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The problem with “historic breakthroughs”

The problem with “historic breakthroughs”

The Obama administration, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in particular, seems to have developed a bit of a “mission accomplished” problem when it comes to diplomatic breakthroughs. Last week Clinton hailed Benjamin Netanyahu’s “unprecedented” concessions on settlement construction, when it was fairly clear that Palestinians didn’t see evidence of any concessions and touted a “historic agreement” to end the ongoing political standoff in Honduras, though it should have been obvious that neither side had any incentive to follow through on the terms of the deal. 

Today, it’s fairly obvious that Clinton was overselling both developments with Mahmoud Abbas announcing that he will quit (true or not) and Manuel Zelaya declaring, “the accord is dead.”

The administration has had a number of diplomatic “breakthroughs” that didn’t pan out lately. Hamid Karzai’s agreement to hold a runoff election in Afghanistan was followed by Abdullah Abdulla’s decision to pull out. Dmitry Medvedev’s seeming openness to Iran sanctions was contradicted by his own foreign minister. And the Iranian negotiators who agreed to a deal on nuclear enrichment, apparently didn’t check with the bosses back in Tehran.

This isn’t to say that these efforts were a waste of time or that the setbacks were the fault of the U.S., but out of desire for a tangible foreign policy victory, the administration seems to be developing a tendency to oversell diplomatic tactical victories before it’s clear if the other parties will follow through on their commitments. 

I agree with Dan Drezner, that no one with reasonable expectations of what U.S. foreign policy can accomplish should be shocked by the fact that the Obama team hasn’t achieved major breakthroughs on any of these challenges, but it would be nice if they didn’t keep telling us we were witnessing history in the making. 

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images