- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
The most important line in National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s speech to AIPAC is one that the Obama administration has delivered countless times: when it comes to Iran, “a bad deal is worse than no deal. And if that is the choice then there will be no deal.”
On the substance of this quote, there is no daylight whatsoever between the administration and its critics on the right — whether moderate Democrats, Republicans, Israelis, or independent experts. Perhaps there are some on the left who would openly state that they prefer even a bad deal to no deal, but the “no deal > bad deal” sentiment is as close to a bipartisan consensus as exists in today’s politicized environment. Every hawk I know would endorse the view that a “a bad deal is worse than no deal.” Indeed, that is the central plank of the hawk platform.
So why didn’t Rice get a genuine standing ovation for delivering that line again, rather than the mocking applause she actually received? Because, besides from ritually intoning the line, the administration has done almost nothing to convince skeptics that they actually believe that ending the negotiations in failure is better than ending the negotiations with a bad deal.
On the contrary, far from persuading skeptics, the administration has repeatedly delivered a one-two punch to the skeptics’ gut that has greatly shaken the confidence of even some ardent Obama supporters.
The first punch: the administration has repeatedly signaled that it is willing to accept virtually any deal, including deals that it might have denounced even a few years ago. This is the painful truth that administration insiders will concede in private but rarely state so candidly in public: the best deal President Obama thinks he can get today bears a striking resemblance to how experts would have described a “bad deal” a few years ago.
A useful thought experiment. If President George W. Bush had offered to the Iranians in January 2009 (his last few days in office) the deal that President Obama has reportedly offered them now, would anyone have declared that a success?
The same thought experiment put a different way. How does the deal President Obama is offering today compare to the status quo in 2009 when President Obama began his public overtures to Iran? Why doesn’t Obama demand that Iran roll the clock back to the level of program that Iran had when President Obama took office rather than treating as success a deal that, if perfectly implemented, temporarily halts the Iranian program at the advanced stage it reached recently?
The second punch: the administration has been more assiduous in talking down the alternatives to the deal than they have in talking about the downsides to the deals they are floating in the media. In the same AIPAC speech, Rice declared a return to sanctions to be a doomed policy: “let’s remember that unfortunately sanctions have never stopped Iran from advancing its program.” Similarly, the administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to try to block Congressional efforts to pass legislation that would impose additional sanctions if there is no deal. Moreover, as part of their concerted message campaign against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other hawks, the administration once again derided military options, going so far as suggesting that the military option would accelerate the Iranian nuclear program — in other words, according to these Obama officials military options are worse than a bad deal.
Let’s be clear. “No deal” means either further reliance on sanctions or military options or other similar efforts to halt the Iranian nuclear program. The administration has repeatedly made clear they think these “no deal” options are bad and has even tried to block consideration of them. At the same time, the administration has publicly touted offers that by objective standards look rather like a “bad deal.” In light of this fairly consistent pattern of statements and actions, the one that seems out of place is the administration’s separate claim that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”
If the administration wants to persuade the critics, it needs to be more candid about what a “bad deal” looks like and more open to the steps it would embrace if it ends up with “no deal.” If the president and his advisors do not start speaking more candidly about these matters, then they might as well stop claiming that they believe “a bad deal is worse than no deal” — nobody will believe them.
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