Negotiation is not weakness

For well over a decade, the possibility of war with Iran has ebbed and flowed like a malign tide.   It is therefore worth reflecting on the period in mid-January in which Iran complied with all of its obligations under the nuclear agreement, released four Americans from captivity and quickly returned ten American sailors it had picked up in the Persian Gulf.

The Iranian regime is no better than it used to be, and these developments have yet to stand the test of time.  But even a year ago, all this would have seemed impossible. Had critics of the Iran deal had their way, they would have been. From my perch on the House Intelligence Committee, I've observed two dangerous instincts that left unchecked would have prevented the notable progress on Iran, and which more broadly bedevil our foreign policy.

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The first instinct is that negotiating with our foes is a sign of weakness, to be avoided in favor of bellicosity. This instinct well precedes those who told us that negotiating with the Iranian regime was impossible. In 1987, President Reagan concluded the treaty on intermediate range nuclear forces with Soviet President Gorbachev. Hawks, including George Will and Charles Krauthammer, and many within Reagan’s cabinet assailed the treaty.

In fact, the INF Treaty was the cornerstone of an entirely new relationship between Washington and Moscow. Ironically, many of the same voices savaging the INF Treaty cheered President Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq and are still decrying the Iran nuclear agreement. And, of course, they hate the opening to Cuba and demand a more muscular, sometimes military response to Russia in Ukraine and China in the South China Sea.

In fact, negotiation and careful opening to foes on areas of mutual interest works. It worked for Nixon in China, for Reagan in the Soviet Union and may very well work for Obama in Iran and Cuba. Far from signaling weakness, negotiation succeeds precisely because we are strong militarily, through leadership of the international community and because of the appeal of our core values.

The second instinct, which is more pervasive, is the idealistic belief that the U.S. can unilaterally bring about favorable outcomes in places like Syria, Ukraine, Venezuela or Iran. I've heard repeatedly that if Obama had just acted sooner in Syria, Assad would be gone and Syria peaceful. If the president had been “tougher” on Russia (how is left unsaid), Putin never would have invaded Crimea. If we had just stood by the autocratic Mubarak (details remain sketchy on how) the turmoil of Tahrir Square would not have shaken Egypt and the Middle East.

Apart from enjoying the unassailability of the hypothetical, these beliefs are almost always dangerous fantasy, most prominent now in the pronouncements of the Republican presidential candidates. Promises to “carpet bomb” until “sand glows” or to build a military “so big, so strong, and so great” serve only to diminish us in the eyes of the world, which is a serious place.

Particularly in the Middle East, optimism and bravado are usually rebuked in the most violent and expensive terms. As the U.S. diplomat Phil Gordon famously observed, “In Iraq, the U.S. intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster. In Libya, the U.S. intervened and did not occupy, and the result was a costly disaster. In Syria, the U.S. neither intervened nor occupied, and the result is a costly disaster.”

Obviously, the U.S. continues to have profound influence on events abroad. We can, at least in the short term, achieve any purely military goal. But we must get over the notion that if we are just smart or strong enough, or our president “tough” enough, unruly regions around the world will settle into peace and prosperity.

After World War II, the U.S. led the rebuilding of a secure, liberal and prosperous “core” bound by institutions like NATO and Bretton Woods which extended from the Iron Curtain in the East across North America to liberalizing states in Eastern Asia. The “periphery”, including the Middle East, Africa, South America and parts of Asia, was kept only temporarily stable by autocrats who looked to Washington or Moscow for direction and support. But neither Washington nor Moscow really controlled, in any robust sense, events in the periphery, even then. 

None of this is to say that the U.S. should always seek to negotiate with foes or that we are powerless to make our mark on the global stage.  Absent our careful leadership, the post-World War II globe would have been a much more dangerous place. Similarly, the Iran deal has advanced because the world was united behind the United States in its sanctions and backed by the threat of U.S. force. We remain the “indispensable nation.” We just need to mindful of what that means. 

Himes has represented Connecticut’s 4th Congressional District since 2009. He sits on the Financial Services and the Intelligence committees.

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