Voice

What's New Is Nuance

Why Iran may just be playing smiling for dollars.

Handshake or no handshake, Hasan Rouhani owes Barack Obama a debt of gratitude. That is because Rouhani is the president of the Iran that American sanctions made happen. After listening to him field questions from American media luminaries (and some not-so-luminous types like myself) for over an hour this morning, it was striking that, as the meeting closed, the biggest question of all remained the one posed by his very presence, his tenor, and the message he sought to deliver: What kind of change does he represent from the intemperate, combative, rogue Iran of the Ahmadinejad years?

Rouhani is no transformational figure ... at least not yet. He is a self-defined moderate and what he has done during his months in office, hype aside, is to focus somewhat on adjusting the tone typically offered by his cartoonish predecessor. The political North Star in Iran remains the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He sets the direction for the country and determines precisely how much leash each president will be given. Nonetheless, while Iran is far from a democracy it is a country that contains potent democratic forces. In the last election the country's voters sent a clear message that among the carefully selected candidates the ruling clerics allowed to appear on the ballot, the one voters wanted was the one who had the most chance to repair relations with the outside world as well as end the sanctions that were crushing their economy and making millions of Iranians' lives miserable. 

While the mostly off-the-record exchange with Rouhani focused on headline issues -- like why there wasn't a meeting between Obama and Rouhani here in New York or what the next step would be with regard to the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the world, or whether or not the new Iranian president really accepted the existence of the Holocaust -- the subtext throughout was that the newly elected head of state had a strong desire to do what he could to restore relations between Iran and the world in order to open up his country to more commerce and spark some degree of economic recovery. To the extent there has been an Iranian charm offensive here at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meetings it might be characterized as "smiling for dollars."

Of course, the secret to getting the economy going again is lifting the international sanctions associated with stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program -- a program Rouhani (like his predecessor) still unconvincingly asserts does not exist. When Rouhani noted that it was the White House that reached out to Iran to stage a possible grip-and-grin moment between Obama and Rouhani, he added that there wasn't enough time to develop a plan for a follow-on to the discussion. (That will be the work of Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif when they meet later this week.) But rest assured the plan Iran wants is one that will measure progress in steps to ease the relentless economic pressure the Obama team has put on the Iranians since they took office in 2008.

On another front, while Rouhani's discussion of Syria and other issues at UNGA was off the record, it did underscore a growing sense I've gotten from talking with regional leaders and representatives of governments actively engaged in Syria this week that, as improbable as a deal between the United States and Iran may be, the thinking of key parties has evolved in interesting ways. While formulations change depending on who you talk to, Bashar al-Assad's friends may well be preparing to throw him under the bus -- with the enthusiastic support of the rest of the international community. Some characterize this as leaving the big decisions about the future of Syrian leadership to the ballot box. One pro-Western regional leader suggested that in the wake of a Geneva deal and a political settlement, Assad would go but that the Russians could help orchestrate picking a new Alawite face to replace him. In each of my many conversations on the subject, the punch line was the same: no one seems to be making keeping Assad a critical element of a deal. It seems as though he may have gained a momentary respite as a consequence of the current negotiations, but if -- as those involved hope -- those negotiations lead away from "a chemical weapons deal to a Geneva deal to elections" they will also lead to his departure. As far as the Russians are concerned, this end result may be tolerable provided they can also count on his successor to be a friend in Damascus. 

If Assad recognizes this, of course, it may make him less inclined to be serious about negotiations and more inclined to play them out or even delay them, to buy him some time. (For what, I am not sure. This cannot end well for him unless he considers it a victory to spend his life ping-ponging around in exile like Baby Doc Duvalier and other similar ne'er-do-wells.) Predicting Assad's motivations moving forward is just one of the many, many challenges associated with the Syria crisis that makes any deal ultimately look tough -- from the number of combatants to the fact that this is not a zero-sum for Syria's president alone. As quid pro quo for Assad's ultimate ouster, it also seems reasonable to expect, based on UNGA corridor buzz, that the Russians, Iranians, and others will demand that al Qaeda, jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusrah, and other Sunni Islamic extremists who have flowed into Syria since the war began, depart the country as well.

