What an unusual season—or seasons, I should say. The inner workings of American foreign policy are rarely as exposed as they have been over the past couple of years. We ought to appreciate the clarity of this interim and take from it lessons that will make us smarter. And angrier, which is my abiding hope.
One still has to look past the well-embroidered drapery of mis- and disinformation that official Washington weaves to understand events as they are. As ever, one must read the press not to know what has occurred in any given case, only to know what we are supposed to think occurred. Then commences the search for what did occur. It can be found; I cannot recall a time during my professional life when the “alternative” press—how I dislike this term—bore more responsibility than it does now.
The lesson available to us at the moment has to do with duplicity. And we ought not miss it because what is at issue in two specific cases could hardly be more significant. One, the Obama administration signed an accord governing Iran’s nuclear program last July; it is the single most constructive thing the U.S. has done in the Middle East, among very few, in many decades. Two, in February it signed an agreement with Moscow providing for a partial ceasefire in Syria and new talks intended to produce a lasting peace and a political solution; there is a chance now to alleviate what is currently the world’s worst political and humanitarian crisis.
American duplicity now jeopardizes both of these multilateral undertakings. Over the past several weeks it has grown perfectly evident that the administration is well along in subverting the Iranian and Syrian accords by either working against them (the Syria case) or abrogating the commitments it made when it signed them (the Iran case). There is time still to reverse course, but there is little to suggest the Obama administration has any intention of doing so.
Given the magnitude of these two questions, the rest of the world is effectively invited to hold the bag as Washington continues its ever more desperate effort to sustain its place atop the global order. The reality we must accept is that nothing else matters to the policy cliques—no number of deaths, no risk of regional war.
Once in a while we get a glimpse of those who execute American policy abroad in the act of lying, or betraying another nation or going back on their word. Now we have a chance to see that treachery, even if it is noon on a sunny day, is a standard feature in the American diplomatic repertoire. In the sanctum sanctorum of the policy cliques, where only the high priests are permitted, Machiavellian deceit—“stylish and accomplished amorality,” as one truly awful historian of U.S. policy puts it—is a badge of worldly wisdom. If the paradox is not too much, having no principles is a principle held high within the cliques.
I consider context and history essential in any conversation, as this column’s readers might be tired of hearing by now. Let us begin with a little of both.
America was founded on the certainty of its innocence, and in the republic’s earliest years there was justification for this. It was the European powers who made the world a sordid, Hobbesian place where all fought all in their own interests alone. Democratic Americans, fair and fair-minded, desired only friendships abroad and no “foreign entanglements,” as Washington famously put it in his farewell address.
The tradition comes down to us—even as it has been entirely mythical since the Spanish-American War and our subsequent suppression of democratic aspiration in the Philippines in the early years of the 20th century. Walter Russell Mead, the supercilious historian quoted above, wrote as recently as 2001 that Americans are still “the Mr. Magoo of the world community.”
The smell of cornpone is strong in Mead’s “Special Providence,” a title that makes it hard to read on even as one must—again, strictly to understand what one is supposed to think. Our problem in foreign affairs remains our innocence, it seems. We are too democratic in determining our foreign policies—shall I write that out again so it can sink in?—and so our “moralistic illusions” ever intrude. We have to close the “moral gap” between our desire for a fair and balanced world and things as they are.
“The United States continues to enjoy both at home and abroad a kind of hayseed image when it comes to foreign policy,” Mead writes, “that of an innocent, barefoot boy unaccustomed to the wiles and ways of the sharp international operators.”
Does it indeed, Professor Mead.
“Special Providence” is Mead’s opus on American policy, and it is held in very high regard. Now you know the approved thinking. Now you understand that our policy elites do not like to start wars of choice, disrupt other nations, shred social fabrics, break international law incessantly and all the rest. But these things are necessary because they are the ways of the world. Dislike it as we may, we have to join the Hobbesian scrum in our own interests alone. If we had a just foreign policy dedicated to peaceable international relations, the rest of the world would scoff just as Metternich and Bismarck and all those British foreign secretaries did.
