Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

Why a Meatloaf song should guide the U.S. approach to Iran, Syria, and Israel-Palestine.

In 1977 (for those of you fogies old enough to remember), a rocker named Marvin Lee Aday, aka Meatloaf, recorded his hit single "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad." The conceit of the tune was pretty simple: Don't get your hopes up, but things aren't necessarily that bad either. And it contained two great lines from our collective rock-and-roll past: "I want you, I need you but I ain't ever gonna love you" (the wonderful corollary being the title of the song), as well as my personal favorite, "There ain't no Coupe  de Ville hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box."

As I've watched events in the Middle East over the past several weeks, particularly the media tick-tock over whether President Barack Obama and Iran's Hasan Rouhani will shake hands at the U.N. General Assembly, I've thought about Meatloaf's song. Among the three major challenges the Obama administration faces in the region -- dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions, the Syrian civil war, and the Israeli-Palestinian issue -- "jaw  jaw not war war," to paraphrase Winston  Churchill, seems to be  ascendant, at least for the moment. Talk of deals with Syria and Iran are in the air. The Israelis and Palestinians are still talking, and there's no sense that they're going to stop. Indeed, the ground on which Obama is treading seems to have gone suddenly from hopeless traps and pitfalls -- what I've called migraine headaches and root canals -- to opportunities.

Are the gods of diplomacy simply toying with the president and his national security team? Or is there something serious afoot, offering up the possibility of breakthroughs? Could the administration, which has looked at times like a cross between the Keystone Cops and the Marx Brothers, actually pull off some kind diplomatic trifecta? Or, in Meatloaf's terms, what are the odds of going one, two, or three -- out of three?

If you're looking for Hollywood endings, go to the movies. But if you're willing to not make the perfect the enemy of the good, you've come to the right place. Here are four key considerations that will shape the immediate future of the most pressing issues in the Middle East.

(1) It's Iran, stupid.

This region usually doesn't offer up master keys to unlock doors. But right now, Iran is as close as it comes to one. Of the administration's three Middle East challenges, the Iranian nuclear issue is the only one that could really trigger a serious war in the region, disrupt the global economy, and jeopardize U.S economic recovery. And it's the only existing Middle Eastern issue that would resonate domestically if the United States or Israel were to take military action. That's why a deal would be such a big development -- because of all that it could prevent.

Moreover, without going overboard, a credible deal with Iran would positively affect the other two issues in question. It would certainly make managing the Syrian crisis easier. Tehran would hardly ease up on supporting President Bashar al-Assad, but it would be inclined to press him to make good on the U.S.-Russian deal on chemical weapons. If it could be sold to the Israelis (a very tough sell under any circumstances, short of Iran's capitulation), a deal would also increase U.S. capacity to focus attention on the Israel-Palestine issue -- and remove an argument for why the Israelis shouldn't do the same.

And if you think U.S. credibility will be undermined by our failure to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control or by not attacking Syria if Assad doesn't comply with that plan, you ain't seen the credibility movie on Iran. Three administrations have now committed themselves to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. President Obama has repeatedly reaffirmed his personal commitment to achieving this end. Were Obama to depart Washington with Iran having weaponized or being on the verge of doing so, it would be the biggest foreign policy failure of his administration and, more importantly, a major failure for the United States. Should Iran get a bomb or come close to one, why would any American ally or adversary take U.S. commitments seriously?

(2) But are we up to really deal with Tehran?

Having said that, one has to consider a few things. First, of course, is whether Iran is really serious about a negotiated settlement that would essentially set back by several years the putative military aspects of its nuclear program, agree to the kind of transparency and accountability that would permit verification, and end the hostile words and deeds that account for why we worry about the mullahs pursuing nuclear weapons capacity in the first place. Nobody really knows the answer to this question.

But what, too, about the United States? Is it serious about what it takes to do a deal? And is there a Kissinger or Baker-like figure with the will, skill, and confidence to make one happen? Tehran plays three-dimensional chess; sometimes I get feeling we play checkers, and not all that well.

There's no doubt we talk and even act a very good game. This administration has been the driving force in sustaining and toughening a sanctions regime that has seriously hurt Iran's economy and likely brought it to the negotiating table. And it's been willing to explore diplomacy, too. But we are only now at the beginning of what could be a fairly prolonged endgame.

That means that, sooner or later, both sides will need to create a sense of urgency if there's to be progress, let alone an agreement. And urgency requires both prospects of gain and pain -- incentives and disincentives carefully balanced. Both need to be credible. In short, Iran needs to lay out now what it wants and what it will give, and the United States needs to do the same as well, making clear what will happen if Iran accelerates and militarizes its nuclear program.

