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Syria, Iran, and The Credibility Fairy

Your humble blogger continues to be interested in the divide between current/former policymakers and academics over the meaning and significance of "credibility" in international affairs.  I have bent over backwards to suggest that maybe, just maybe, policymakers know something we don't.  But increasingly, I'm wondering whether the Syria deal highlights just how much policymaker types need to gain a wider perspective.

For exhibit A, there's the New York Times' Thom Shanker and Lauren D'Avolio, who report that former Secretaries of Defense Bob Gates and Leon Panetta are pretty critical about the Syria deal because of concerns about... credibility with Iran:

Mr. Panetta... said the president should have kept his word after he had pledged action if Syria used chemical weapons.

When the president of the United States draws a red line, the credibility of this country is dependent on him backing up his word,” Mr. Panetta said.

“Once the president came to that conclusion, then he should have directed limited action, going after Assad, to make very clear to the world that when we draw a line and we give our word,” then “we back it up,” Mr. Panetta said....

Under questioning from the moderator, David Gergen, who advised four presidents and is now on the faculty at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, both former secretaries said that American credibility on Syria was essential to enduring efforts to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.

“Iran is paying very close attention to what we’re doing,” Mr. Panetta said. “There’s no question in my mind they’re looking at the situation, and what they are seeing right now is an element of weakness.” (emphases added)

Other former senior policymakers I've talked to this week have also stressed the Iran angle.  Even if they acknowledge that what happened in Syria is not going to affect events in North Korea, they point out that Iran is in the same neighborhood and will undoubtedly process Obama's "climbdown" on Syria into their calculations on what to do with respect to their own nuclear program. 

Now, that certainly makes intuitive sense.  So the Iranians must be hardening their negotiating position on the nuclear question, right?  Let's go to the Financial Times' Najmeh Bozorgmehr:

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, has advocated flexibility in talks with major powers in a rare public acknowledgment of his determination to find a solution to the dispute over the country’s nuclear programme.

Uh.... I don't think that's what Panetta meant.  Hmm... maybe the FT got it wrong.  Let's check the New York Times' Thomas Erdbrink's coverage

A series of good-will gestures and hints of new diplomatic flexibility from Iran’s ruling establishment was capped on Wednesday by the highest-level statement yet that the country’s new leaders are pushing for a compromise in negotiations over their disputed nuclear program.

In a near staccato burst of pronouncements, statements and speeches by the new president, Hassan Rouhani; his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif; and even the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leadership has sent Rosh Hashana greetings to Jews worldwide via Twitter, released political prisoners, exchanged letters with President Obama, praised “flexibility” in negotiations and transferred responsibility for nuclear negotiations from the conservatives in the military to the Foreign Ministry.

But... but... what about Syria?!  Surely the Iranians have processed what happened in that crisis and have decided to double down in hawkishness, right?  C'mon, help me out here, Erdbrink!

Mr. Rouhani, asked in the NBC News interview if he thought Mr. Obama looked weak when he backed off from a threat to conduct a missile strike against Syria over a deadly chemical weapons attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, replied: “We consider war a weakness. Any government or administration that decides to wage a war, we consider a weakness. And any government that decides on peace, we look on it with respect to peace.”

Son of a....

Now, if you read the Erdbrink story, it's clear that Iran's desperate, sanctions-induced economic straits are playing a key role in a months-in-the-planning rollout to reignite negotiations with the West.  So it's not like compellence doesn't matter. 

But I wonder if reaching an agreement on Syria might have also sent an unanticipated but useful signal to Iran.  As I've blogged about in the past, the Obama administration has toggled back and forth between wanting to cut a nuclear deal and wanting to foment regime change in Iran.  From Iran's perspective, this made it very, very hard to believe that the U.S. government could credibly commit to any nuclear agreement with the current regime. 

As Phil Arena pointed out with respect to Syria, softening a hardline position on Syria might have enhanced U.S. credibility in negotiations:  

[T]he most relevant obstacle to negotiation, up until very recently, might well have been a belief on behalf of Putin and Assad that the US couldn’t be appeased. That they faced a commitment problem stemming from the inability of the US to credibly promise to leave Assad alone if he ceased using chemical weapons. Once debate within the US made it clear that regime change wasn’t the goal, that the US really doesn’t much care how many innocent people are raped and killed so long as they aren’t gassed, everything changed. The lack of resolve signaled by the US might have served to convince Putin and Assad that the US could be bought off, and relatively cheaply.

