Shadow Government

Does Obama Negotiate Domestically the Way He Negotiates Internationally?

There is a group of people in Washington who are angry that President Barack Obama might stand firm in his difficult negotiations. And there is a group of people in Washington who are angry that Obama might not stand firm in his difficult negotiations.

So far as I can tell, these two groups are the same people. What varies is the target of the negotiations, for Obama is in two very challenging sets of negotiations. One involves congressional Republicans and the debt ceiling, the government shutdown, and the troubled health-care reforms. The other involves the Iranian government and the Iranians' nuclear ambitions and support for global terrorism.

I haven't done an exhaustive study, but I have noticed a pattern: People who want Obama to standing firm when negotiating with Republicans hope he will be a more flexible negotiating partner with the Iranians, and vice versa.

The vituperative rhetoric directed at congressional Republicans by Obama and his allies makes the comparison with the Iranian nuclear negotiations an obvious one. But the comparisons extend beyond the name-calling. Consider these parallels across the 2x2 negotiation sets, Obama-Republicans and Obama-Iranians:

  • Each side believes that it has made too many concessions in the past and that the current impasse is a direct result of being too accommodating in previous rounds.
  • Each side believes letting the other side "win" would produce a catastrophic outcome.
  • Each side believes that failing to reach a negotiated solution could risk an even more catastrophic outcome (global financial crisis or war/nuclear proliferation cascades).
  • This worst-case scenario might still happen because in each set of negotiations there are some who believe that the consequences of deadlock have been exaggerated. In the debt negotiations, some Republicans believe that the United States would not default if the debt limit were not raised or, if it did default, that it would be manageable. In the nuclear negotiations, some believe that letting Iran develop a nuclear weapon would not produce proliferation cascades in the region or, if it did, that it would be manageable.
  • In each set of negotiations, the hard-liners are described as ideological/religious extremists who are impossible to reason with.
  • In each set of negotiations, there are demands that the other side concede up front, before negotiations start, so as to avoid an endless string of crises where one's own negotiating position erodes over time simply through stalemate.
  • Are there others?

What I find most interesting about this thought exercise is the high correlation of contrasting views, as well as the associated emotional passion. Obama supporters who would be angry if he showed any sign of flexibility with respect to Republicans would be angry if he approached Iranians without that same kind of flexibility. Republican backers who would be angry if the president showed that flexibility with Iranians are angry that he is not (so far) showing that flexibility with them. (In fact, Republicans appear to be rather hoping that Obama will negotiate with them the way they say he negotiated with Russia's Vladimir Putin and Syria's Bashar al-Assad: make empty threats and then secure a deal by dropping key demands.)

Ultimately, the biggest common denominator across the two sets of negotiations is the central role played by Obama himself. While he must lead a coalition and factor in the views of his advisors and partners, at the end of the day it is Obama who will determine what deal he will strike with Republicans and what deal he will strike with Iranians.

It is Obama who has decided so far to reject the myriad offers from Republicans and live with the consequences of the government shutdown and default risk. And it is Obama who will have to decide whether the "best" offer from Iranians on the nuclear issue is good enough for him to accept. In both cases, then, it will be Obama who will have the last move, and thus it will be Obama who will determine the outcome.

Will he end both negotiations in the same way?

Photo: YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Who Benefits from the Unraveling in Syria and Libya?

Costly U.S. military occupations that go poorly can have the unintended side effect of bolstering the al Qaeda threat. That is a lesson of the Iraq war. But we are learning that noninterventions (Syria) and hyper-light-footprint interventions (Libya) can also bolster al Qaeda. And while it is too soon for a final judgment, since all are still works in progress (or perhaps dysfunctions in regress), it may be that on the narrow question of which approach sets back al Qaeda the most, the correct answer would surprise critics of the American military: Al Qaeda may well have been hurt far more by what the United States did in Iraq than by what the United States has not done in Syria, or barely done in Libya.

The devolution of the Iraq war from the rapid overthrow of Saddam Hussein into the long, hard slog of the occupation and counterinsurgency proved to be a temporary bonanza for al Qaeda. The Iraq war became a rallying cry, and would-be terrorists flocked to Iraq in order to kill Americans, just as a generation earlier they had flocked to Afghanistan to kill Soviets. The Iraqi franchise of the terrorist network, al Qaeda in Iraq, benefited from the influx and, for a time, threatened to be the "stronger horse" that Osama bin Laden had hoped al Qaeda would be. Many critics pointed out the tragic irony that a war that George W. Bush's administration launched partly in the hopes of weakening al Qaeda by eliminating one potential source of weapons of mass destruction would actually have the opposite effect. In fact, if the United States could have been driven from Iraq in defeat, the war might actually have had the result of culminating bin Laden's original strategy for 9/11: a spectacular defeat of the United States that would expose it in the eyes of Muslim communities as a "paper tiger," forcing it to retreat from the region in disgrace and thus leaving America's partners at the mercy of the rising al Qaeda "stronger horse."

That arguably was the trajectory the Iraq war was on in 2006 and, but for Bush's surge, might have been the result. One of the ironies of history is that the U.S. critics of the Iraq war might have been able to prove themselves right if they had succeeded in thwarting the surge, as they tried to do in 2007.

However, as we now know, the critics were unable to stop Bush's surge. It was implemented and it reversed the trajectory, and by 2009, al Qaeda in Iraq was strategically spent. Iraq was no longer the rallying cry, and the safe havens were shut down. (To be sure, the al Qaeda network in Iraq has shown signs of reviving in recent years due to bad decisions by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But the recent erosion in Iraq owes more to U.S. noninterference than it does to interference.)

Which brings us to the examples of Syria and Libya. The situations there are very bleak. U.S. officials now believe Syria has become the global focal point for the war on terror. Would-be terrorists are flocking to Syria as they once flocked to Iraq, and they are finding safe havens for what I call the "weaponization of resentment" -- turning individuals with an ideology of political grievance into militant terrorists. Syria now looks to be facing the same worst-case scenario we faced in Iraq: devolution into distinct enclaves, some of which will be controlled by the most radical elements of the al Qaeda network. We will never know for certain whether another policy would have avoided this -- perhaps more muscular support for moderate rebels earlier, as several of Barack Obama's advisors wanted but the president vetoed. But we do know that this is the fruit of the policy choices we and others have taken.

In Libya, the United States tried something in between the inaction of Syria and the costly occupation of Iraq. There, too, the results look bleak. Ever since the terrorist attack against America's Benghazi compound last year, it has been obvious that the security situation in Libya has deteriorated sharply from the early promising signs of late fall of 2011. This Saturday's raid has drawn attention to this unraveling, leading some to speculate that Libya is on the brink of collapse. The loosely controlled weapons arsenals in Libya are already fueling conflict throughout the region and post-Qaddafi Libya may be a net exporter of instability.

We learned in Iraq that intervention can lead to occupation and many unintended consequences that cost far more than what proponents of the policy expected. But we also learned that seeing that policy through to a successful conclusion may achieve markedly better outcomes vis-à-vis the terrorist network than are otherwise available after the proverbial Rubicon has been crossed.

We are learning in Syria and Libya that policies of nonintervention (refusing to cross the Rubicon) and halfhearted intervention (leading from behind) seem cheaper in the short run but may prove to be quite costly in the long run. Indeed, in the worst case, al Qaeda could regain in Syria and Libya what it lost in Iraq.

Photo: ABO SHUJA/AFP/Getty Images