their nuclear arsenal on the president’s watch. Just as foolish was a decision to discard the considerable economic, political and military leverage the United States had over Iran. Instead of getting tough and isolating Iran as he unsuccessfully tried with North Korea, the president embraced favor a negotiating strategy that granted Tehran far reaching concessions that gives them two paths to a bomb: one by cheating easily evaded restrictions and the other by patiently waiting for it to expire.

Just as ridiculous is what Sanger reports about what the administration thinks the impact of the Iran deal will be on North Korea.

Some American officials say they have one last hope: If the deal with Iran works and sanctions are lifted, North Korean officials, who are following the negotiations closely, might conclude that their nuclear program could be traded for economic integration.

This is lunacy since, as even other members of the administration concede according to Sanger, the North Koreans want no part of economic integration with the West.

For all of the contrasts between these two problems, the common denominator is more than the presence of Sherman at the table. In the 1990s just as today, Western diplomats thought they could do business with a dangerous regime. With regard to North Korea, that was a colossal error and one that threatens the security of the Far East. But the implications of appeasing Iran are even more far reaching. In doing so, the administration has not only thrown away the good chance they had to bring Tehran to its knees via even tougher sanctions. It also has endangered the entire Middle East that now rightly fears that Iran’s dreams of regional hegemony have been made more likely by the United States decision to allow it to become a threshold nuclear power.

Just as South Koreans now shake their heads at Obama’s misguided policy, so, too, do America’s Middle East allies — the Arab states as well as Israel — have reason to regret the fact that the president got both North Korea and Iran wrong.

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Obama Still Threatening Netanyahu

What does the State Department’s Wendy Sherman do with her spare time when not negotiating weak nuclear deals with rogue regimes? The same as the rest of the Obama foreign-policy team: threaten Israel with diplomatic isolation at the United Nations. Sherman issued some thinly veiled threats yesterday in remarks to a gathering of Reform movement leaders in which she made clear that the administration expects the next Israeli government to do its bidding with respect to supporting a two-state solution with the Palestinians. While there’s nothing new about this insistence, Sherman’s language followed the same pattern as other remarks issued by U.S. officials since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reelected last month. But like all such warnings that have been aimed at Jerusalem from Washington, the most striking aspect of this effort is how divorced these American staffers are from the reality of a peace process that the Palestinians have no interest in pursuing.

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What does the State Department’s Wendy Sherman do with her spare time when not negotiating weak nuclear deals with rogue regimes? The same as the rest of the Obama foreign-policy team: threaten Israel with diplomatic isolation at the United Nations. Sherman issued some thinly veiled threats yesterday in remarks to a gathering of Reform movement leaders in which she made clear that the administration expects the next Israeli government to do its bidding with respect to supporting a two-state solution with the Palestinians. While there’s nothing new about this insistence, Sherman’s language followed the same pattern as other remarks issued by U.S. officials since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reelected last month. But like all such warnings that have been aimed at Jerusalem from Washington, the most striking aspect of this effort is how divorced these American staffers are from the reality of a peace process that the Palestinians have no interest in pursuing.

Sherman, who holds the title of Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, is best known for her work on nuclear non-proliferation in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. But her real claim to fame is as the person who naively gave away the store to the North Koreans that helped them get closer to a bomb in the 1990s and learned nothing from that experience before repeating the exercise in the last few years with Iran. She defended the Iran nuclear deal she helped negotiate and assured the Reform leaders that the pact would make Israel and the world safer. But that highly debatable conclusion is less newsworthy than Sherman’s effort to fire yet another shot over Netanyahu’s bow as he completed negotiations to form his next government.

According to the Times of Israel, Sherman warned that if the new government “is seen as stepping back from its commitment to a two-state solution,” that “makes our job in the international arena that much tougher.” She went on to note that the U.S. had “repeatedly stood up against efforts to delegitimize Israel or single Israel out unfairly” and that this “would continue to be the case.” But then she added that Netanyahu’s pre-election statements about the unlikelihood of a two-state solution happening had “raised questions” about the premise of U.S. support.

While Sherman’s remarks can be read in a sympathetic manner as being basically supportive of Israel—and there’s little doubt that her audience heard it that way—the message to Netanyahu was clear: any more wavering about his dedication to two-state negotiations and all bets are off in the United Nations.

