- By Peter Feaver
There is a group of people in Washington who are angry that President Barack Obama might stand firm in his difficult negotiations. And there is a group of people in Washington who are angry that Obama might not stand firm in his difficult negotiations.
So far as I can tell, these two groups are the same people. What varies is the target of the negotiations, for Obama is in two very challenging sets of negotiations. One involves congressional Republicans and the debt ceiling, the government shutdown, and the troubled health-care reforms. The other involves the Iranian government and the Iranians’ nuclear ambitions and support for global terrorism.
I haven’t done an exhaustive study, but I have noticed a pattern: People who want Obama to standing firm when negotiating with Republicans hope he will be a more flexible negotiating partner with the Iranians, and vice versa.
The vituperative rhetoric directed at congressional Republicans by Obama and his allies makes the comparison with the Iranian nuclear negotiations an obvious one. But the comparisons extend beyond the name-calling. Consider these parallels across the 2×2 negotiation sets, Obama-Republicans and Obama-Iranians:
- Each side believes that it has made too many concessions in the past and that the current impasse is a direct result of being too accommodating in previous rounds.
- Each side believes letting the other side "win" would produce a catastrophic outcome.
- Each side believes that failing to reach a negotiated solution could risk an even more catastrophic outcome (global financial crisis or war/nuclear proliferation cascades).
- This worst-case scenario might still happen because in each set of negotiations there are some who believe that the consequences of deadlock have been exaggerated. In the debt negotiations, some Republicans believe that the United States would not default if the debt limit were not raised or, if it did default, that it would be manageable. In the nuclear negotiations, some believe that letting Iran develop a nuclear weapon would not produce proliferation cascades in the region or, if it did, that it would be manageable.
- In each set of negotiations, the hard-liners are described as ideological/religious extremists who are impossible to reason with.
- In each set of negotiations, there are demands that the other side concede up front, before negotiations start, so as to avoid an endless string of crises where one’s own negotiating position erodes over time simply through stalemate.
- Are there others?
What I find most interesting about this thought exercise is the high correlation of contrasting views, as well as the associated emotional passion. Obama supporters who would be angry if he showed any sign of flexibility with respect to Republicans would be angry if he approached Iranians without that same kind of flexibility. Republican backers who would be angry if the president showed that flexibility with Iranians are angry that he is not (so far) showing that flexibility with them. (In fact, Republicans appear to be rather hoping that Obama will negotiate with them the way they say he negotiated with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad: make empty threats and then secure a deal by dropping key demands.)
Ultimately, the biggest common denominator across the two sets of negotiations is the central role played by Obama himself. While he must lead a coalition and factor in the views of his advisors and partners, at the end of the day it is Obama who will determine what deal he will strike with Republicans and what deal he will strike with Iranians.
It is Obama who has decided so far to reject the myriad offers from Republicans and live with the consequences of the government shutdown and default risk. And it is Obama who will have to decide whether the "best" offer from Iranians on the nuclear issue is good enough for him to accept. In both cases, then, it will be Obama who will have the last move, and thus it will be Obama who will determine the outcome.
Will he end both negotiations in the same way?