Diplomacy can certainly serve as a deterrence to war. In this case, diplomacy backed up by the threat of force is essential, too. Moreover, our goal cannot be complete Iranian capitulation. If it is, we won't succeed because the mullahs just won't agree to a deal that has only one winner.

Here I worry. Assuming the Iranians are really serious, Obama will have to risk some unpopular concession, or concessions, to Tehran and leave himself open to charges he's been diddled and suckered. Is he willing and able to resist those in Congress, in the pro-Israel community, and in Israel who will press for a much tougher, zero-sum game outcome where we win and Iran clearly loses? Is he willing to threaten or even use force against Iran should no deal materialize and the mullahs accelerate their nuclear program? As the 2014 mid-term elections approach and as Obama seeks to promote his domestic agenda and his legacy, his margin for risk-taking abroad will narrow. And that is a real concern for deal-making.  

(3) Think outcomes, not solutions.

This region rarely witnesses transformations, and when they occur, they're messy and almost always impossible to manage (see: the Iranian revolution and the Arab Spring). The region also hates big ideas, particularly when they're imposed from abroad (see: Iraq, 2003). We really do need to get over our infatuation with Middle East fantasy endings and focus on transactions, not transformations. These are smaller deals -- business arrangements, really -- freed from the illusions of grand designs and bargains with all their idealized and sentimental aspects.

I lived with the peace process for two decades. It wasn't perfect and was often frustrating. But if process is another way of describing how to manage a volatile issue you can't fix today, then I'm all for it. And that's what we have now. The Syrian civil war may burn itself out or morph into something else over time. The point is it's not going to end anytime soon. So it makes sense to start a process, beginning with a possible deal on chemical weapons, perhaps with a follow-up meeting in Geneva. This sure beats the alternative of getting the United States involved as a combatant in a civil war in which, out of 100,000 dead, an estimated 60,000 are combatants from one side or the other.

The same realistic expectations can be applied to a deal with the mullahs in Iran. The nuclear issue is one of many outstanding points of friction in a dysfunctional U.S.-Iranian relationship marked by deep mistrust and powerful emotions. If it's repaired, it will be done incrementally, though not necessarily inconsequentially, over time through a road map of sequenced and self-reinforcing and confidence-building interim steps leading to some clearly agreed-upon outcome. There are just too many diverging interests, too much suspicion, too many domestic politics, and not enough trust to wrap up a grand bargain.

The same goes for the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Although an interim, incremental process has clearly failed, if a deal is still possible, it will likely be one that focuses on borders and security first, with a set of general principles on Jerusalem and refugees perhaps negotiated later.

(4) Behold the transactors: Putin, Rouhani (Khamenei), Assad, Bibi, and Abbas.

One of the reasons we're playing small ball and have to keep our expectations under control is because of the cast of characters who are currently in the game. None of these leaders are trusting souls, nor can they afford to be. Most are looking over their shoulders (especially Assad and Rouhani). Some of them have relationships based on very limited faith (like Vladimir Putin and Obama). In other cases, they are fundamentally at odds with one another (Benjamin Netanyahu and the Iranians). With the exception of Obama, all are less interested in transformations and much more focused on survival. And even in the best-case relationship among the group (Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas) the pull of domestic politics constrains their choices and limit their options. 

The good news is that, at least two leaders (Ali Khamenei and Putin) are probably strong enough to deliver their constituencies should the need arise. In fact, if there's a chance of a U.S.-Iranian deal and one on Syria's chemical weapons, too, it's because these two -- the strongest leaders in the bunch -- will decide to support it.

SO WHERE DO these considerations leave us? More than likely, we will face a great many intriguing possibilities but not a whole lot of certainty. Outcomes will fall into one of three categories: good, bad, or (most likely) incomplete. By year's end, I expect Syria will still be a mess, though a chemical weapons deal will be in the process of imperfect implementation. Israelis and Palestinians will still be talking, perhaps even productively. And the United States and Iran may be near an agreement.

Given the odds against success, these are decent outcomes. We'd be deluding ourselves to expect more. Indeed, we'd do well to keep that old rock-and-roll mantra in mind: Two out of three really ain't that bad.


Reality Check

The Tally

From Putin to pundits, here are the 10 winners and losers of the U.S.-Russian deal on Syria’s chemical weapons.

There is a fair amount in the recently concluded U.S.-Russian framework agreement on Syria's chemical weapons that could belong in the domain of the tooth fairy. But should the accord be implemented, it would validate Woody Allen's philosophy about life, slightly amended and applied to diplomacy: Success isn't just about showing up, it's showing up at the right time.