But while Sherman is right when she says that most American Jews are as obsessed with willing a two-state solution into existence as the president and Secretary of State Kerry, Israelis take a different view of things.

Most of them would also like a two-state solution that would allow them to cease having responsibility for areas that are dominated by Palestinian Arabs. But unlike the Obama administration and its American Jewish cheering section on the left, the majority of Israeli voters have paid attention to events in the region in the last 20 years and know that they don’t have a viable Palestinian peace partner. It doesn’t matter whether most Israelis share the conviction that two states for two peoples is the best possible solution to the conflict. That happens to be the case, but Israelis also understood what Netanyahu was talking about the day before his stunning election victory when he said that creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank under current circumstances was an invitation to a new round of terrorist attacks on Israel.

Israelis remember what happened when their government withdrew every last soldier and settler from Gaza in 2005. Instead of trading land for peace as they hoped (and as they had vainly attempted to do with the Oslo Accords), they wound up trading land for terror. Indeed, for all the talk about the necessity of creating a Palestinian state, what Israelis understand is that the Hamas-run strip is for all intents and purposes an independent Palestinian state. The notion of repeating this experiment in the far larger and more strategic West Bank strikes most Israelis, whether they voted for Likud and its allies or Netanyahu’s main opponents, the Labor-led Zionist Union, as nuts. A two-state solution wasn’t in the cards no matter who had won the Israeli election and it won’t be brought any closer or pushed off any further into the future no matter what Netanyahu says about the idea.

That’s been the basic problem with Obama administration Middle East policy since 2009. The president came into office obsessed with the notion that more distance between Israel and the United States would tempt the Palestinians to negotiate seriously. He’s gotten the distance he wanted and then some, but the Palestinians have never budged. They’re still refusing to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has no real interest in being drawn into more talks where he’s faced with the choice of either saying no to peace (which he and his predecessor Yasir Arafat have repeatedly done even when a Palestinian state was offered the by the Israelis) or agreeing to something his people won’t accept. Hamas, backed up by an Iranian ally that has been empowered and embraced by Obama, exercises an effective veto on peace even if Abbas were willing or capable of signing a deal.

But that doesn’t stop the president from sending Sherman to intimate that if the Israelis don’t bow to his dictates the U.S. will no longer veto resolutions recognizing Palestinian independence without first forcing them to make peace with Israel. Clearly, that’s the direction toward which the lame duck administration is moving despite the recent talk of a Jewish charm offensive intended to disarm criticism of the president’s clear animus against the Israeli government. In the absence of significant pushback from a Democratic Party that is still in thrall to Obama, we may find out in the next 23 months whether Obama is bluffing.

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North Korea Agreed Framework Turns 20

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Clinton administration’s signing of the Agreed Framework with North Korea. The lead up to the agreement and its aftermath should be a “teachable moment” for all those in the Obama administration intent on reaching a nuclear deal whatever the costs. After all, just as in 1994, the White House has committed itself to reach a deal with a rogue state with nuclear ambitions, regardless of the cost. White House actions suggest a belief that a bad deal would be better than no deal. Indeed, when researching my book on the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes—research that took me to Korea—what became clear was that the Clinton negotiating team knew they had a bad deal but didn’t care. Communist regimes were collapsing around the globe, and so negotiators confided in private that they needn’t worry about the details, because just how long could the North Korean dictatorship last? In hindsight, the diplomatic process with North Korea was a disaster. After all, it has been against the backdrop of engagement and negotiated agreements with North Korea that the communist state has developed nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States. Far from ending the threat from North Korea, it has been against the backdrop of often-desperate diplomacy that the threat became worse.

