Accentuate the Positive

Why undervaluing the potential upsides to a deal with Iran is just bad business.

The debate on Iran continues apace, with the White House complaining about pro-war members of Congress and hawks accusing the administration of talking while Iran quietly builds. A striking feature of recent exchanges on this issue is the tendency for both sides to focus almost entirely on various negative outcomes and to devote little attention to the potential upside of a deal. The result is a skewed discussion: If we lose sight of all the benefits from a comprehensive deal -- including the possibility of a fundamentally different relationship with Iran -- we'll undervalue the payoff diplomacy might yield and be less likely to stay the course when the bargaining gets tough.

Those who favor diplomacy warn that failure to reach a comprehensive agreement will leave Iran's nuclear program unconstrained, undermine the existing sanctions regime, strengthen the hands of Iranian hardliners, and perhaps leave the United States with no choice but to use military force. (That last point is wrong, by the way; the use of force is always a choice.) They oppose new sanctions today because such a step would derail the talks and leave the United States in a worse position. I think they're right, but notice that they are focusing solely on the bad things that will happen if we lose patience and let hardliners blow the deal.

Similarly, those who are wary of diplomacy and inclined to favor the use of force warn darkly that Iran is using the talks to expand its nuclear program, and they fear Iran will eventually break out and acquire the bomb anyway. They maintain a nuclear-armed Iran would be highly aggressive and this development would have far-reaching negative consequences for the region and the world. Once again, the focus is relentlessly negative; it's about all the scary outcomes that we can supposedly avoid only by continuing to turn the screws on Tehran.

When trying to make their case, in short, both sides tend to focus solely on the downside. But what about the potential benefits of a successful negotiation? To judge the pros and cons of diplomacy properly, we have to consider not just the downside of failure, but also the potential upside of success. And I don't mean just the possibility of limiting Iran's nuclear program (a desirable goal in itself), but also the more important possibility of putting U.S.-Iranian relations on a fundamentally different path (which is what AIPAC, et al are really worried about).

But apart from irritating AIPAC, just consider what the potential benefits might be.

Cash money
First and most obviously, the United States will make money. We tend to focus on the costs that economic sanctions have imposed on Iran, conveniently forgetting that sanctions also impose costs on us. Americans pay more for oil and gas because Iranian oil isn't flowing to world markets, and U.S. firms are barred from making lucrative investments in Iran's economy. Remember that the U.S. oil firm Conoco won a big oil development deal back in 1995 -- in part because Iran was trying to signal its interest in better relations -- but President Bill Clinton succumbed to pressure from AIPAC and canceled the deal. Remember also that notorious appeaser Dick Cheney used to give speeches railing against America's "sanctions happy" foreign policy when he ran Halliburton, an oil services company. Bottom line: A better relationship with Iran would be good for the U.S. economy. That's not sufficient reason to cut a deal by itself, but it is an obvious benefit that it would be foolish to forget.

Regional warming
Second, ending the U.S.-Iranian deep freeze would make it easier for Washington and Tehran to cooperate on issues where our interests are, in fact, aligned. Such issues include stabilizing Afghanistan and preventing a new Taliban takeover, dealing with narcotics trafficking in Central Asia, and yes, even trying to find some sort of solution to the continuing carnage in Syria. (The latest kerfuffle over whether Iran should or should not be invited to the upcoming Geneva talks is just another manifestation of the vast gulf of suspicion between the two countries; if the two countries had a more normal relationship, Iran's attendance wouldn't be so controversial and it might be easier to paper over the current differences in the interest of getting a ceasefire and saving Syrian lives.)

Spoiler alert
Third, a better relationship with Iran might also be the best way to deal with issues where U.S. and Iranian interests are not in synch, such as Tehran's support for groups such as Hezbollah and its position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For starters, as Trita Parsi has shown, Iran's support for Islamic Jihad and other extremist groups was at least partly motivated by its desire to remind the United States that it could not be excluded or marginalized in Middle East affairs. Given the current frigid relationship with the West, Iran has little to lose from playing the spoiler and thus little reason not to back these groups. But if we get a nuclear deal and relations begin to thaw, Iran's leaders will face an awkward choice between continuing to back these groups and enjoying the potential stream of economic and other benefits that improved ties with the West could bring.

Nobody knows how Iran's leaders would respond to that tradeoff, but forcing them to think about it could be both revealing and potentially revolutionary. And, by the way, if by some miracle we did make some progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace, a better relationship with Iran might get us some buy-in from them, which could in turn make the deal easier to implement. After all, Iranian officials have previously said they would support any deal that the Palestinian leadership accepted. It would be nice to put that assertion to the test.

Think of the children
Fourth, if you're not a fan of the clerical regime, you might want to consider killing it with kindness instead of bolstering it with belligerence. More than half of Iran's population is under 35, and many are eager for better relations with the outside world (including the United States). Making it easier for Iranians to travel, get educated in the United States, and get exposed to the rest of the outside world will put those aging mullahs in a very awkward position. Have we learnt nothing from the failed Cuban embargo, which has helped keep the Castro Bros. in power for half a century? If we really believe in the transformative power of markets, Hollywood, hip-hop, the Internet, democracy, and free speech, let's turn ‘em loose on Tehran. If your goal is a more moderate Iran, that approach is likely to work a lot better than ostracism, covert action, and repeated threats of military force, which merely galvanize Iranian nationalism and help justify continued repression by hardliners.

