Spoiler Alert

What lessons do the success of Camp David and the failure of Oslo hold for America's nuclear deal with Iran?

The Geneva P5+1 interim agreement with Iran is already the most important Middle Eastern diplomatic gambit since the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel and the Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel. The "Joint Plan of Action" produced a monumental, symbolic breakthrough after years of frustrating diplomatic gridlock, and laid out a tantalizing glimpse of a very different Middle East. It has rapidly normalized relationships and practices which had very recently seemed unthinkable. A successful final status agreement on the Iranian nuclear program would be a monumental diplomatic accomplishment. But like Camp David and Oslo, Geneva is only an interim agreement which leaves a vast array of core issues unresolved -- and offers a million opportunities for failure.

Camp David is the best-case analogy for Geneva, Oslo the worst-case analogy (and Munich is, of course, the black hole of analogies, a billion bad ideas gone supernova and sucking in everything that comes within its malevolent gravitational pull). Camp David suggests that implementation can be achieved against considerable odds, and in doing so galvanize radical strategic change in unpredictable directions. But Oslo suggests how easily Geneva can fail, given the opportunities it creates for spoilers to intervene and for implementation problems to sap its transformative power. That's especially troubling since Geneva's bargaining framework resembles Oslo's more than anything else.

But it is a measure of Camp David's success that few now recall that Egypt was for decades Israel's most militarily dangerous foe and the strategic linchpin of a pan-Arab order. Most policy analysts in the mid-1960s (and, most likely, in the mid-1970s) would have considered the idea of an enduring, decades-long Egyptian-Israeli security partnership to be outrageously implausible. Camp David shows that a seemingly unthinkable strategic reorientation of leading rivals is entirely possible, if not likely, and that once achieved can be normalized remarkably quickly.

The talks held at Camp David in September 1978 broke through the morass of years of grinding negotiations following the 1973 war that focused on the terms of disengagement. The window for such talks opened with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's shocking decision to address Israel's Knesset. Like today, both leaders saw an overwhelming strategic interest in reaching an agreement, even as they faced significant domestic and regional opposition. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin understood that a credible peace with Egypt would do more than anything else to guarantee Israeli security. Sadat, meanwhile, was impatient to consolidate his switch into the American-led alliance structure anchored in the Gulf and Israel. And yet it still took six months to sign a peace treaty and several more years for Israel to evacuate the Sinai.

The core deal reached between Egypt and Israel, and guaranteed by the United States, proved extremely robust. Egypt fully integrated into the U.S. alliance system, with its expulsion from the Arab League lasting only a few years, before its Gulf-facilitated rehabilitation. Israel has not had to seriously worry about a military threat from Egypt since the treaty, and has generally enjoyed active Egyptian assistance in policing the Sinai, blockading Gaza, and coordinating regional security policies. That's not a bad contribution to Israel's long-term security from a Democratic U.S. president viewed with suspicion in Tel Aviv and savaged as a foreign policy naïf -- if not disaster -- by a hawkish foreign policy establishment.

On the other hand, Egypt's removal from the strategic equation had unpredictable effects. Cairo proved completely unable to deliver the rest of the Arab world, especially after the provisions for a Palestinian homeland rapidly faded into the ether. Saddam Hussein's bid to fill the void of Arab leadership may have contributed to his decision to invade Iran in 1980, while Egypt's temporary expulsion from the Arab order heralded the long-term shift of power towards the Gulf. And many believe that the peace treaty with Egypt emboldened Israel to embark on its disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Camp David, finally, remained a cold peace, solid at the level of high politics and security cooperation but never transforming Arab political identities or discourse.