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Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Clinton administration’s signing of the Agreed Framework with North Korea. The lead up to the agreement and its aftermath should be a “teachable moment” for all those in the Obama administration intent on reaching a nuclear deal whatever the costs. After all, just as in 1994, the White House has committed itself to reach a deal with a rogue state with nuclear ambitions, regardless of the cost. White House actions suggest a belief that a bad deal would be better than no deal. Indeed, when researching my book on the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes—research that took me to Korea—what became clear was that the Clinton negotiating team knew they had a bad deal but didn’t care. Communist regimes were collapsing around the globe, and so negotiators confided in private that they needn’t worry about the details, because just how long could the North Korean dictatorship last? In hindsight, the diplomatic process with North Korea was a disaster. After all, it has been against the backdrop of engagement and negotiated agreements with North Korea that the communist state has developed nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States. Far from ending the threat from North Korea, it has been against the backdrop of often-desperate diplomacy that the threat became worse.

What happened? Bill Clinton had been president barely a month when the North Korean regime decided to test the new president. It refused to allow IAEA inspections, and soon after announced that it would withdraw from the NPT in three months’ time. Kim Il Sung expected Washington to flinch, and he was right. The State Department aimed to keep North Korea within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at almost any price. Robert (“Bob”) Gallucci and his colleagues later explained, “If North Korea could walk away from the treaty’s obligations with impunity at the very moment its nuclear program appeared poised for weapons production, it would have dealt a devastating blow from which the treaty might never recover.” Preserving the Treaty – even if that meant covering up the fiction of its effectiveness – trumped all else. This reaction played into Pyongyang’s hands. The scramble to preserve the NPT distracted the United States from North Korea’s greater interest: preventing inspectors from accessing sites that would demonstrate weaponization work.

Clinton’s team, unwilling to take any path that could lead to military action, sought to talk Pyongyang down from its nuclear defiance. Talking meant legitimizing brinkmanship. Sparking and riding crises became Pyongyang’s interest. Clinton’s willingness, meanwhile, to negotiate North Korea’s nuclear compliance was a concession, albeit one to which Clinton was oblivious. The 1953 armistice agreement demanded that Pyongyang reveal all military facilities and, in case of dispute, enable the Military Armistice Commission to determine the purpose of suspect facilities. By making weaker nonproliferation frameworks the new baseline, Clinton let North Korea off the hook before talks even began. Indeed, two decades later, Obama has done much the same thing with Iran: The United Nations Security Council resolutions were clear with respect to Iran’s obligations, but for the sake of compromise, Obama allowed Iran wiggle room to which it wasn’t entitled. Iran responded predictably: Given an inch, it took a mile.

Back to North Korea: As the clock ticked down on North Korea’s threat to leave the NPT, Pyongyang’s bluster and defiance increased, but Galluci’s team saw progress simply because talks continued. North Korea’s team played their American counterparts like a fiddle. Once talks began, Pyongyang recognized that the State Department’s goal always changed from protecting national security to simply keeping talks alive. If process trumped peace, then why make the final step to resolve the core conflict?

It was against the backdrop of North Korea’s refusal to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections that talk turned to providing the communist kingdom with supposed proliferation-proof light-water reactors. Galluci agreed to “support” their construction, a concession that came absent any North Korean movement to allow IAEA inspection of suspect sites. To American diplomats, this became a “step forward.”

Just as with Iran now, the IAEA held firmer to the demands for North Korean compliance than did American negotiators who feared too strict a verification and inspection regimen might undercut the possibility of a deal. When Clinton’s national security team met to discuss North Korea against the backdrop of the president’s unease with North Korea’s continued bluster, they concluded that unease or not, diplomacy was the only real choice. Clinton began almost immediately to mollify Pyongyang. Just as Obama has moved to “de-conflict the Persian Gulf,” Clinton canceled the joint U.S.–South Korea military exercise for 1994, out of deference to North Korea. When North Korean officials balked at intrusive inspections, the Clinton team agreed to negotiate what had once been North Korean commitments. And just as the Obama team bashes Israel and America’s moderate Arab allies for raising concern about Iran, twenty years ago, the Clinton team focused its ire on South Korea for raising concerns about how far American negotiators were prepared to go, and the loop holes they were prepared to tolerate.

When talks resumed, North Korea abandoned any pretense of flexibility on inspections, so the State Department doubled down on conciliation. Its no wonder Iranian negotiators have upheld North Korea as a model to emulate rather than a state to condemn.