This in turn further complicates matters. Because in the eyes of respected long-time regional leaders with good relations with the West, six to 12 more months of fighting may see the strength of the extremists rise to a point where they cannot effectively be defeated. Intervening against them when they were weak -- 18 months or a year ago -- would have given us a much greater chance of success. Now, with each week that passes, they grow stronger. This is one reason why the calls for the United States to much more actively push back on Turkish and Qatari support for the extremists have grown so urgent. There is a real sense that the president of the United States has a critical behind-the-scenes role to play here but that it is one he has shirked. (One leader suggested that the White House itself seemed clearly split on this issue even today.) 

It is here that we see that Obama and Rouhani are not just connected by their missed photo op or by the fact that it was Obama's tough sanctions that helped create the conditions for Rouhani's election. Both leaders also illustrate the profound effects modest shifts made by key players who are being driven by domestic politics can have on Mideast regional dynamics. 

Hasan Rouhani is not the antithesis of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is not a radical departure from a radical voice. He is modulating the message of a society whose true political power center has hardly changed its position in decades. He is a new face but mostly he is a nuance. The same might be said of Obama. He has, as many have noted, supported many Bush policies, actually turned up the volume of drone, special ops and cyber activity, turned up the pressure via sanctions, and maintained the traditional U.S. ties with Israel, etc. Even his decision to leave Iraq and Afghanistan is one that had its origins in the Bush years. No, in fairness, Obama isn't a transformational figure either, so much as he is making modest changes, leaning back slightly where his predecessor once leaned in further. He will still reserve the right to strike at Iran's nuclear programs if nothing else works and to strike at Syria if chemical weapons talks fail. But the nuance is that he will hesitate more, act in a more limited way, and seek political cover at home and abroad more assiduously. The core policy remains the same -- the speed and degree to which he implements is all that will change.

Except of course, as we have seen, such nuances make all the difference in the world. On the one hand they shift America from being viewed, depending on where you are sitting, as either a stalwart or a bully in the region, to being seen as disengaging, more hesitant, or less likely to act. It is a shift that has had high-level Israelis no longer wondering aloud whether Obama will act alongside them to strike Iran but rather whether he would even step in to support Israel the day after such an attack if the Iranians were about to strike them.

This is not a moot point. While Iran and the United States shift slightly, some in the region defy even such adjustments and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu seems to be one of them, warning Americans against falling into the "honey pot" of the Iranian charm offensive. And the Iranians, while their leader may now acknowledge the Holocaust (while coyly leaving open questions about its scope) and while he may send out Rosh Hashanah wishes or bring along the Iranian parliament's representative for the Jews of that country to press events (like he did today), it is clear that the official Iranian position is still to dispute and deny the legitimacy of the Israeli state.

The calculation that must be made now is what the consequences of these measured shifts by the leaders of the United States and Iran may mean. Even after all the media roundtables and hoopla, we are still left with many more questions than answers. Is there a greater opening for genuinely constructive talks on the Iranian nuclear program? On a lasting political settlement for Syria? To what extent do these openings come primarily from newfound Iranian openness or from a strategically thought out American desire to engage rather than fight? Or do they come more from a momentary Iranian weakness brought about by economic stress or from the fact that the war-weary and war-wary American people and U.S. Congress have taken a lastingly more isolationist turn having said "enough" to the president? How will these changes, whether they come from relative strength or weakness, impact the outcomes that may be engineered or encountered? (It is my sense that the Iranians and the Russians may both be open to pursuing negotiations now, at least as much because they feel a United States that is "leaning away" may be open to a better deal as because of any U.S. saber-rattling re: Syria.) And finally, of course, there is the longer term question as to how all these changes may affect the broader calculus throughout a region in which a U.S.-Iranian hegemonic proxy war has been so central for so long that any U.S.-Iranian rapprochement would have profound implications for all the allies and enemies of each of the countries.

