Can Anybody Run This Country?

I'm in Williamsburg, Virginia, to give a set of lectures at the College of William and Mary. I'll be speaking first to students on the virtues of theory and the vices of "simplistic hypothesis testing," based on the article I wrote with John Mearsheimer that was recently published in the European Journal of International Relations. Then a class presentation on the relationship between academia and the policy world, which will address issues I've discussed here. And then I wrap up with a public lecture this evening on "Why Does U.S. Foreign Policy Keep Failing?"

There are a lot of potential answers to that last question, and I'm sure each of you has your favorite candidate(s). My own list is a pretty long one (and no, it doesn't start with the Israel lobby), but the one I'm thinking most about today is the irresponsibility of so many public officials. How can one retain any respect for most politicians these days, given their recent behavior? The GOP appears to be making a run at the world record for self-destructive political conduct, which wouldn't be so bad if they were the only ones damaged by it. Unfortunately, their brain-dead fiscal brinkmanship is actively harmful to the U.S. economy and is doing more damage to U.S. credibility than a thousand Munichs. Not that it bothers people who are trapped in the Limbaugh/FOX News bubble.

As I've noted before, a key part of the problem is a lack of accountability within our entire political system, and maybe even our entire society. Politicians in gerrymandered districts aren't accountable because they only have to appeal to a carefully selected set of voters who already agreed with the incumbents. (This is democracy inside-out: Instead of broad groups of voters selecting their political representatives, we have career politicians drawing district lines in order to cherry-pick the voters they want). Foreign-policy "experts" can launch disastrous wars and commit countless follies -- and then land safe sinecures at various D.C. think tanks, from which they can plot their return to power and continue to lobby for the same policies that failed when they were in power. Top officials can admit they lied to Congress or screw up the Obamacare rollout and still remain comfortably in their posts. With rare exceptions, military commanders can continue to rise even when their battlefield performance is subpar. And it's not like we've held Wall Street accountable for its own machinations either. Even universities tend to turn a blind eye to faculty misconduct unless it is truly egregious (and sometimes not even then).

Given all that, it's probably hopeless to expect elected officials to show a lot of insight, courage, or backbone. Think about it: How many politicians can you name who seem to be genuinely admirable people, animated not by their own ambitions and ego but by a sincere desire to serve the public? Similarly, how often have you heard some leading political figure say a bunch of nonsensical things that they knew were not true, but did so because saying them was politically expedient?

By contrast, how many politicians can you name who have taken positions they knew might jeopardize their political futures, but did so because they truly believed it was the right thing to do? How many have openly admitted they were wrong about some weighty issue and actually seem humbled by this moment of fallibility? Whether one looks left or right, there just don't seem to be many people with those qualities in our political life these days. I can think of a few, but not many.

I'm not naive about this issue: Politics is the art of compromise, and even principled leaders sometimes have to make trade-offs to advance a broader agenda. And clinging firmly to principle can be dangerous if the principles are loony (see under: Tea Party). But whether the issue is our inability to address basic fiscal issues in a responsible manner, our propensity to intervene in places of no strategic importance, our eroding infrastructure, or the growing gulf between privileged people like me (and you) and the rest of society, the country is crying out for some pragmatic people who are interested in Getting Things Done and have some idea how to do it.

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

National Security

The Talks with Iran: 3 Voices Whose Advice We Should Ignore

As I write this, Iranian and American negotiators, along with the other members of the P5+1, are meeting in Geneva to discuss the nuclear dispute that has divided Iran and these nations for many years. The core issues are: 1) how much of Iran's present nuclear capacity might it be willing to give up, 2) the scope of international inspections of Iran's remaining facilities, and 3) the speed with which the United States and others will lift the economic sanctions they have imposed on Iran.

Colin Kahl and Alireza Nader have already posted an excellent guide to the negotiations, and they correctly note that pursuing the pipe dream of "zero enrichment" will merely ensure that this latest round of negotiations fails. If Obama and his team want success, therefore, they are going to have to ignore the various voices that are now recommending either unrealistic demands or ill-advised negotiating strategies.