Meanwhile, North Korean bluster increased in the face of American conciliation. Pyongyang, for example, threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” North Korea also announced that it would remove irradiated fuel rods from Yongbyon, a process that would both eliminate evidence about Pyongyang’s intentions and enable North Korea to separate plutonium. Iran has, in this too, followed suit—eliminating evidence at Parchin knowing full well that the State Department would lose interest in order to keep diplomacy alive.

Clinton wasn’t initially as much of a pushover as his diplomats. But as the president lost patience, Kim Il Sung simply took a step back and promised renewed diplomacy to well meaning but naïve interlocutors. Today with Iran, Thomas Pickering and William Miller simply fulfill the role Jimmy Carter played twenty years ago.

Diplomacy began again, albeit with a new partner. On July 8, 1994, a heart attack felled the immortal North Korean leader, and Kim Jong-il, eldest son and mastermind of past terrorist attacks, assumed command. Negotiations progressed quickly. North Korea wanted compensation for shuttering its reactors and energy assistance until the light-water reactors would come on line. Gallucci and his team agreed. The North Korean team agreed to submit to inspections of suspect plutonium sites, but only after most light-water reactor components had shipped. Only under concerted press questioning did Clinton acknowledge that this might mean North Korea would be inspection-free for five years. What had begun as an illicit North Korean nuclear program had netted the rogue communist regime billions of dollars in aid.

Clinton’s high-stakes engagement had a cost beyond the price tag. On October 7, 1994, President Kim Young Sam of South Korea blasted Clinton’s deal with the North, saying, “If the United States wants to settle with a half-baked compromise and the media wants to describe it as a good agreement, they can. But I think it would bring more danger and peril.” There was nothing wrong with trying to resolve the problem through dialogue, he acknowledged, but the South Koreans knew very well how the North operated. “We have spoken with North Korea more than 400 times. It didn’t get us anywhere. They are not sincere,” Kim said, urging the United States not to “be led on by the manipulations of North Korea.” While Kim Young Sam was right to doubt Pyongyang’s sincerity, his outburst drew Clinton’s ire. The administration did not want any complications to derail a deal, and Clinton was willing to ignore evidence that might undercut the initiative. Two weeks later, Gallucci and Kang signed the Agreed Framework.

That Gallucci’s team believed they had salvaged North Korea’s membership in the Non-Proliferation Treaty was self-delusion. Pyongyang was never been sincere in its membership. North Korean diplomats confided that they had joined only to receive a Soviet reactor, but the Soviet Union collapsed before the Kremlin made good on the deal. Gallucci had been had.

Shortly after oil shipments to North Korea began, Pyongyang began to divert oil to its steel industry in violation of the Agreed Framework. Diplomats chose to see virtue in the regime’s cheating. Although Gallucci and his team acknowledged that North Korea “was willing to look for ways to stretch the limits of or evade the terms of agreements,” they rationalized that the regime’s oil diversion “also demonstrated the North’s ability to turn on a dime and to take surprising steps to resolve potential problems that might undercut its broader interests.” Like Wendy Sherman or Jake Sullivan today with Iran, Gallucci had become so invested in the Agreed Framework’s success that he and his team, behind the scenes, blamed other American officials for pointing out or questioning non-compliance.

Albert Einstein quipped that insanity was conducting the same action repeatedly but expecting different results each time. Twenty years ago today, American negotiators signed an agreement with North Korea in order to constrain that rogue’s nuclear ambitions. The result was an unmitigated failure. And yet, twenty years later the Obama administration is working to replicate the diplomatic disaster with another agreement, no more solid. Just as North Korea destabilizes East Asia twenty years later, so too will Obama’s diplomatic path lead to a nuclear Iran.

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North Korea Amnesia and Iran Engagement

Who says the ayatollahs don’t have any holiday spirit? In what some might interpret as a courtesy to their Western diplomatic partners, Iran suspended the negotiations being conducted to nail down the details of the implementation of the Geneva agreement they reached with the U.S. and the P5+1 group last month until after the Christmas holidays. Though some might consider this gesture just one more delaying tactic, the Iranians are confident that the Obama administration will be just as pliable after the celebrations as before them. With the president threatening a veto of a proposed bill to toughen sanctions on Iran, the commitment of this administration to what appears to be a push for détente with Tehran is not in question. Nor is it worried much about having to defend the Geneva deal since much of the foreign-policy establishment loves the idea of more engagement and a war-weary public is disinclined to support further confrontation with the Islamist regime in spite of worries about the nuclear threat from Iran.