They're democrats, too
Fifth, a better relationship with Iran could help advance the cause of democracy in the Middle East. Iran's political system still has powerful authoritarian elements, but Rouhani's election -- and yes, it was a real election -- showed it is responsive to public opinion and capable of change. For all of its flaws, it's a lot closer to U.S. ideals than the Arab regimes that we have backed with enthusiasm for decades. (Nor is Iran committed to a prolonged and illegal effort to colonize another people and deprive them of all political rights, as is a certain other U.S. ally.) If you're genuinely interested in encouraging representative government, in short, the possibility of a better relationship with Iran ought to intrigue you. A lot.

Balancing power
Finally, as I've noted previously, a better relationship with Iran would increase America's overall influence throughout the region. Preserving a regional balance of power is the main U.S. strategic interest in the Middle East, and that goal is facilitated when we can play different states and/or groups against each other. Washington loses diplomatic leverage when it gets too closely tied to one state, one faction, or one coalition, especially given the multi-dimensional turmoil that is now buffeting the region. A businesslike -- if not close -- relationship with Tehran would discourage other U.S. allies from taking Washington's support for granted and encourage them to do a bit more to keep us happy. Sounds good to me.

* * *

Is this analysis overly optimistic? Very possibly. There's no guarantee that any of these benefits would be realized and it would be naïve to count on them. Building a more constructive relationship after a successful nuclear negotiation will not be easy, and there will be plenty of tough bargaining and shrewd judgment needed as the relationship develops. But the optimistic upside sketched above is more plausible than the far-fetched scenarios that opponents of diplomacy have been conjuring up for years (such as the goofy idea that Iran will get the bomb and immediately commit an act of national suicide by striking Tel Aviv). If skeptics can try to scuttle diplomatic progress by outlining preposterous worst-case scenarios like that, then advocates should remind them that the benefits from a thaw with Tehran could be significant and are far more likely.

So why aren't more people talking about the upside? I suspect it's because they don't want to sound naïve or be accused of advocating "appeasement." Iran has been effectively demonized over the past 30 years, which makes it hard for many people to acknowledge the possibility of a different relationship. And make no mistake: Cutting through three decades of entrenched suspicion and resentment won't be easy for either country. Moreover, at this stage, Washington doesn't want to sound too willing to mend fences with Iran, because excessive eagerness would undercut its bargaining position in the nuclear talks and in any subsequent diplomatic exchanges. But we should not lose sight of the many benefits that a better relationship with Iran might -- repeat might -- produce, and the headaches we are likely to face if the two countries remain deeply at odds for another decade or more.



From Messiah to Mediocrity

How a constitutional scholar became a "just trust me" pol.

Few of the speeches President Barack Obama has delivered during his tenure in office illustrate his transformation from messiah to mediocrity, a middle of the pack president likely to fit in somewhere between Rutherford B. Hayes and Martin Van Buren, quite as well as his tepid, inadequate, and something-for-everyone but much-less-than-meets-the-eye speech on NSA reforms on Friday. At just the moment when the country needed the constitutional scholar who was bold enough to speak truth to power -- the man who many of us thought we were electing in 2008 and then again in 2012 -- we instead got the wobbly, vague, "trust me" of a run-of-the-mill pol.

The great flaw within the president's remarks was not its inadequate details nor the issues it left unaddressed or punted off into an indefinite future. Nor was it the fact that he left the specifics of the implementation of many of the "reforms" to the judgment of many of the same folks who created the problem he was addressing. Rather the president, once again, sent the message that at least until he leaves office, he would like us to embrace the idea that personality is more important than principle in U.S. policymaking. In other words, he sought to reassure his supporters and critics (who are understandably worried about government overreach and the violation of civil liberties and wary of policies driven more by fear-mongering than prudent perspective), by more or less saying, "Don't worry, I'm a good guy, I'll make sure that all the big decisions that get made will be OK." 

Quite apart from the fact that wave upon wave of Snowden-fed revelation belies that argument, it ignores a central truth that the constitutional scholar should recognize. Our country was founded on clear limits being placed on the power of government because for all the generations of good and earnest leaders we may have or have had, our planet's history and human nature tell us we must protect against those who might someday abuse their power. 

Among the president's "reforms" announced in his speech was a plan to shift the storage of collected data to a third-party host and to require that government agencies receive court approval before accessing this database. Of course, we know how well third-party entities manage their responsibilities and preserve what should be secure (look at Booz and Snowden). And while seeking court approval is a good step -- as required by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution -- if the court in question is the never-met-a-request-they-didn't-like FISA court, it's roughly like leaving the Kardashians to adjudicate national standards of chastity.

