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Fantasy Diplomacy

Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By LEE SMITH
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On November 20, negotiations over Iran’s nuclear weapons program recommence in Geneva. The last round two weeks ago ended with egg on the Obama administration’s face after Secretary of State John Kerry failed to clear “bracketed text” with his own side in the talks. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius is rightly credited with saving the day and stopping the White House from making a deal that would have given the Iranians virtually everything they wanted for nothing but empty promises. “The deal of the century,” Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu called it. 

AP / Jason Reed

AP / Jason Reed


While administration officials spent the last week on Capitol Hill warning lawmakers that an additional round of sanctions on Iran would limit the opportunities for diplomacy and inevitably lead to war, traditional American allies were pushing back. France, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, among others, are working together to figure out how to avert a catastrophe—for them and for the United States.

So how did we reach a point where the United States is working with the Islamic Republic of Iran, while longtime U.S. allies are not only outside the circle but trying to block an American-Iranian condominium over the Middle East? A pretty good idea can be gleaned by taking the advice given by Politico in an article detailing Obama’s habit of meeting with prestigious reporters and columnists to test-drive his ideas: “If you want to know where the president stands on a foreign policy issue .  .  . read the latest column by David Ignatius” or Thomas Friedman, another frequent sounding-board for the president.

The Geneva negotiations are part of the administration’s larger move to integrate Tehran into what Ignatius describes as a “new regional framework” for security. If Israel and Saudi Arabia don’t like the prospect of having the region divided as their superpower patron courts a dangerous adversary, they’ll just have to suck it up. Eventually they’ll come to see the world as Obama does, and realize that it’s better for them. And in the meantime, as Friedman puts it, the Obama team isn’t “hired lawyers negotiating a deal for Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arabs.” The United States has its own interests, which are best pursued by striking a deal with Iran. The two columnists, channeling the administration, contend that integrating Iran into a larger regional architecture could put an end to the Sunni-Shiite war now threatening to engulf the Middle East.

All of this assumes, of course, that Iran sees things the way Obama does​—​that foreign policy is not a zero-sum game, that the parties involved understand they are joint stakeholders in a stable world. The problem with this theory is not simply that it seems implausible on the face of it​—​who in the Middle East does not have a zero-sum view of the world?​—​but that we’ve already seen it fail in Syria.

In reversing his decision to strike Bashar al-Assad, Obama showed both allies and adversaries that he did not keep his word, that he bluffed. And in signing on to the Russian initiative to rid Assad of his chemical weapons, Obama showed he was weak and susceptible to manipulation.

Many of America’s regional partners saw this as a dangerous foreshadowing of how the administration might handle Iran negotiations, but the White House and its supporters dismissed their concerns. Obama wasn’t going to abandon Israel or Saudi Arabia when the going gets tough, they argued. Besides, the zero-sum thinking of Middle Easterners is simply wrong. The world is much more complicated than that; it’s multipolar. This has been a favorite buzzword of the administration from the start. But it’s a better description of the world they want to usher in—with the United States demoted from superpower status—than the world as it actually is. Indeed, Obama’s Syria policy has shown his idea of a multipolar Middle East to be a fantasy. Every token of U.S. weakness has proved a boon for U.S. adversaries and an injury to U.S. allies.

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