But in spite of the clear public-relations advantage the administration has in the debate over their approach to Iran, the news cycle has a way of exposing even the most confident narrative involving negotiations with rogue states. As often as President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and other administration figures speak up about the need to try diplomacy and to avoid “breaking faith” with Iran, the example of the last tyranny that the U.S. tried to bribe to drop a nuclear program keeps popping up. As the New York Times reports today:

Satellite imagery suggests that North Korea may have begun producing fuel rods for its recently restarted nuclear reactor, a United States-based research institute said in a report published Tuesday.

The signs of new activity at North Korea’s main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, follow the country’s repeated assertions that it is strengthening its capabilities to produce nuclear arms. North Korea, which has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006, the most recent in February, has used spent fuel rods from the reactor as a source for plutonium, a key component for nuclear weapons.

The five-megawatt reactor was restarted earlier this year after a six-year hiatus. Its ability to produce plutonium again depends in part on how quickly North Korea can supply it with new fuel rods. North Korea is believed to have only 2,000 fuel rods in its inventory, a quarter of the 8,000 needed for a full load of fuel.

It bears repeating that Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the lead negotiator with Iran at Geneva, played the same role for the Clinton administration with North Korea. Sherman claims that there is no comparison between the two situations, but the plain fact remains that Sherman believed Pyongyang could be bribed rather than pressured into giving up its nukes and thinks the same thing now about Iran. That is why even those who are unenthusiastic about confronting Tehran think there’s little doubt that the U.S. is well down the road toward embracing containment of a nuclear Iran rather than stopping it.

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Who says the ayatollahs don’t have any holiday spirit? In what some might interpret as a courtesy to their Western diplomatic partners, Iran suspended the negotiations being conducted to nail down the details of the implementation of the Geneva agreement they reached with the U.S. and the P5+1 group last month until after the Christmas holidays. Though some might consider this gesture just one more delaying tactic, the Iranians are confident that the Obama administration will be just as pliable after the celebrations as before them. With the president threatening a veto of a proposed bill to toughen sanctions on Iran, the commitment of this administration to what appears to be a push for détente with Tehran is not in question. Nor is it worried much about having to defend the Geneva deal since much of the foreign-policy establishment loves the idea of more engagement and a war-weary public is disinclined to support further confrontation with the Islamist regime in spite of worries about the nuclear threat from Iran.

But in spite of the clear public-relations advantage the administration has in the debate over their approach to Iran, the news cycle has a way of exposing even the most confident narrative involving negotiations with rogue states. As often as President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and other administration figures speak up about the need to try diplomacy and to avoid “breaking faith” with Iran, the example of the last tyranny that the U.S. tried to bribe to drop a nuclear program keeps popping up. As the New York Times reports today:

Satellite imagery suggests that North Korea may have begun producing fuel rods for its recently restarted nuclear reactor, a United States-based research institute said in a report published Tuesday.

The signs of new activity at North Korea’s main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, follow the country’s repeated assertions that it is strengthening its capabilities to produce nuclear arms. North Korea, which has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006, the most recent in February, has used spent fuel rods from the reactor as a source for plutonium, a key component for nuclear weapons.

The five-megawatt reactor was restarted earlier this year after a six-year hiatus. Its ability to produce plutonium again depends in part on how quickly North Korea can supply it with new fuel rods. North Korea is believed to have only 2,000 fuel rods in its inventory, a quarter of the 8,000 needed for a full load of fuel.

It bears repeating that Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the lead negotiator with Iran at Geneva, played the same role for the Clinton administration with North Korea. Sherman claims that there is no comparison between the two situations, but the plain fact remains that Sherman believed Pyongyang could be bribed rather than pressured into giving up its nukes and thinks the same thing now about Iran. That is why even those who are unenthusiastic about confronting Tehran think there’s little doubt that the U.S. is well down the road toward embracing containment of a nuclear Iran rather than stopping it.