In his speech the president raised the hopes of those seeking more protection for individual rights by proposing the creation of a privacy panel to consult with the court. But that provision was compromised by the qualification that in his proposal the panel will only address "novel" issues, meaning that once the court has agreed that certain types of searches are legal, then all future cases that can be analogized to be the same (and thus not novel) will be fair game.

On international snooping, there appear to be only a couple of dozen clear winners -- a handful of heads of state of allied and friendly governments who from now will no longer be subjected to surveillance. The cabinet colleagues of these leaders? Still fair game. Staff? OK to eavesdrop on them. Families? Why not? Legislators? Military leaders? Police forces? Of course. As far as the rights of international citizens go, the president said we will set new guidelines. Does that mean less poking around in text messages or email accounts of tens of millions of foreigners? Not necessarily. The only assurance is that the United States will only store this information for a shorter period of time. Though how much time that will be remains unclear.

What happened to the vast array of recommendations of the president's council set up to assess our surveillance programs? Listening to the speech, most were punted, unaddressed or addressed by creating vague new processes that still leave open plenty of opportunity for abuse. And for those who argue (as many current and former top intelligence officials have) that there have not been any proven cases of abuse of the surveillance powers, the response must be, to many reasonable Americans and foreign citizens, that simply accessing private data qualifies as an abuse. Further, as noted above, the critical factor in weighing whether such programs should continue is not whether abuse has taken place, but whether under the rules and processes we establish, it someday could. The possibility of abuse is what drives the establishment of constitutional limitations of government power, not the proof of past abuses.

The weakness of the president's arguments shone through most strongly when he sought to pour oil upon the waters with the assertion that we, the United States, are not Russia or China. Talk about setting a low bar for a country that views itself as being a light unto the nations of the world. We aren't, the president said soothingly, as bad as two authoritarian societies founded on the ideas that individual rights and liberties take a back seat to the needs (and whims) of the state and its bosses.

I do not doubt that the president is troubled by many of the fundamental questions raised by the current surveillance debate. Indeed, listening to and reviewing his remarks, I could not help but be reminded of the comment former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made in his book when he wondered whether the president really supported his own Afghanistan policy. I'm sure the president is walking not one but several fine lines here: Between his principles and his desire to provide for the security of the American people, between his core constituency on the left and those upon whom he must depend in the intelligence and national security community, between his advisors pushing for reform and those urging he not go too far. He, as president, is also acutely and uniquely aware of the risks facing the United States and surely, does not wish to implement changes that might somehow enhance those risks or might open him to criticism should some attack come to pass.

Those are all reasons that balanced, thoughtful deliberation is wise in such circumstances. But the difference between a strong leader and just an average one is that after such deliberations, the strong leaders hew to principle and the long-term interests of their people and make bold and decisive choices when necessary, even if those choices open them up to political attack. 

In this instance, a president who was elected to undo the errors of his predecessor in overreacting to the attacks of 9/11 by launching three massive wars -- one in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, and one against terrorists worldwide -- has not only bungled the execution of each such desired reversal, he has produced a world in which our enemies and the chaos that serves them are now regaining strength. And where he should have sought to undo the mentality that led to the creation of those misguided and mishandled wars -- the fear-driven overstatement of the risks we face -- he not only failed, he has succumbed. He oversaw and accepted the expansion of the NSA's programs based on the logic that because a single bad actor could duplicate the devastation of 9/11, everyone everywhere effectively became a potential threat. We went from a bi-polar world in which we had one primary enemy, into not a unipolar world but into an apolar one in which our potential adversaries numbered in the thousands or even millions. Only such an analysis could warrant the shift of our intelligence community from its targeted approaches of the Cold War to the more wholesale, scattershot, limit-lite approaches of today. 

Obama didn't change the government as he was elected to do, he was changed by it. Perhaps that was inevitable. And no doubt some of the change was informed by new knowledge. But he sold his training and seeming previous values as well as those of his core supporters short. He should have given a speech today embracing and promising to implement the changes recommended by the smart, dedicated public servants on his surveillance council with immediacy and transparency. He should have said the NSA would do just fine if it played by the same, quite flexible rules followed by say, the CIA -- reporting missions and programs to Congress, and the FBI, working with courts to win wiretaps when needed. He should have said that metadata is clearly covered by the Fourth Amendment and vowed to have the administration file a brief in pending court cases supporting that view. He should have said that Americans and others worldwide had a right to privacy, one that must to be protected, even if it means slightly increasing the risk of the possibility of an occasional attack. (And there is debate about how effective many of the NSA's programs are.) He should have said that our focus ought to be not on what we fear but on what we value, on preserving the freedoms our forefathers fought to protect rather than compromising them in the hopes of protecting us against that which we cannot expect to ever eradicate. The way to fight terrorists is to focus on resilience and systematic, targeted efforts to go after known bad actors. Not with misguided invasions of sovereign powers nor with misguided violations of sovereign or individual rights worldwide. That is not to say we won't spy or shouldn't. We must and will. Rather it is to recognize that the limits we place on programs like the surveillance efforts of the NSA are as important to protecting us from future threats as are the programs themselves.