The Geneva process, however, looks more like Oslo than like Camp David. The Joint Plan of Action is a six-month interim agreement designed to allow each side to show good faith and build confidence and momentum towards a much more difficult final status agreement. This is precisely the logic of the Oslo process, which was equally built upon the same logic of small interim agreements paving the way towards a much more difficult final status agreement. Few need to be reminded of how badly that logic fared. Provocative actions and rhetoric on both sides destroyed the trust which cooperation was meant to build. Israeli settlement activity continued, Palestinian terrorist attacks escalated, deadlines were missed, and publics grew disenchanted. The spectacular failure of President Bill Clinton's efforts to reach a final agreement at the 2000 Camp David summit was only the coup de grâce.

The Oslo experience should inform how the participants approach the Iran negotiations. The politics surrounding the Geneva framework agreement create an environment exceptionally rich with potential flashpoints for undermining trust. Even the parties to the talks, who presumably genuinely want them to succeed, will face tremendous political pressure to exaggerate their accomplishments in the talks and denigrate the gains on the other side. The more that Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani's people feel the need to prove that they are "winning" the talks, the more likely for those talks to break down.

Meanwhile, opponents of the deal have been given a fairly clear guidebook to what moves might wreck an agreement. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has already stated that additional American sanctions would render the interim agreement void, a red line which tells congressional spoilers exactly what they need to do. And hardliners in the Iranian security establishment will not find it difficult to create confrontational moments in the inspections process -- to say nothing of the possibilities for mischief in Syria, Iraq, or Lebanon. Israel and the Gulf states, which have made no secret of their skepticism, will also have little difficult finding ways to spark crises or raise new problems should the talks be proceeding too well.

Then there are the psychological legacies of decades of conflict and mistrust. Each missed deadline, contested interpretation, or reckless statement to the media will provide fodder for those seeking evidence of the other side's bad faith. Each side will tend to see these mistakes on their own side as obvious political gambits, unreflective of their own pure intentions. Violations, or even just unseemly comments, on the other side will be taken as true signals of malevolent intent.

In other words, this six-month period will give ample opportunity for spoilers on all sides to undermine trust, sabotage the process, and set the final status talks up for devastating failure. Both Washington and Tehran need to be keenly attuned to this logic, and focus on maintaining forward momentum, defanging potential spoilers, and avoiding negative spirals of mistrust and frustrated hope. Both sides need to demonstrate that they can and will deliver on the letter and spirit of their agreements. Focusing on short-term bargaining advantage or domestic political posturing will likely rapidly derail hopes of building trust through cooperation. Public diplomacy aimed at building support for the process and heading off the predictable flashpoints should be given as much attention as the negotiations themselves. We should forget Munich, learn the lessons of Oslo, and hold on to Camp David as proof that success is possible and worth pursuing.


Marc Lynch

Peak Middle East?

Why the administration is giving a free pass to Egypt's military regime.

Secretary of State John Kerry can't seem to find enough ways these days to express his acceptance of Egypt's military coup regime. In a visit to Cairo, he waved away the hard-fought suspension of some U.S. aid as "not a punishment" and declined to raise the issue of the trial of former President Mohamed Morsy. He seems keen to pretend that Egypt is on the road to democracy, and even appears to believe that the fiercely anti-democratic United Arab Emirates is going to support a democratic transition. Most recently, he endorsed the regime's narrative by claiming that the Muslim Brotherhood "stole" the revolution -- by winning free and fair elections, which Washington strongly supported.

Why is Kerry making such a production of supporting Egypt's military regime? Most likely, President Barack Obama's administration simply has much bigger regional issues with which to grapple, and has decided that it can accomplish little in a hopelessly fractured Egypt. It (correctly) calculates that there is little it can do to influence the course of events in Cairo due to the pervasive hostility to Washington across the Egyptian political spectrum and the willingness of Gulf states to offset any American attempts to exercise leverage.

It may be galling to many Egypt watchers and Egyptians who consider Cairo the center of the Middle East universe, but right now events there are barely a sideshow for Washington. Cairo has made it quite clear that it has little interest in American advice, and Washington has far more important issues on its plate.