All the chatter about how the Obama administration could have interceded earlier in a more robust way -- arming and training the opposition, creating no-fly zones -- and produced a substantially different outcome remains just that. Saying that the president's aversion to doing more created a self-fulfilling prophecy of lost opportunities, needless human misery, and gains for the bad guys misses a fundamental point.

If -- and it's still a galactic if -- the new framework offers a real political way out of this emergency, it will be because a unique set of circumstances combined to produce enough urgency and ownership to do so. The Syrians created a crisis by using chemical weapons in a massive attack on August 21, President Barack Obama threatened force but then vacillated, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, recognizing both Obama's strengths and his weaknesses, stepped up, grabbed center stage, and inserted himself directly into a process he'd long avoided. It shows that the right combination of pain and gain is what creates openings and drives big decisions.

Assuming for now that the peace train may have indeed left the station, who benefits? Here's a short take on the winners and losers. Or, perhaps more to the point, in a region where such designations are rarely clear, here's a look at who gains and who loses.


(1) Common Sense and Rational Thinking

Even under the best of circumstances, a limited military strike against Syria was always a very uncertain option. It carried risks without the prospect of real rewards. That a strike would have bucked up U.S. credibility and somehow retarded Iran's nuclear ambitions or regional influence is by no means clear. Even had a limited strike been of a more robust character, it might not have ended Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons or shifted the balance of the battlefield.

Now, it's more likely than before that Assad won't use chemical weapons again, because the political and diplomatic spotlight is focused squarely on the issue. Simply put, then, a deal to take Assad's chemical weapons offline has already proved far preferable to a military strike and the prospects of greater U.S. involvement in a civil war it cannot possibly end through military means.

(2) Putin

Talk about timing. Putin, like George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, "seen his opportunities and took 'em," emerging as the Syrian crisis's deus ex machina.

He has already achieved his minimal objectives: The chemical weapons wildcard that triggered the crisis and perhaps threatened Assad's tenure is being dealt with. Obama won't strike unilaterally, and there will be no U.S.-orchestrated regime change (see: Iraq and Libya). And, with the U.N. Security Council now a formal part of the disarmament process and the Russians with a veto, Moscow has a good deal of influence to block what it doesn't like.

Moreover, Putin is now seen as a dominant and potentially positive force on the international stage. If the framework succeeds, he will have shown that the road to a solution can lie through Moscow. That will allow him to play with the next step here: a Geneva 2.0, so to speak, that can either keep Assad afloat or help ease him out if Russians interests demand it.

(3) Assad (with an asterisk)

The man without a country could also become a man without his chemical weapons. Yet implementing the chemical weapons arrangement will require keeping Assad in power. For now, that's a win for Syria's president -- as is avoiding a military strike -- even if he loses a strategic asset.

Nonetheless, Assad's two main allies (Russia and Iran) can't be entirely happy about how this whole affair transpired on the Syrian side. Neither the Russians nor the Americans accepted Assad's preconditions for moving forward on the chemical weapons proposal. And, whether or not he authorized the August 21 attack, he looks reckless, incompetent, or weak.

Then, there is the consideration of how this affects Assad's relationship with Russia. Moscow has billions invested in contracts, debt, prospects of future business, and a naval base in Syria, all of which have Assad's name on them. If he goes, they all go, too. And Assad can't be certain where Moscow is going or what kind of future deal Putin might be tempted to strike with the Americans.

(4) Obama -- and John Kerry, too (with an asterisk)

In the wake of this deal, will the president and his activist secretary of state be viewed as strategic geniuses, exquisite masters of the calibration of force and diplomacy? I don't think so. It's too late for that. Too many twists and turns, ups and downs, false starts and stops, and inconsistencies in language and tactics. But there's no doubt that the two are looking much better now than they have since the crisis began. After all, it was the president's willingness (however reluctantly) to put force on the table and his pivot to Congress (however weak it made him appear, particularly when he didn't have the votes) that opened up the space for Putin's seizing on an idea that had been raised before.

Let's also remember that the Syrian crisis has been a dog's lunch for the president from the get-go. Until now, Obama had three options on Syria, all of them bad: do nothing in the face of the largest single use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them against the Kurds; develop a comprehensive military strategy, including arming the rebels with serious weapons; or take the middle road of a limited strike. Now, the president has a fourth option: avoid military action and maybe get Assad's chemical weapons offline, weaken him, and perhaps, in cooperation with the Russians, initiate a broader process to end the civil war.