The problem with negotiating with such regimes is that the West plays by the rules but nuclear tyrannies don’t. The North Koreans never put forward an alleged moderate as the face of their government the clever way the Iranians have done with Hassan Rouhani. But they often made the same kind of promises to American negotiators like Sherman about giving up their nukes for relaxation of sanctions, the way the Iranians have now done. Despite pledges of transparency and allowing inspections, such governments can revoke their promises at the whim of leaders like Kim Jong-un or Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the absence of the rule of law, any deception is possible.

But the problem goes deeper than just a matter of a few foolish negotiators or the technical problems of keeping track of nuclear scofflaws. Integral to the story of what happened with North Korea and what may well be unfolding now with Iran is a refusal to learn from history and the inclination of Westerners to project their own beliefs onto totalitarians—be they Communists or Islamists—that view such foolishness as their diplomatic ace in the hole. Twenty years ago, the notion of a nuclear North Korea was considered science fiction by many in the foreign policy establishment. Today, it is a fact. Ten years from now we may look back on our current debate about Iran with the same incredulity that Sherman’s talks with North Korea now provoke. So long as there will be gullible diplomats whose zeal for the deal exceeds their common sense, Western governments will believe the promises of countries like North Korea and Iran.

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What Wendy Sherman Hasn’t Learned

It’s possible that many of the liberal readers of the New York Times just can’t get enough the paper’s fawning pieces heralding Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic prowess that have been repeatedly published in recent months. Then again, maybe even the Times readership has noticed that its news pages aren’t merely being used to editorialize in favor of the Obama administration’s foreign policy but have become home to some of the most embarrassing puff pieces the Grey Lady has ever published. For a change of pace today, chief Washington correspondent David Sanger switched from his usual bouquets thrown at Kerry to one lobbed in the direction of one of his functionaries: Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman.

In the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran concluded last week, this is Sherman’s moment to bask in the praise handed out by the Times. The ludicrously weak agreement that granted Western recognition to Iran’s nuclear program and did nothing to roll back the progress it had made in the last five years was largely Sherman’s handiwork, which makes her a heroine in the Times. Sanger pulled out every gimmick to laud Sherman, even giving a breathless account of how she didn’t let a fall that left her with a ruptured tendon in her finger prevent her from conducting a confidential briefing for skeptical members of Congress. That leaves no doubt that Sherman can rise above pain.

But unfortunately, along with other flattering details Sanger doesn’t spare us, Sanger was forced to include the most embarrassing item in her biography that ought to inform the country about dealing with Iran: the all-too-similar nuclear disaster she crafted with North Korea. While Sanger can claim that she is now “pushing back” against critics who cite her last nuclear disaster claiming that this discussion is based on “tempting, but overly simplistic sound bytes,” it’s apparent that most of the widely acknowledged determination that Sherman is known for is spent on ignoring the lessons of her past mistakes.

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It’s possible that many of the liberal readers of the New York Times just can’t get enough the paper’s fawning pieces heralding Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic prowess that have been repeatedly published in recent months. Then again, maybe even the Times readership has noticed that its news pages aren’t merely being used to editorialize in favor of the Obama administration’s foreign policy but have become home to some of the most embarrassing puff pieces the Grey Lady has ever published. For a change of pace today, chief Washington correspondent David Sanger switched from his usual bouquets thrown at Kerry to one lobbed in the direction of one of his functionaries: Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman.

In the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran concluded last week, this is Sherman’s moment to bask in the praise handed out by the Times. The ludicrously weak agreement that granted Western recognition to Iran’s nuclear program and did nothing to roll back the progress it had made in the last five years was largely Sherman’s handiwork, which makes her a heroine in the Times. Sanger pulled out every gimmick to laud Sherman, even giving a breathless account of how she didn’t let a fall that left her with a ruptured tendon in her finger prevent her from conducting a confidential briefing for skeptical members of Congress. That leaves no doubt that Sherman can rise above pain.

But unfortunately, along with other flattering details Sanger doesn’t spare us, Sanger was forced to include the most embarrassing item in her biography that ought to inform the country about dealing with Iran: the all-too-similar nuclear disaster she crafted with North Korea. While Sanger can claim that she is now “pushing back” against critics who cite her last nuclear disaster claiming that this discussion is based on “tempting, but overly simplistic sound bytes,” it’s apparent that most of the widely acknowledged determination that Sherman is known for is spent on ignoring the lessons of her past mistakes.

