Why the Asymmetry in Foreign Policy Punditry is Worse Than Munich

After a few days of digesting the details the interim Iran deal, the uber-hawks in the American foreign policy community have cogitated and... completely ignored my advice to "chill" and are going all "worse than Munich" on the deal.  I must concede that both Kevin Drum and Daniel Larison called this one correctly.

I was planning on vivisecting this kind of hyperbolic argument, but I see that Reason's Matt Welch beat me to the punch and thrashed this Munich analogy to within an inch of its life (and -- deservedly -- placing some of the blame on John Kerry).  He concludes:

Bad historical analogies do not convert the targets of their criticism to good international decisions. But they do suggest an intellectual rot among those who are once again banging the drums for preventative Middle Eastern war. All recent history points to treating their most recent claims with a prophylactic skepticism, and recognizing their go-to analogy as a crude, ahistorical gimmick to escalate military confrontation.

I agree with Welch that the Munich analogy has been degraded to the point where #worsethanMunich deserves it's own Alanis Morisette song that permanently devalues the term.  That said, I do wonder whether this sort of hyperbole really will devalue the reputation of foreign policy pundits who trot it out. 

See, there's a curious but understandable asymmetry in foreign affairs punditry.  Warning about an apocalypse that does not happen doesn't exact that much of a toll on a pundit's reputation.  After all, it's the job of the pundit to warn about the dangers of world politics, to pore over the downside risks of every region, to spin tales of looming disaster in the air.  That's perceived as prudence by readers.  And if the predicted end of the world doesn't happen?  Well, that's likely because the pundit's loud warnings prompted preventive action (or so they will tell themselves as they drift off to sleep). 

On the other hand, predicting that a foreign policy negotiation will turn out well when it doesn't is tantamount to turning in your Very Serious Person card in the foreign policy community.  It demonstrates naïveté and optimism, which are bad nouns when associated with foreign affairs commentary.  Inevitably, Optimists Who Turned Out to be Wrong get matched up with Norman Angell or Francis Fukuyama in the "foolish Panglossians" category. 

As someone who's putting the finishing touches on a like-minded argument, I've become keenly aware of this asymmetry.  Indeed, I even understand it.  Foreign policy pundits probably should be risk-averse, focusing on minimizing losses more than maximizing gains, because the losses can be irrevocable.  That said, a price should be paid for debasing historical analogies worse than the interwar Deutschemark.  It would be nice if, a few years from now, the people who claimed that an interim nuclear deal was worse than Munich earned a similarly ignominious label. 

What do you think? 

Daniel W. Drezner

Why Opponents to the Iran Deal Need a Keymaster

Your humble blogger is extremely jet-lagged from his sojourn to Beijing, and has not had time to fully process the interim Iran deal that was signed over the weekend.  Instead, after landing, I saw the reactions from commentators and members of Congress and U.S. allies in the Middle East. They're, um, not happy. 

As a certified Distinguished Expert in U.S. Foreign Policy -- I have a Ph.D. and everything!! -- my primary go-to source in counseling and advising those who are wary of diplomatic negotiations is, of course, the great 1980's romantic comedy Say Anything.  And, as it turns out, there is an important clip from that film that offers some sage advise to those raising holy hell about this interim deal: 

Seriously, this is one of those moments when a lot of the critics linked above would have done well to have given their microphones to a Keymaster and then been required to show that they weren't panicking before getting it back. 

As your friendly neighborhood foreign policy keymaster, let me be blunt:  the only thing going ballistic on this deal accomplishes is demonstrating your utter unreasonableness on negotiations with Iran. 

Now the key words in that last sentence are "going ballistic."  I'm not saying you should love the deal.  You distrust both Iran and the Obama administration.  I get that.  The thing is, you're distrusting the wrong agreement.  This is an interim deal that is easily revocable in six months if a comprehensive deal falls apart.  Objecting to this deal now does nothing but erode your credibility for future moments of obstructionism if a comprehensive deal is negotiated. 

Seriously, game this out.  Let's assume you implacably oppose the negotiations going forward.  If the deal holds up -- and before you laugh, consider that Netanyahu is now describing the much-derided-at-the-time Syria deal as a "model" to follow -- then you've undermined your reputation before the really big negotiations start.  So whatever justified opposition you might have to such a deal will be largely discredited.  On the other hand, if the deal falls apart -- and there's a decent chance of that -- then you'll get blamed for obstructionism for reflexively opposing it from the get-go. 

Now say you announce that despite your reservations, you'll support the Obama administration's steps towards peace provided the necessary security guarantees are procured, etc.  In this universe, if the deal falls through, it's on the Obama administration, and you get to shake your head sadly and cluck about how you should have known better than to trust them.  If the deal succeeds but a comprehensive deal fails, that's also on the Obama administration, nothing has been lost, and you look like a sober statesman.  Finally, if a comprehensive deal really is reached, you can oppose it then.  Indeed, your opposition will be bolstered by the fact that you supported the interim negotiations, suggesting that you're not opposing diplomacy like a knee-jerk automaton. 

Am I missing anything?