And now we are ready to take a brief look at just what Washington has been up to with the Iranians and the Syrians of late.
As early as January, five months after it was signed, one would have to be half-blind not to suspect that the accord restricting Iran’s nuclear activities to peaceful purposes—energy generation and medical research, primarily—was fated to be another of Washington’s deals that are not deals. The Iranians need this agreement to work for all sorts of reasons, let there be no question. But—straight out front—I applaud them for patiently sticking with it given all that the Obama administration has done to negate it since it was concluded last summer. They have ample reason to walk away.
Remember “implementation day,” last Jan. 16? That was when the International Atomic Energy Agency certified that Iran had met all the conditions stipulated in the accord it signed with the U.S. and five other major powers. Secretary of State Kerry grandly announced in Vienna that sanctions imposed on Iran would thenceforth be lifted.
Remember the next day, a Sunday? The White House immediately announced a new set of sanctions against 11 Iranian companies, institutions and individual people because Iran had tested a ballistic missile the previous autumn.
Last month came more of the same. This time the Iranians conducted several missile tests over a period of two days. And on March 25 the administration announced another round of sanctions, these once again imposed by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
You can read all manner of things about these developments. The Israeli press will tell you without qualification that the missile launches violate not only a U.N. Security Council resolution, but also the nuclear accord itself. Not even the American media are trying to put that latter thought over.
The American press has stepped back, too, from its accounts of UNSCR 2231, the resolution passed when the nuclear accord went through last July. The new resolution supersedes all previous U.N. rulings, and, reflecting tough negotiations beforehand, alters the language subtly but significantly. Previous Security Council votes barred Iran from testing ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Resolution 2231 simply “calls upon Iran” not to conduct such tests.
A small matter, except that it is not. The change in language is not an accident. It is there to accommodate Iran’s very real post-agreement interests. Iranians live next door to a hostile nuclear power—the Israelis, of course. The Saudis recently took an order of Chinese-made missiles capable of bearing nuclear warheads. Having dropped what nuclear ambitions it may have had—and I question if it ever had any—Iran has a right and emphatically a need to defend itself.
You can translate 2231 into plain English this way: The Security Council prefers you would not test ballistic missile technologies, but under international law it can do no more than prefer it. The Americans, in the person of the self-regarding Samantha Power, assented to the language in 2231, we must not forget. Now Power protests that it means something other than what it means. The only people who take this fleck of duplicity seriously seem to be members of the American public. No one else does.
For a time the U.S. pretended the Iranian tests breached 2231, and the New York Times duly reported the tests as so doing. But both the administration and the Times have subtly stepped back in their customarily dishonest way, if you have been following the news reports. They had to: The stated position is indefensible. Not even Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon can bring himself to plain-spoken condemnation of Iran’s testing activities.
In any event, there is this logical lapse: Iran has certifiably dismantled all aspects of its nuclear program that would have made it capable of weaponizing enriched uranium. Nonetheless, say the Americans, we will impose sanctions on Iran for developing missile technology that would make it capable of firing one of the nuclear weapons we have just made certain it cannot build.
Look at it this way and tell me, please, why Washington is imposing new rounds of sanctions even as it has announced that the severe, encompassing sanctions related to our nuclear suspicions have been removed. This is also what I mean by duplicity: Let’s make a deal. Now that you’ve lived up to it, we’re going to set to sabotaging it.
Did I just write that U.S. sanctions “have been removed?” Editorial error. That is not at all accurate.
A few Sundays back Iranians celebrated Nowruz, their new year, and Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, traveled to Mashad, a holy city up near the northeast border with Afghanistan, to speak. “The Americans did not act on what they promised in the nuclear accord,” Khamenei explained in a nationally televised address. “They put something on paper but prevented the materialization of the objectives through many diversionary ways.”