Sanger skips over much of the details about the deal with North Korea, but suffice it to say it was structured in much the same way as the gift she has handed Pyongyang’s Iranian friends. That “searing experience” was a fiasco as the North Koreans agreed to halt their nuclear program in exchange for financial blandishments only to turn around and confront the West with a secret nuclear fuel program that allowed them to acquire the bombs that Sherman thought she had ensured would never see the light of day. But rather than learn from that colossal miscalculation, Sherman has repeated the pattern in which the West chases after a nuclear scofflaw, bribes them, and then hopes for the best.

In her defense, Sherman and Sanger claim the analogy is inexact:

“It’s a different time, a different culture, a different system,” she said. By the time the Clinton administration began negotiating with North Korea, American intelligence agencies had assessed that the country already had weapons-grade fuel for one or two bombs; in Iran’s case, Ms. Sherman argues, “No one believes they are there yet.” There are other differences, too, she said. “Iran has a middle class” that the United States is trying to appeal to by giving it a taste of sanctions relief. “It’s people who travel, within limits, and see the world.” Those factors, she believes, create the kind of leverage that was missing in talks with North Korea, whose citizens are almost completely isolated from the rest of the world.

There are a number of problems with these arguments.

First, the Iranians already have a huge stockpile of refined uranium that can be converted into weapons-grade material in a matter of weeks, something that her efforts with Iran hasn’t fundamentally changed. The U.S. is gambling everything here on the assumption that the Iranians are so far away from a bomb that there is little danger of a breakout. But unlike North Korea, the Iranians have a large network of nuclear facilities and hundreds of centrifuges and all of Sherman’s negotiating did nothing to dismantle a single one of them.

As for the Iranian middle class, as she may have noticed, the Islamist leadership of Iran has already conclusively demonstrated that it isn’t terribly interested in what they think. But even if we were to throw away everything we know about the way the ayatollahs have suppressed dissent, this actually works against Sherman’s strategy.

The point here is that when the U.S. negotiated with North Korea it had very little leverage in dealing with its maniacal Communist leadership. It’s arguable that there was nothing the West could ever do to dissuade the North Koreans even if Sherman’s deal was a disgraceful swindle that only added humiliation to the frustration Americans felt. However, the existence of a vast Iranian middle class as well as the support of an international community prepared to enforce sanctions on Tehran and give up its oil argued for a tougher stand against Iran. But instead of using this leverage, Sherman stuck to the same playbook she used with the North Koreans and conceded the Iranians’ demands simply because the ayatollahs said they would settle for nothing less.

That’s where Sherman’s background and characteristic style comes in. As Sanger makes clear, Sherman is all about negotiating more than actually getting results. Rather than focus on preventing the Iranians from doing what the North Koreans did to her, it’s obvious that she knows what happens when reaching a deal is your primary goal rather than ensuring that the other side never gets a nuke. Though she claims to have sewn up some of the loopholes that the North Koreans exploited, at best the deal she got froze the Iranians in place where they can leap to a weapon anytime they like with the confidence that the complacent West won’t re-impose the sanctions they never wanted to enact anyway.

The way Sherman got taken to the cleaners by the North Koreans should have made her the last person entrusted with stopping Iran. But instead, her zeal for the deal made her the perfect partner for both Obama and Kerry. In the world of Obama-era diplomacy, failure is an excuse for promotion, and agreements that do nothing to avert a nuclear peril are celebrated. With a negotiator like Sherman representing the United States, it’s little wonder the Iranians think they’ve nothing to worry about as they continue their pattern of using diplomacy as a way to run out the clock on their nuclear program.

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Ashton, Not Obama, in Charge of Iran Talks

Laura Rozen’s account of the behind-the-scenes action during the Iranian nuclear talks in Istanbul undermines the notion that President Obama is in control of the P5+1 diplomatic process that he fiercely defended during the weekend. As Rozen’s reporting makes clear, it is the European Union’s Catherine Ashton who was clearly in charge of the affair, and as long as that fierce critic of Israel is calling the shots, it’s unlikely the Iranians will surrender their nuclear ambitions.