The primary conclusion I can draw from this week's meetings in New York and in particular from the postures of Obama and Rouhani -- these two presidents whose fates may be so intertwined -- is that lingering questions aside, the United States and Iran will both attempt to explore the current shift in mood because it is in the immediate interest of both countries and both leaders to do so. The problem for the United States is that slow, incremental progress alone would be a win-win for the Iranians -- buying them time to defuse their economic time bomb even as they also buy time to develop the capability to create bombs of a much different sort. This is a potential trap that President Obama must avoid. His sanctions may have helped create this opening, but they are only half of a strategy. He must have an endgame, real resolve, healthy skepticism, and a hard timetable or the moment he helped engineer will be lost and fears of America's gradually shrinking influence in the region will be compounded.

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David Rothkopf

There's Something to Be Said for the Peacemaker

How Obama's instincts actually prevailed in the Syria deal.

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Crack-Up. When he first set these words to paper in 1936, it's pretty certain that he did not imagine they would one day become the core foreign-policy principle of a 21st-century president. Yet because they have, we have been reminded of another important lesson about first-rate minds, second-rate ones, and minds of every quality: Character trumps intellectual ambivalence every time.

It is no doubt simpler for leaders who see things plainly and without nuance. Indeed, doubt is perhaps the most dangerous and relentless enemy of those whose decisions carry great weight. But as we saw in the Iraq war, "slam-dunk" certainty is no guarantee of either success or good judgment. In the early years of George W. Bush's presidency, in my view, a lack of critical second-guessing among policymakers undermined what were the president's fundamentally good intentions.

Barack Obama has been afflicted by the ability to see multiple sides of any issue since he took office. His Afghanistan policy initiative was, until recently, the outstanding example of this characteristic. After a lengthy internal debate, he presented in one speech both the decision to escalate U.S. involvement in that country and the announcement that the United States would be leaving on a certain date. It was the first illustration of what I described at the time as the Groucho Marx approach to foreign policy, referring to the comic icon's signature song, "Hello, I Must Be Going." But we have since seen other examples of Obama's ambivalence -- opposing the Bush administration's abuses of international law, yet violating sovereignty countless times with expanded drone attacks; standing up for civil liberties, yet overseeing the greatest expansion of our intrusive surveillance state ever; pivoting to Asia, but still regularly being drawn back to the Middle East; going to Congress to get approval for action in Syria and then reserving the right to take action on his own.

You might see this kind of vacillation as a sign of confusion rather than a manifestation of a first-rate intelligence. Indeed, it's almost certainly a bit of both. But even when doubts persist, underlying instincts continue to drive policy toward its ultimate outcomes. When Bush saw the Iraq war was going badly, he developed questions and concerns about the policies and pushed aside his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and tuned out his vice president. Not only did he then begin to embrace (and actively manage) better on-the-ground policies, but he oversaw a second-term period in U.S. international relations marked by the Millennium Challenge initiative, improved relations with emerging powers, the introduction of the "light-footprint" tactics later embraced by the Obama administration, and ultimately his politically courageous and, in retrospect, largely masterful handling of the 2008 financial crisis. Gradually, and contrary to the deeply held views of partisans, the better Bush prevailed. Character triumphed over inexperience and wrongheaded views that were too strongly held.

In the case of Obama, he was elected by the American people to get the United States out of Iraq and Afghanistan and to end the country's reflexive impulse toward war. The voters saw in him the impulse of a peacemaker, and his first actions as president sent a message to the world that the voters' judgment had been correct. His Cairo speech was an olive branch to the Islamic world. His Prague speech on nuclear disarmament addressed the nightmare that has stalked humanity since the last days of World War II. Even the speech he delivered after being awarded his bizarrely premature Nobel Peace Prize captured well the true spirit of a peacemaker.

Of course, Obama saw that peacemaking also involved remaining strong and preserving the national security of the country. And he also knew that were he to appear to neglect these points he would also put himself at political risk. And so whether motivated by simple, sound judgment or some of that and a dollop of political self-interest as well, he also became the man to dial up drones, dial up Stuxnet and cyberattacks, get Osama bin Laden, go after Anwar al-Awlaki, oversee NSA mission creep, attack Libya, and threaten intervention in Syria. But even in these cases he revealed that his fundamental instinct is first to avoid or minimize armed conflict that puts U.S. troops at risk (whether by avoiding it or by choosing to narrow its possible scope).