One can extend Arena's logic to negotiations with Iran.  Rather than accommodation on Syria signaling a weakening of resolve to Iran, it might have signaled something very different -- a willingness of the United States to accept the negotiations track.  As Arena's analysis suggests, such deals carry policy tradeoffs.  But it seems like the willingness to negotiate on Syria has, on the margins, bolstered rather than weakened Iran's willingness to negotiate a nuclear deal.  This would be consistent, by the way, with Anne Sartori's research on the importance of credibility in diplomacy.

Now if you think the primary goal in Iran or Syria should be regime change, or if you think that Syria's concessions now and Iran's concessions later will be meager, then this post will be of little comfort.  And as Arena points out, there are some sticky policy tradeoffs here for U.S. policymakers.  But Iran's behavior vitiates the notion that Obama's policy reversals on Syria have somehow emboldened Iran's leadership into adopting a more hawkish position.  If anything, the opposite is true. 

Or, in other words -- and I mean this with all due respect -- policymakers treat credibility as this magical overarching concept that only applies to "resolve to use military force."  It's possible that credibility is a more circumscribed effect... and applies to diplomacy just as much as force.

What do you think?

Daniel W. Drezner

Your God-awful International Relations Hook of the Day

I've written enough for a public audience in my day to know the importance of the "hook" -- the clever metaphor, historical analogy, provocative statement, or autobiographical anecdote that will hook the reader into paying attention long enough for me to make my more substantive point about world politics.  Hell, I've written a few things in my day that had a ratio of ninety percent hook and ten percent substance.  A great hook combined with a great argument can make you proud that someone actually pays you to write things.

A bad hook, though... well, a bad hook causes the reader to feel manipulated by a writer with a hardened agenda and no knowledge of how to persuade.  It's the difference between flirtation and harassment in social intercourse. 

Which brings me to the opening paragraphs in Tom Friedman's column today: 

I was at a conference in Bern, Switzerland, last week and struggling with my column. News of Russia’s proposal for Syria to surrender its poison gas was just breaking and changing every hour, forcing me to rewrite my column every hour. To clear my head, I went for a walk along the Aare River, on Schifflaube Street. Along the way, I found a small grocery shop and stopped to buy some nectarines. As I went to pay, I was looking down, fishing for my Swiss francs, and when I looked up at the cashier, I was taken aback: He had pink hair. A huge shock of neon pink hair — very Euro-punk from the ’90s. While he was ringing me up, a young woman walked by, and he blew her a kiss through the window — not a care in the world.

Observing all this joie de vivre, I thought to myself: “Wow, wouldn’t it be nice to be a Swiss? Maybe even to sport some pink hair?” Though I can’t say for sure, I got the feeling that the man with pink hair was not agonizing over the proper use of force against Bashar al-Assad. Not his fault; his is a tiny country. I guess worrying about Syria is the tax you pay for being an American or an American president — and coming from the world’s strongest power that still believes, blessedly in my view, that it has to protect the global commons. Barack Obama once had black hair. But his is gray now, not pink. That’s also the tax you pay for thinking about the Middle East too much: It leads to either gray hair or no hair, but not pink hair.

So, a few things: 

1)  I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the United States also has pink-haired clerks flirting with girls (and boys) on the street.  Maybe not where Friedman buys his nectarines, but still...

2)  The logical proposition "pink hair = does not care about the rest of the world" feels a bit... wrong.

3)  While U.S. military primacy does contribute to protecting and preserving the global commons, the extent to which it does so is a bit more complicated than Friedman suggests.

4)  Maybe don't stereotype a country that headquarters the International Committee of the Red Cross and that, according to one well-respected index, appears to care just as much about the rest of the world as the United States. 

5)  Friedman's biggest sin is writing such a hackneyed opening that readers will drift away before reading the last two-thirds of his column, which is both contemplative and thought-provoking.  This paragraph in particular suggests that the Syria debate will require America's foreign policy community to engage in some critical reflection: 

The fact that Americans overwhelmingly told Congress to vote against bombing Syria for its use of poison gas tells how much the divide on this issue in America was not left versus right, but top versus bottom. Intervening in Syria was driven by elites and debated by elites. It was not a base issue. I think many Americans could not understand why it was O.K. for us to let 100,000 Syrians die in a civil war/uprising, but we had to stop everything and bomb the country because 1,400 people were killed with poison gas. I and others made a case why, indeed, we needed to redraw that red line, but many Americans seemed to think that all we were doing is drawing a red line in a pool of blood. Who would even notice?

I'm very curious about where mainstream foreign policy punditry will go after they recover from losing the argument on Syria and bewailing things like lost credibility and so forth.  I'll be even more curious if Friedman's editors exercise a wee bit more discipline and tell him when his metaphors don't work.  At all.