Indeed, by championing Iran’s right to nuclear development, which could be ultimately used for military purposes, Ashton may be steering the negotiations toward a deal that will be represented as defusing the crisis while not removing the threat of an Iranian bomb. Though the Europeans are championing the idea that the talks have value, the Iranians seem to be back to their old tricks in convincing their negotiating partners of their interest in a solution while sticking to a playbook whose only objective is to remove the threat of an oil embargo in exchange for giving up nothing. This may be Obama’s idea of a ticking clock, but with Ashton dragging out the process, there is, as even Rozen concluded, little likelihood that real progress is in the offing.

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Laura Rozen’s account of the behind-the-scenes action during the Iranian nuclear talks in Istanbul undermines the notion that President Obama is in control of the P5+1 diplomatic process that he fiercely defended during the weekend. As Rozen’s reporting makes clear, it is the European Union’s Catherine Ashton who was clearly in charge of the affair, and as long as that fierce critic of Israel is calling the shots, it’s unlikely the Iranians will surrender their nuclear ambitions.

Indeed, by championing Iran’s right to nuclear development, which could be ultimately used for military purposes, Ashton may be steering the negotiations toward a deal that will be represented as defusing the crisis while not removing the threat of an Iranian bomb. Though the Europeans are championing the idea that the talks have value, the Iranians seem to be back to their old tricks in convincing their negotiating partners of their interest in a solution while sticking to a playbook whose only objective is to remove the threat of an oil embargo in exchange for giving up nothing. This may be Obama’s idea of a ticking clock, but with Ashton dragging out the process, there is, as even Rozen concluded, little likelihood that real progress is in the offing.

As Rozen makes clear, the Iranians seem all too comfortable with Ashton as their chief interlocutor. Though Ashton, a failed leftist British politician who has become the EU’s foreign policy chief, is praised for her skill in orchestrating the talks, her coziness with the Iranians has to worry President Obama. According to Rozen, she spent a three-hour dinner with the top Iranian negotiator discussing “political party funding in the U.S.,” a clear illusion to the influence of the pro-Israel community and President Obama’s need to sound tough about the nuclear question. This nugget raises the inescapable conclusion that Ashton’s position may actually be closer to the Iranians than it is to that of Washington.

Rozen’s reporting on the way the Europeans and others who are committed to the myth of what the president calls a “diplomatic window” with Iran were played by the Iranians also gives us a good idea of how effective Tehran’s representatives were in Istanbul. Using the same tactics employed in the previous attempts to talk them out of their nuclear program, the Iranians raised the hopes of the Euros for a while and then dashed them. By the time they were finished, Ashton and her crew actually thought they had come out ahead because the Iranians had agreed to another meeting, albeit one that would not be held until the end of May. The article also makes it clear the long delay before the next round that will be held, at Iran’s behest, in Baghdad, is due as much to Ashton as anyone else.

Even those cheering the diplomatic process admit the talks would have had more credibility if there had been a bilateral meeting between the U.S. and Iran. But it never happened, though Rozen claims Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman made a good impression on everyone in Istanbul by taking an appropriately “tough” attitude with the Iranians. But the most important thing to understand about Sherman is that she was the Clinton administration’s North Korea Policy Coordinator. Which means she is among those responsible for a feckless policy of appeasement of the North Koreans that ultimately led to their achieving nuclear capability. For an administration that has vowed never to allow Iran to go nuclear to have one of the people who can be blamed for the failure to stop North Korea as our point person in the talks is yet another reason to call into question Obama’s credibility on this issue.

The happy talk emanating from Istanbul and the ease with which the Iranians stonewalled the P5+1 negotiators creates a stark contrast with President Obama’s vow to keep the pressure on Iran. The failure to obtain anything of substance from this meeting as well as the long delay until the next conclave give no reason to hope for better results in Baghdad in May and should be counted as just the latest diplomatic triumph for the Iranians. If Obama is serious about bringing the Iranians to heel — an assumption open to debate — he must attempt to take back control of the process from Ashton. If not, he may find that she not only will not defuse this crisis but also may create another issue for the Republicans to use against him this fall.

 

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