Shadow Government

Obama Reinforces Netanyahu: Does Obama Understand That to Get a Good Deal He Must Be Willing to Walk Away?

In his haste to attack Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his speech before congress, President Obama unwittingly reinforced the substance of his critique. Hitherto, the administration has gone to great lengths to criticize the timing and modality of the speech, as if what really mattered was how Netanyahu spoke rather than what he said. Yesterday, ...

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In his haste to attack Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his speech before congress, President Obama unwittingly reinforced the substance of his critique.

Hitherto, the administration has gone to great lengths to criticize the timing and modality of the speech, as if what really mattered was how Netanyahu spoke rather than what he said. Yesterday, Obama finally engaged with the substance of Netanyahu’s remarks, and in doing so made two counterarguments. Unfortunately, they were self-rebutting counterarguments.

First, Obama said there is nothing new in Netanyahu’s critique. That is true, but that is also rather the point. Netanyahu’s critique of the Obama administration’s approach to Iran is one that he and many other experts have been making for years. That doesn’t make the critique any less trenchant. On the contrary, it raises the more important question of why the administration doesn’t have a better answer to a critique that they have been hearing for so long. As my Shadow Government colleagues have argued, most recently in Will Tobey’s devastating analysis here, there are eminently reasonable objections to what President Obama is proposing. Why, after being at it for six-plus years, is the best answer the administration can offer to these objections is only the tired spin of “there is nothing new here”?

Well, you might say, the administration does have another answer. It’s the second thing Obama said: “On the core issue, which is how do we prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, which would make it far more dangerous and would give it scope for even greater action in the region, the prime minister didn’t offer any viable alternatives.”

As I explained in my own post, if Obama believes there are no viable alternatives to cutting a deal with Iran, then he is dooming us to cutting a bad deal with Iran. You can safely tune out every time the president ritually incants, “No deal is better than a bad deal,” as he did in that very same interview — the one where he said there were no viable alternatives to the deal. You can ignore Obama on the “no deal > bad deal” point, because he has made it amply clear that he also does not believe there to be any viable alternatives to cutting a deal with Iran. Additional sanctions are unacceptable. Military options are unacceptable. In Obama’s telling, we are on a ramp with no exit, one that leads inexorably to a negotiated deal with Iran.

Therefore, implicit in the president’s message is the further promise: He and his administration will declare whatever is put down on paper to be “not a bad deal,” regardless of its terms. This is logically necessary. No deal may be better than a bad deal, but there are no acceptable alternatives to a deal and therefore, this deal — which is by assumption better than intolerable alternatives — must also, by definition, not really be a bad deal, regardless of what the critics say about it. QED.

If this is obvious to outsiders sitting in America, it is obvious to the Iranian negotiators. President Obama has told them, via his critique of Netanyahu, that he sees no viable alternative to cutting a deal with them. President Obama has told them that he will not walk away. Whatever is left on the table when the clock strikes will be signed and declared “not a bad deal.”

I suppose utterly incompetent Iranian negotiators could misplay this hand and still end up agreeing to a deal that is actually pretty good by the standards of U.S. national security interests. But that would be a diplomatic accident.

Unless President Obama changes the structure of the negotiations, and quickly, the far more likely outcome is this: The Iranians will recognize that their American counterparts believe that they have no alternative but to sign whatever piece of paper is put before them, and will drive toward an outcome that produces a de facto bad deal, whatever the administration chooses to call it.

There might still be a chance for Obama to salvage the situation, even at this late hour. But it will require some bold leadership: The president and his team must signal clearly that they do see viable alternatives to signing a deal with Iran. The President must talk about those alternatives, publicly and in terms that makes it unmistakable that the United States can live with those alternatives, even if we would prefer to negotiate a truly good deal. If Iran believes the United States can and will walk away from a bad deal, then there is a chance it will make the concessions necessary to yield a truly good deal.

If, on the other hand, Iran believes what Obama has repeatedly said in word, deed, and body language — namely, that he sees no viable alternative to signing whatever is produced in this round of negotiations — then the betting money is we are headed toward a bad deal.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News

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