Both Iran's nuclear program and the horrific war in Syria continue to take priority over Egypt on America's regional agenda. Closing a deal with Iran would arguably be the single most impressive and important geostrategic accomplishment in the Middle East since the Camp David Accords. Meanwhile, Syria's civil war continues to inflict crushing human costs and has reverberated around the region, and few of the external players are keen on U.S.-orchestrated attempts to organize a peace conference.

Given those momentous challenges, the Obama administration is likely calculating that if happy talk on Egypt can slightly appease America's anxious Gulf allies as Washington pushes policies in Iran and Syria that they dislike, then so be it.

That may be dispiriting, but at least it makes sense -- as long as nobody is really fooled that Egypt is actually on a path toward a democratic future. But I doubt anyone in the administration is buying their own rhetoric. It may seem strange now, but there was once a controversy over whether Egypt's July 3 coup should be called a coup. Even though it met the textbook definition of a coup -- the military stepping in, suspending the constitution, and arresting the elected political leadership -- many Egyptians protested that the masses in the streets demanding change and the perfidy of the Brotherhood leadership made it something different. It didn't, of course.

Lest we forget, everything that has happened since July 3, without exception, has confirmed the coupness of Egypt's coup. Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's military regime has done everything by the book -- rounding up and brutalizing supporters of the old regime, cultivating a cult of personality around the coup leader, tightly controlling the media, stage-managing a constitutional process designed to protect the military's power and privileges, and even promising an eventual return to democracy.

The more obvious the nature of Egypt's coup has become, the faster Washington has tried to run away from the legal and political implications of acknowledging it. Kerry may choose to suck it up and pretend to believe that Egypt's future is looking up, but I think this administration understands the reality is that the coup broke the country's politics for the foreseeable future. The State Department certainly has no illusions that Egypt's military regime has any answers for the country's staggering economy, shattered political consensus, or crumbling institutions.

Typically, this would be the time to call for new elections and a return to civilian rule, but at this point Egyptian politics is so badly broken that such a "road map" will lead nowhere. The current constitutional process and planned elections are only designed to rebuild a civilian façade over a populist military regime. Sisi's new constitution will likely pass by acclamation, whatever its contents, and his supporters will sweep parliamentary elections -- not a difficult task when their main opponents are dead or in jail. If the army chief does decide to run for president, as seems increasingly likely, he may even form a new umbrella party that is dubbed "national" and "democratic," just like Hosni Mubarak did before him.

The United States will likely deem this hyper-caffeinated neo-Mubarakism good enough to justify restoring more openly cordial ties with Cairo. But Egypt's problems aren't going away: The next president will have to face the same political, economic, and cultural challenges that eventually brought down both Mubarak and Morsy. Fanning the flames of hatred for the Muslim Brothers, building a personality cult around Sisi, and shoveling Gulf cash into a furnace all buy time -- but have little lasting effect. Ultimately, instability and popular protest will return.

The generals and their Gulf backers just aren't going to be able to turn the clock back to 2010, in Egypt or in the region. Cairo has already witnessed a limited return of public discontent with this week's protests and clashes near Tahrir Square. The demonstrations were held to commemorate the November 2011 clashes  on Mohammed Mahmoud St., a nihilistic spasm of utterly pointless violence that demonstrated the popular movement's political failure. Their efforts, no less than the Muslim Brotherhood's majoritarianism, helped to discredit the very idea of democracy. In other words, the restless, relentless energy of the disenchanted may prove more than enough to repeatedly disrupt a regime incapable of responding to their most basic demands -- but doesn't yet offer any alternative political trajectory.

I don't think that anyone in Washington really believes, then, that Egypt is on any sort of path toward democracy or stability. Kerry, at least, appears to have concluded that Cairo can be put on the back burner for now in favor of issues where American diplomacy really can make a difference. If genuflecting toward Sisi placates Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and helps secure a deal on Iran or Syria, then Kerry's cringe-inducing comments will be a price worth paying. The illusions of Egypt's democratic progress will vanish quickly enough when the next crisis inevitably hits Cairo.