Archive for ‘Iran’

May 22, 2018

The Costs of Neglecting Diplomacy

From the start, the Trump administration has not taken diplomacy seriously. Or maybe that is an understatement; from the start, the Trump administration has been hostile toward diplomacy as a tool in the US foreign policy toolbox. Now we are starting to see the impact on real issues like in trade talks with China and on options for dealing with Iran.

If we think of diplomacy as seeking negotiated outcomes, being willing to make mutual concessions, and building the organizational capacity to pursue the first two points, this administration is not keen on diplomacy. Perhaps the idea conflicts with Pres. Trump’s bullying nature and Art of the Deal bravado. The Trump administration has gutted the main US diplomatic agency, the Department of State. The administration has been slow to fill State positions and multiple senior State professionals have resigned (e.g. Feeley). Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s isolation from the professionals and their expertise and the proposed budget cuts at State sent a clear message of disinterest and neglect.

President Trump may not care. Recall he told an interviewer that in terms of foreign policymaking, “I’m the only one that matters.” That attitude + twitter put US negotiators in a tough position, not knowing if and when they will be undercut or US policy will suddenly shift.

Frequently, however, we see the need for a functioning diplomatic apparatus that helps determine US policy (internally) and then negotiates with other parties. Trump is fine at unilateral policy but that doesn’t require diplomacy. He can withdraw from treaties (TPP, Paris climate accords) or move an embassy to Jerusalem, for example. But he has not had any successful negotiated agreement, nor signs that one is on the way. (And note that even when Trump took a step that an ally, Israel, welcomed, he did so unilaterally and thereby forfeited the possibility of getting an Israeli concession in return for moving the embassy.)

Two recent items suggest the problems with neglecting your diplomats. The first example is that even as Michael Singh applauded the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear agreement), he highlighted the power of multilateral sanctions. Singh himself noted the centrality of diplomacy in a campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran: “As a senior U.S. official responsible for Iran policy from 2006 to 2008, I know from personal experience that even when the United States was strategically aligned with its diplomatic partners, sanctions required relentless diplomacy in order to be effective.” (emphasis added) Or, Singh, adds: “Diplomacy, not just market signals, will be required to amplify whatever pressure the United States can generate alone, and translate that pressure into policy outcomes.”

Especially given that the US is now NOT strategically aligned with its diplomatic partners on Iran, on what basis should we believe the US can practice relentless diplomacy? All the evidence suggests the opposite. Trump is an inattentive president not open to studying up on issues. The administration lacks a strong inter-agency foreign policy process. etc.

Given that the US is juggling multiple issues with China including trade, North Korea, and Iran, Singh writes, “Diplomacy will also be required to manage the policy tradeoffs looming on the horizon.” Yet on what international issue has the Trump administration set out clear priorities in the face of competing needs and demands?

Singh does write that “Conducting such diplomacy today will be difficult,” but, in his eyes, only because Washington’s European allies are unhappy with US policy. He makes no mention of the US administration’s hostility toward and neglect of diplomacy as an obstacle to its effective use.

In a second example, Ilan Goldenberg builds on a New York Times article about China-US talks to detail Trump administration diplomatic weakness in action. In short, the very things that worry me about Singh’s reliance on relentless diplomacy we learn have led to a mess for the US delegation to China-US negotiations. Some of Goldenberg’s thoughts:

Being part of the international system, let alone the leader of much of it, requires extensive consultation, information sharing, policy coordination, dispute management and resolution, priority setting, and the like with both friends and enemies (not to mention friends you treat like enemies and enemies you treat like friends). If the United States ignores those steps and, in some cases, even lacks the qualified personnel in place who would do such things, I fully expect this China-US example to serve as a template for what we should expect when the Trump administration negotiates.

 

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March 1, 2012

Misperceptions, Foreign Policy, and Iran

A new post at the Monkey Cage, co-authored with my colleague Stephen Benedict Dyson:

In an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko rightfully draw attention to the way in which threats to U.S. national security appear overblown today. But because they understandably focus on demonstrating the relative safety of the United States, they do not give as much attention to research on the question of why threats get overblown. When they do turn to the cause, they underplay the central role of psychological factors.

MORE HERE….

February 7, 2012

“Will the US Restrain Israel on Iran? Unlikely”

I did a guest post over at the Monkey Cage: “Will the US Restrain Israel on Iran? Unlikely.”

December 5, 2011

New post on Iran and US Foreign Policy

Over at Mideast Matrix, I posted on the recent explosion at an Iranian nuclear facility and set it within the larger context of Obama foreign policy.

July 14, 2011

Update on US-Israel-PA (talk)

Some skeletal notes from a talk I gave last night:

1. US-Israel alliance

The common explanations for the alliance are shared values and shared government type (democracies); domestic interest groups in the US, including American Jews and Evangelical Christians; and strategic relations based on counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, developing and testing military equipment. I was noting, not endorsing, the explanations.

(I should add that I’ve talked about an additional motivation, alliance restraint, in chapter four of Warring Friends.)(Also, whatever led to the original alliance, the fact that it has endured means it has some institutional and organizational staying power.)

2. The Peace Process

There is a split in the United States about the causal logic. Some like Gen. David Petraeus, have argued that solving the peace process is the key to unlocking other regional issues. Others, like former VP Dick Cheney, have argued that addressing other regional issues is a precursor for success in the peace process. (The road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad.)