What's more, even if the follow-up proves fantastical, the new framework will be welcomed by the American public and by Congress, more so than a limited strike. If the administration doesn't try to oversell the deal or portray themselves as a bunch of Talleyrands, Gladstones, and Metternichs, it could get out of this crisis without any more damage to its image -- which has suffered from the Keystone Cops-style handling of the situation -- and with a fair share of the credit, too.

(5) Iran

For Iran, a diplomatic solution to the chemical weapons crisis is far preferable to a military strike. Whether or not congressional opposition to U.S. military action in Syria will encourage Iran to believe that Obama won't act against its nuclear program is impossible to say. But Tehran -- which is no fan of chemical weapons, given Iraq's use of gas against Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war -- has done much to preserve the military balance on the ground in Assad's favor. A political deal keeps their man in Damascus in power. Also, like the Russians, Iran probably fears the impact of repeated strikes. Once the glass ceiling on military action is broken, the pressure, and even expectations, for U.S. action might rise. For now, that's no longer a concern.

(6) Israel (with an asterisk)

A diplomatic solution on chemical weapons carries mixed results for the Israelis. Putting Assad's chemical weapons stocks under international control means he can't use them, and the danger of these weapons falling into Hezbollah or jihadist hands will be reduced. Also, there's the long-game consideration that perhaps putting chemical weapons under international control could translate into the same being done to the highly enriched uranium needed for Iran's bomb.

But many Israelis and much of the country's security establishment have reason to be less than sanguine. First, on the Iran piece, additional questions about options abound: Did Obama's willingness to forego military action signal to Iranians that he is unwilling to use force against their nuclear assets should they push to weaponize? Does America's deep aversion to using force against Syria mean that, a year from now, neither Congress nor the public would consider and support action against Iran, too? When America appears weak, it's almost axiomatic that many Israelis see their own hand weakened, too. At the same time, the Israelis would appear to favor an outcome to the civil war in which neither Assad nor the opposition -- certainly not its Sunni extremist elements -- triumph. A political solution to the chemical weapons problem strengthens the likelihood of that outcome.

(7) The Commentariat

What a field day for talking heads, pundits, and the chattering classes, including yours truly, who focus on the Middle East. And it will continue for the remainder of the Obama administration. Next stop, Iran, then perhaps back to Egypt. And don't forget leaving Afghanistan or the evergreen pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace. It reminds me of a conversation I had with former Secretary of State James Baker who, after I showed him a cable that he needed to sign authorizing our ambassador in Tunis to suspend U.S. dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1990, quipped, "Aaron, in my next life I want to be a Middle Eastern analyst just like you because I know I'll be guaranteed a permanent source of employment."


(1) The Syrian Opposition

For the moderate Islamist opposition, putting Assad's chemical weapons out of use must be good news. But those fighting Assad probably hoped that a U.S. military strike would accomplish that goal while also beginning the process of weakening the Syrian president's military capacity. It's no surprise, then, that the head of the Syrian Military Council has already denounced the new U.S.-Russian framework.

A political deal with the Russians puts to rest any hope that the Obama administration will soon ride to the opposition's rescue and raises again the painful reality that factions must overcome their divisions if the next step in the peace process is an effort to reconvene the Geneva process. All of this also maintains among the opposition the very real fear that Assad is not only the problem -- he may increasingly be viewed as part of the solution, too.

For the opposition, diplomacy should only have one outcome: Assad leaving and being held responsible for his crimes. But that just isn't in the cards.

(2) The Saudis and the Gulf

The other clear losers here are the Saudis and Qataris, who have invested heavily in backing the opposition through a determined proxy war. For them, this is sectarian struggle that pits the Shiite forces of darkness against the forces of light: their version of Sunni Islam. The failure of the United States to strike Assad and, by implication, weaken his Iranian patrons clearly isn't good news. Putting Putin in the driver's seat at the U.N. Security Council, where he can help ensure Assad's survival, is a problem, too. Paradoxically, like the Israelis, the Saudis in particular are concerned that this will constrain Obama from dealing forcefully with the Iranian nuclear issue when the time comes. (This outcome will only encourage the Saudis to intensify their support for the opposition.)

WITH SO MANY putative winners, it's no wonder this deal came together. It's clearly not perfect for anyone, but there appears to be enough "there there" to give this enterprise a chance to work -- as long as nobody expects too much and Assad doesn't overplay his hand by nickel-and-diming implementation. Indeed, the key to this deal is reasonable expectations. As with the rest of this broken, angry, and dysfunctional region, think about outcomes not solutions, transactions not transformations. You'll sleep better at night.