On some issues, this signature instinct has promoted peaceful outcomes. On others, it has sent a message that may have emboldened our enemies. On some issues, as with his overly expansive drone programs and his decisions to actually promote the expansion of the NSA's intrusive, actually anti-constitutional programs, it seems clear he made the wrong decisions. But it's hard to deny that his overall intentions in these instances lay in the direction voters thought he would take them when he was first elected.

Of course, since we know what the road to hell is paved with, we may shrug that off. But before we do, we have the more immediate example to consider: the deal struck this weekend between the United States and Russia regarding Syria giving up its chemical weapons. In this case we see that instinct and character have the power to trump intellectual indecision. What Obama wanted in Syria, it is clear, is both to avoid another war and, admittedly reluctantly, to take action to stop the most heinous of war crimes being committed in that country via chemical weapons. He fumbled and hesitated and sent mixed messages and behaved in a way that was both politically weak and too illustrative of his inner torment. But when the opportunity to achieve his goal without war arose -- and even though it was an imperfect solution, one that leaves Bashar al-Assad's presidency intact and Russia strengthened at a moment when that must've been very hard for the president to swallow -- he acted with lightning speed.

Still, whether the deal struck this past weekend ultimately works remains to be seen. How Syria's greater tragedy is resolved also remains an open question. Almost certainly the president emerges from these last few weeks weakened both at home and abroad. But had his instincts not truly been to address the chemical weapons problem, had he really felt at heart he had to militarily intervene, or had he felt the core issue here was to deliver about American influence, he would have acted differently, acting instead as some of his predecessors might have. He could have attacked. He could have shrugged off the deal. But he didn't. He hesitated when he did for reasons that had to do with who he is -- and perhaps to some degree that had to do with his weaknesses, like his overly political nature and his unwillingness to listen to his best advisors. But in the end, this most rational of presidents acted for reasons of character rather than intellect and seized the one opportunity that presented itself to achieve at least a portion of what he had hoped for. As for the overall impact of this momentary "victory" on the course of war in Syria, on the pursuit of justice vis-à-vis Assad, and on America's standing in the region, it is too early to say, but some initial signs are worrisome. (See David Kenner's excellent FP piece on the first reaction of America's allies in the region to the U.S.-Russia deal.)

That said, as we look back on this small, fragile, positive step forward, one thing we must acknowledge is that one more good thing the president did was to trust and empower his secretary of state. Although John Kerry has yet to devote sufficient attention to managing his department, this weekend (as with the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks) his actions have again suggested that the life-long senator may have the makings of a first-rate chief diplomat: tenacity, energy, creativity, and a willingness to take risks. Kerry also gave the single best speech regarding the rationale to go to war in Syria, something that no doubt gave him traction in this weekend's talks, thus revealing the benefit of properly playing two contradictory ideas in a way that produces a good outcome. Again, the proof is in the pudding, but recent signs concerning Kerry are encouraging.

In Syria, in Egypt, across the Middle East, around the world, and at home, President Obama faces many challenges to come. His natural sense of ambivalence and consequent hesitation -- even if he comes by it for good reasons -- will almost certainly cause more problems than it resolves. He should trust Kerry, Susan Rice, and the rest of the team around him to temper those inclinations and address them within his policy processes rather than alongside them or in ways that contradict them. The failure to do so may not only weaken the president but create just the kind of likelihood of conflict he seeks to avoid. And none of this mitigates the big -- and to my mind worrisome -- shift in global affairs that will result from an American body politic that has overreacted to the errors and excesses of the past decade by a now too prevalent, too sweeping inclination to lean away from intervention and activism. But choosing to focus for a moment on what positive we can find in recent events, we can hope that with some luck, if allowed to express itself, the inner nature of this president will from time to time help him again to seize whatever opportunities that may present themselves to lead this country and the world more in the direction of peace than away from it. It may not make for a coherent or even a successful foreign policy, but when it works and even when it doesn't, there's something to be said for the impulse. After all, an author who has enjoyed even greater popular success than Fitzgerald once wrote, "Blessed are the peacemakers.…"

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