Thursday, May 22, 2008

All Those Dirty Words...

Noah Pollak places the cart before the horse and yells "gotcha" from the saddle:

Why is McCain allowing himself to be dragged into a debate about presidential-level diplomacy, when the more important question — and the question whose answer is more politically favorable to McCain — is whether diplomatic engagement will actually get anything accomplished? McCain should be asking Obama what concessions he realistically thinks he’s going to get from the Iranians upon going hat in hand to Tehran.

Matt Yglesias makes it a teaching moment:

The problem here is that, once again, we see hawks not understanding what diplomacy is...[T]hink of diplomacy as a kind of bargaining. Like you might do at a yard sale or something. Diplomacy doesn't exist at one end of a spectrum of coercive measures -- we try war, we try sanctions, we try diplomacy -- any more than bargaining operates on a smooth continuum with robbery. The point of bargaining with a vendor is to see whether or not it's possible to find mutually acceptable terms that improve both parties' positions. In terms of diplomacy with Iran, the idea isn't that Obama's steely gaze would force concessions out of the Iranians, the idea is that we might be able to give Iran something Iran deems more valuable than weapons-grade nuclear material, and in exchange we would get verifiable disarmament.

The "something" here would presumably be some form of security assurances plus an accommodation to Iranian interests in Iraq, along with Teheran and Washington laying out a pathway to gradual normalization of relations in exchange for an end to Iranian support for terrorism and Palestinian rejectionist groups. Would it be possible to strike such a deal? Maybe, maybe not. But the purpose of a negotiating session would be to find out by attempting to do the bargaining rather than having five more years of back-and-forth blog posts speculating about the possibility. The general theory of diplomacy is that rational actors should, through negotiations, be able to achieve positive-sum settlements rather than negative-sum conflicts. It's always possible that your would-be negotiating partner will prove irrational (as George W. Bush did when he rejected Iranian peace overtures several years back) and the process will fail, but it's worth attempting in good faith. [emphasis added]

Um, yeah. The best way to find out what you can get through negotiations is to, you know, negotiate! Pollak's other main argument is that we've been trying the "Obama approach" with respect to Iran's nuclear program and it hasn't worked.

From 2002 to 2006, the EU-3 (Germany, France, the UK) and the IAEA attempted to dissuade the Iranians from their nuclear program through high-level diplomacy and when that saga of fruitlessness was finally handed over to the UN Security Council, Russia and China saw to it that the only sanctions passed would illustrate nothing more than the ambivalence and impotence of the international community.

Notice anything missing from that equation that Obama could bring to the table? How about the direct involvement of the US government in the bargaining process? Further, how about the involvement of a US government that is actually willing to take negotiations seriously and consider making significant concessions and compromises, as outlined by Yglesias above?

Which is all the difference in the world. Iran's not going to make a deal unless it gets what it wants from the US. To the extent that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, it has something to do with its fear of the US. Not unfounded or irrational I would say considering the shared history between the two nations.

Now maybe Iran will ask for too much. Maybe not. But we won't know until we ask.

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