Assessing a benchmark in Obama’s ‘yes, but’ strategy

Assessing a benchmark in Obama’s ‘yes, but’ strategy

The end of the NonProliferation Treaty Review conference provides an opportunity to assess how well President Obama’s "Yes, But" strategy is working. My provisional assessment: not as well as I might have hoped.

Recall that Obama’s foreign policy efforts of the past 16 months can be summarized as one long effort to neutralize the talking points of countries unwilling to partner more vigorously with the United States on urgent international security priorities (like countering the Iranian regime’s nuclear weapons program). 

Despite a determined and focused effort at forging effective multilateralism, the Bush administration enjoyed only mixed success on the thorniest problems. The Obama team came in believing that more could have been achieved if the United States had made more concessions up front to address the talking points of complaints/excuses would-be partners offered as rationalizations for not doing more. Yes, Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon is a problem, but what about Israel’s? The Bush administration tended to view these talking points skeptically as a distraction and was not willing to pay much of a price in order to buy a rhetorical marker to offer in rebuttal. By contrast, the Obama Administration embraced them and devoted themselves to buying markers to deploy in response: Yes, but we have gone further than any other U.S. administration effort to publicly delegitimize the nuclear program of our ally Israel, so what about it, why don’t you do more to help us on Iran?

The just completed NPT Review conference was in some sense the ultimate benchmark for assessing the "Yes, But" strategy.  The last review conference in 2005 collapsed in mutual recriminations with states unwilling to accept the Bush administration’s prioritization of nonproliferation threats and responses. The Obama administration was determined to do better and by one measure they did: instead of diplomats storming out of the room, the 2010 NPT Review conference produced a document the states were willing to sign.

This allowed the administration to boast, "We’ve got the NPT back on track." But in exchange for this, the United States endorsed an action plan that contains provisions Obama’s National Security Advisor Jim Jones has characterized as "deplorable." As the Post describes it: "The United States got few of the specific goals it sought at the conference, such as penalties for nations that secretly develop nuclear weapons, then quit the pact (think North Korea). Language calling on countries to allow tougher nuclear inspections was greatly watered down."

It is an action plan that singles out Israel by name for criticism but does not criticize Iran. The hypocrisy in the action plan was so great that apparently many countries were surprised when Obama’s negotiators swallowed it. Obama’s surprise last-minute concession temporarily wrong-footed the Iranian delegation.

I do not know whether this compromise is the best that could have been negotiated in 2010.  I do suspect, however, that something like it was achievable in 2005 — meaning that if the Bush Administration had been willing to sign a "deplorable" compromise it could have done so in 2005.  If I am right about that, then perhaps the "Yes, But" strategy failed. As the Post story put it:

"Still, U.S. officials appeared frustrated that the Obama administration did not get more credit for its record. It has signed a new arms-reduction treaty with Russia, hosted a 47-nation summit on nuclear security and lessened the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy.

"The disarmament stuff Obama did, they just pocketed," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. Non-nuclear countries, he said, "didn’t give anything back.""

The "Yes, But" strategy was supposed to elicit better cooperation and more effective multilateralism — what Obama’s NSS has called "An international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges." This benchmark would be met if the preliminary concessions sealed deals at lower prices. But if even after all the preliminary concessions our would-be partners still demand top dollar for their grudging acquiescence, it is hard to see what the "Yes, But" strategy won us.

It may even be worse than that. The furor over Israel’s botched raid on the ship trying to run the Gaza blockade suggests that the international demand for anti-Israel concessions from the Obama administration will only intensify. Obama has gone further than any other recent president to meet such international demands but so far he has very little to show for it. Will he double down on this approach and support international censure of Israel? And if he does, will that break the diplomatic logjam or only whet the international appetite for more anti-Israeli moves?