Obama and Netanyahu obviously don’t get along that well. But the structural US-Israeli relationship is still strong with military cooperation as deep as it ever has been. Netanyahu does not support a two-state solution that looks anything like what former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was talking about in 2008. (see my comparison here of what different people mean by two states)

3. The Arab Upheaval

The outcome of the Arab protests is an issue of great uncertainty. It could change the strategic equation for Israel if the Syrian regime falls and a new one came to power that is not close to Iran, thereby cutting off Iran’s land connection to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Egypt under Mubarak was tight with Israel but it may also be less so in the post-Mubarak era.

The Palestinians have not adopted the tactics of the Arab “Spring.” They have used similar tactics but not on a mass-scale without the mixing in of some violent tactics, e.g. during the first intifada (uprising), 1987-1993. (I’ll post a longer post on this soon.)

4. Palestine, September, and the UN

The Palestinian appeal to the UN is more bark than bite. The day after, the occupation will still be in force. The Palestinian Authority (PA) prefers negotiations (but talks don’t seem to be an option). Israel fears a UN resolution will lead to violence and is preparing for that prospect. The PA does not think Palestinian violence is likely.

5. Israel

Israel feels a high sense of threat especially from Iran. The majority of Israelis see no Arab partner with whom to make peace – Abbas is weak, Hamas rejectionist. Many Israelis, including the government, believe the world is lined up against Israel. Any pressure reinforces this view. Thus the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement is considered further proof that the world is against Israel, not that Israel needs to change its occupation policy. BDS speaks 1967 and Israelis hear 1948.

Settlement building continues. The Israeli public supports the Netanyahu government, but there are sparks of alternative viewpoints such as the Israel Peace Initiative or other protests.

A vigorous discussion followed! Many thanks to Joyce for the invitation.

June 20, 2011

The Arab Spring and Israel

In considering the impact of the Arab Spring on Israel, much of the attention has been on two issues, the peace treaty with Egypt and the Israeli-Syrian border. But a fuller picture of the impact offers a more varied set of questions and issues for Israel and in some ways may even bolster Israel’s strategic position. If Asad falls and Iran is left out in the cold by a new Syrian regime, Israel would greatly benefit.

Mubarak’s fall has already changed Egyptian policy at the Rafah border crossing. As has been widely noted, if a working democracy develops in Egypt and public opinion has greater bearing on policy, one would expect greater Egyptian pressure on Israel. But given the close ties between the Mubarak regime and Israeli governments, that still leaves a lot of room for change in Cairo. In other words, Egypt could rigorously adhere to the peace treaty and still act very much unlike Mubarak by pressing Israel on the peace process or its nuclear program, working closely with and advocating for the Palestinians, and in particular, helping Hamas in Gaza.

Whatever has changed and will change in Egyptian governance, the underlying Egyptian-Israeli strategic balance is the same and that suggests limits to Egypt’s revisions of its Israel policy. At the end of the day, the Israel military still could best the Egyptian military. Israel, not Egypt, has nuclear weapons, and Israel is much closer to the United States. To break the treaty and risk open warfare is a recipe for Egyptian military disaster.

Israel’s challenge, however, is the continual need to secure allies in an unfriendly region. Like in 1979 after the fall of Israel’s ally, the Shah of Iran, Israel wants to replace the loss of close friend. Ironically, that the Egyptian-Israeli peace process was at an advanced stage when the Shah fell made that transition easier in 1979 than today. Out went Iran, in came Egypt.

The choice today is not obvious. Israeli-Turkish ties remain strong behind the scenes, but the public aspect is mixed. Israel has accepted Turkish mediation in the past with regard to Syria, but would it do so again in a post-flotilla relationship? Neither of the other aspirants for regional leadership – Iran, Saudi Arabia – are about to get closer to Israel either.

Maybe the answer is to rely even more heavily on the United States. Despite the Obama-Netanyahu differences over the peace process, the US-Israeli strategic relationship is closer than ever. (as Israeli Amb. Michael Oren recently argued in Foreign Policy) The Israeli line: friends must hug each other even tighter in the face of regional storms and upheavals.

The Arab Spring’s mass protest model surely scares the Israeli government, and the intensity of the Israeli reaction along the Syrian border is a testament to that fear. The Palestinians have used such tactics on a smaller scale before, such as in Bil’in on the West Bank. But if tens of thousands of Arabs ever marched on Jerusalem or the Israeli borders and repeated it day after day in the face of Israeli snipers, tear gas, and detention, Israel’s ability to hold the line would weaken. Mass protests create exactly the kind of images Israel would rather avoid seeing plastered across the media and the web. It would make the Netanyahu’s government’s resistance to the American-Palestinian versions of a two-state solution that much more difficult. And it might force average Israeli Jews to confront the occupation in a way they have not had to do over the last couple of years.

Meanwhile, the impact of so many Arab states consumed by internal matters cuts both ways. Israel could become a political football as old and new politicians compete for power. Who can hammer Israel the most has long been political currency in the Arab World and diversionary politics, if not violence, is a recurring trope.

At the same time, the depth of the Arab political mobilization and the many social and economic demands may mean little substantive attention is paid to Israel. Furthermore, if things really deteriorate as in Libya or Syria, one could argue the bloodletting leaves few resources and political energy for anti-Israel tirades and physical confrontations.

Of all the chaos, the future of Syria is central for Israel. If the Asad regime falls, Iran’s core link to the Levant will be broken, assuming a Sunni-led regime in Damascus is less interested in close ties with Tehran. Hamas and Hezbollah may lose not only an ally in Syria but also a link to their Iranian patron. That matters for Israel, and it matters a lot. It would be both a symbolic and political defeat for Iran.

If I were Israel, I’d be happy to trade an Iranian-allied Syria for a more critical Egyptian government.