The fallacy behind the Iran deal’s ‘creative ambiguity’
President Obama’s defense of the “Iran Deal” at his July 15 press conference, as well as Secretary of State John Kerry’s private remarks capping off the negotiations match those of the Iranians and of other interested parties in vehemence and emotion. But the substance of American officials’ understanding of the deal is diametrically opposite to that of the Iranians, of Iran’s clients, and of interested parties in the region who had sought to influence the negotiations.
This disparity illustrates perhaps more clearly than ever what has become arguably the defining feature of US diplomacy over the last half century, a feature that reverses the very purpose of diplomacy, which is to remove ambiguities about each side’s objectives and then to reach genuine agreement on some compromise.
Instead, beginning in the 1960s, US officials who have been unable or unwilling to resolve international disputes in ways that the American public would accept, but nonetheless are eager to claim success for themselves and their points of view, have conducted diplomatic negotiations using ambiguous language that disguises the extent to which the parties’ goals are irreconcilable, or remain far apart. Then, they have concluded these negotiations by signing documents that they pretend have achieved America’s own interests while knowing full well that the other side fully intends to continue pursuing objectives diametrically opposed to America’s notwithstanding the document just signed.
Henry Kissinger gave theoretical cover to this diplomatic malpractice, calling it “constructive ambiguity” or “creative ambiguity.” It was the very basis of his too-clever-by-half conduct of the negotiations regarding the Vietnam war that ran from the first “bombing pauses” of 1965 to the “Paris Accords” of 1973.
While the US ruling class touted these as “peace with honor” and Kissinger cashed his share of the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, North Vietnam treated the “accords” as America’s surrender. Le Duc Tho rejected his share of the prize. His government demanded ransom for the American prisoners that it kept back and, when it was not forthcoming, just kept them. US officials, whose interest it was to maintain the fiction, just turned the page.
Thus it is with the Iran deal. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman described Secretary Kerry as fighting back tears as he contrasted the Vietnam war that he had fought in his youth with the peace that he had just helped to secure for his old age. President Obama dismissed without argument any concern with the fact that Iran and its clients — From Syria’s Assad to Lebanon’s Hizbollah and Yemen’s Houthi — publicly rejoiced in a victory that enhances their capacity to ramp up the wars they are fighting now.
“That’s what politicians do,” said Obama. Nor did he acknowledge the fears of the Sunni powers that are the targets of Iran’s war today or those of Israel, which may well be the target of Iran’s war tomorrow. No. Reality notwithstanding, for Obama as for Kerry and for the New York Times the deal is peace in our time. Why?
The first-order answer is a truism: because they do not care enough about the reality that they are affecting even to acknowledge it. That reality is twofold: the Sunni-Shia war that is convulsing the Muslim world today, and the nuclear weapons that are now certain to arm America’s disparate enemies in that world in a none-too-distant tomorrow. These US officials did not create that reality. There is a fire in the Middle East. The worst that might have been expected had they left it alone could be no worse than the prospect created by their involvement with it.
They did not just pour gasoline on it helter-skelter. No. They brought fuel — some $150 billion now and various high-tech armaments later — to one side of the war. And they did so without explaining to the American people on whose behalf they did it specifically what effect that might have, above all on America’s own safety. The pretense of peace with which they cover the deal is not credible.
This sharpens the question “Why?” How could they themselves believe this? Henry Kissinger’s “creative ambiguity,” or “constructive ambiguity,” points to the answer. Pretending to others leads one to pretend to one’s self. Obama & Co., just like Kissinger and the bipartisan establishment he informed, wanted peacefully to adjust rival ambitions in America’s interest — and to take political credit for having done so.
But they were unwilling to exert the America’s power to force the other parties (The USSR and Vietnam the, Iran now) to alter their objectives. And so, as negotiations proceeded, they had to choose between acknowledging that their own ends and means were incompatible with reality, changing either their ends or their means, or pretending. They chose to pretend.
This is not how statesmen worthy of their positions behave. It is how people in all walks of life act when they are small and slippery.
Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University.
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