Obama should ignore these voices because their approach has been a complete failure for over a decade. Iran had zero centrifuges in operation in 2000 and only a handful in 2005, the last time the Iranians offered to freeze their program. The United States rejected all these previous offers, and now Iran has some 19,000 centrifuges, a plutonium program, and a larger stockpile of uranium that could in theory be enriched to make a bomb if Iran ever decides it wants one. In short, the hard-line position of issuing threats, imposing sanctions, and insisting that Iran give in to all our demands has backfired and put us in a worse position today.

Here's a quick guide to some of the voices whose advice should be ignored.

First and foremost, the government of Israel, which continues to insist that Iran be forced to dismantle its entire enrichment program. I can understand why nuclear-armed Israel would like this, but it's not going to happen unless and until the entire region becomes a nuclear-weapons-free zone. Letting Tel Aviv dictate our negotiating position guarantees failure.

Second, the bipartisan group of senators issued one of those helpful "open letters" to Obama last week. In addition to repeating the usual bromides about "a convincing threat of the use of force" and describing Iran's "nuclear weapons program" (which the U.S. intelligence community does not think exists), the senators told Obama to seek full suspension of Iranian enrichment in exchange for a suspension of new U.S. sanctions. In other words: Iran should give us the most important thing on our wish list, in exchange for our generously agreeing to leave the existing sanctions in place but not add any new ones. This idea is not serious, which is hardly surprising given that it came from Capitol Hill.

Third, lobbying groups like JINSA and United Against Nuclear Iran. The former group issued a new policy brief last week, outlining the usual set of U.S. demands and recommending that the United States increase pressure on Iran in order to get a deal. In their view, the best way to get a successful deal is to impose more sanctions on Iran and to threaten U.S. or Israeli military strikes. (Right: Military threats are an ideal way to convince a country that it has no need for even a latent nuclear deterrent.) Oddly, the report acknowledges that Iran has responded to the past decade of U.S. pressure with its own strategy of "counter-pressure": assembling more centrifuges, accumulating larger stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, making nuclear fuel at the Arak reactor, etc. Yet even though the approach they recommend has backfired for a decade, we should just keep doing it. And as I've noted in other contexts, a one-sided deal that you impose on an adversary by brute coercion isn't likely to endure; it just gives the other side reason to reverse the results once conditions are more favorable. To succeed, any deal with Iran has got to give both sides something positive, instead of leaving one side thinking it got screwed.

As for United Against Nuclear Iran, this is the group of diplomatic geniuses that was pressuring hotels in New York not to rent rooms to Iranian President Hasan Rouhani during his recent visit. Its new president, Gary Samore (who is also a colleague of mine at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs), wasn't in charge of the group when that little flap occurred, but he seems to be on board with the same coercive approach that has repeatedly failed in the past. He told Time magazine last week that "[the Iranians] want to have a nuclear weapons capability" and that our only tool is "coercive pressure." He added that any deal we reach will not end the matter, but will only be a way to "buy time, in the hopes that the next Iranian government has a different calculation of their national interest" (my emphasis). For United Against Nuclear Iran, it seems, the real goal is still regime change.

In short, the hard-liners' approach to Iran still insists on maximal objectives on our end and zero carrots for Iran. It still sees sanctions and active threats of military force as the only way to convince Iran to abandon most if not all of its nuclear energy program. This approach is also deeply hypocritical, given America's own nuclear arsenal and our propensity to use force with far greater frequency than the Islamic Republic has. And worst of all, it has been a complete failure so far: Iran has a far more extensive nuclear program than it did when the United States started trying to coerce it into complete capitulation. You would think that America's foreign-policy establishment would look back at the past decade or more and at least consider a different approach, but that seems to be a very hard thing for us to do.

Photo: Iran International Photo Agency via Getty Images