Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

14 March 2015

The Infamous 47: “Traitors,” “Bad Cops,” or Communicators?


[For an update to my recent post on inflation/deflation discussing the so-called “wage-price spiral,” click here.]

NOTE TO READERS: I thought long and hard before publishing this post. Recently I excoriated Hillary for her first “what was she thinking” e-mail moment: her decision to use a private account as our Secretary of State. I didn’t even get to her second “what was she thinking” moment—her decision to delete over 30,000 e-mails on that account.

After excoriating the Dems’ nearly anointed favorite, I didn’t want to be seen, even erroneously, as giving the GOP’s Infamous 47 anything like a free pass. After all, I have little more respect for the Tea Party than for the KKK or the Nazi Brown shirts.

But this blog is all about consequences. Intentions are important, to be sure. Consequences are even more so. Slips between the cup and the lip are our species’ trademark.

If we all thought more about the consequences of our actions, rather than acting on intention alone, we would all be much, much better off. So it may be more useful to analyze the probable consequences of the Infamous 47’s letter to Iran than to obsess about their domestic political motives.

It also occurred to me that the Infamous 47’s letter to Iran was not totally new. Instead, it continues a nascent trend of transnational political dialogue. It’s good to identify that trend and evaluate it briefly, so we can put the letter in context.
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In all the controversy surrounding the nuclear negotiations with Iran, two points often get lost.

First, Iranians are clever people. The war that we Yanks incited Saddam to make on them ended in 1988. It killed an estimated 1 million people, or about half a million on each side.

Iran lost some territory but won it back. So nothing much changed in Iran besides the untimely deaths of half a million Iranians and a deepening of their hatred for us Yanks.

But there’s a funny thing. Since that horrible war ended, Iran has suffered virtually no combat deaths on its own territory. Iran has fought only proxy wars, away from its own borders. It’s fighting two right now, against IS in Iraq and against Sunni jihadis in Syria.

Not only that. Iran has gotten both its allies, including Hezbollah, and its potential Sunni enemies, including Hamas, to test the conventional weapons Iran produces under real combat conditions (against Israel). And it has gotten Sunni (mostly Saudi) “charities” to pay a significant share of the cost of that testing. Pretty clever, huh?

The second under-appreciated point is that it’s almost impossible to know Iran’s leaders’ intentions vis-à-vis nuclear weapons. They may not know their intentions themselves, for there appears to be some disagreement at high levels inside Iran.

It’s unlikely that Iran wants the talks to fail, because it knows military action may follow, if not by us then by Israel. Iranians know from fairly recent experience what being bombed and invaded feels like.

But what’s the best outcome from Iran’s perspective? Does Iran want a weak deal that keeps nuclear weapons within reach, at the cost of slow and perhaps reversible relaxation of sanctions? Or does it want strong deal with intrusive inspections that reduces the chance of making nuclear weapons to near zero but, at the same time, also cuts sanctions to zero for the long term and so unlocks Iran’s full commercial potential?

Either possibility could be rational for Iran. It’s hard to tell.

Of course, Iran would most like a deal which does both. But you have to give the President and his team some credit. We Yanks invented nuclear weapons, some 70 years ago. We’ve had a lot of experience developing and maintaining them since. We also invented the Internet and electronic surveillance of international banking and commerce. Think our experts might know a little more than Iranians about what it takes to make a Bomb and how quickly we can bring Iran to its economic knees ? Our side holds some pretty strong cards.

Making a deal is only part of the purpose of talking. Another part is to get to know the people on the other side of the table. “Trust” is too strong a word here, especially in light of the horrible recent history we Yanks have had with Iran.

No “trust” will come out of these talks, not even Reagan’s “trust but verify.” “Understanding” and “safeguards” are more realistic words.

You get to know the other side’s intentions by finding out what terms it is willing to accept, and what terms it rejects quickly or out of hand. The Iranian side is doing the same thing with us, testing our intentions. No rational actor in the position of either nation’s leaders would do anything else.

That’s why the talks are taking so long. There’s too much at stake for both sides to reach a bargain quickly. And all this is going on in secret.

There are leaks of some terms, to be sure. But who knows whether the leaks are accurate, who made them, and with what motive? And, more to the point, who knows what proposals were made and rejected by the other side? Often you learn far more from a rejection than an acceptance. But since we the people don’t know much about either, both fans and critics of the talks are just bloviating in the dark.

Under these circumstances, what roles do Bibi’s speech and the Infamous 47’s open letter to Iran play?

There’s a negative side, to be sure. When Bibi and the Infamous 47 undercut the President’s authority, they might make Iranians doubt whether the US will later stick with any deal made by President Obama.

No one wants to cut a deal with a person who doesn’t have the authority to keep promises. No one even wants to negotiate with such a person. That’s the first thing you learn in negotiation school: find out whether the party across the table has the necessary authority, and walk away if he doesn’t.

From this perspective, Bibi’s and the Infamous 47’s acts look very, very bad. You can’t call Bibi a “traitor” because he’s a foreigner. You can levy that charge against the Infamous 47, as the New York Daily News did.

But when has name-calling advanced any serous issue? Nothing is ever entirely black or white, let alone something as complex and multi-faceted as our nuclear talks with Iran. There’s usually an upside, too.

And so there is here. A common negotiation technique involves a “good cop” and a “bad cop.” The “good cop” proposes tough but reasonable terms. Then he points to the “bad cop,” who demands much tougher terms.

The “bad cop’s” terms may be unreasonable or even crazy. The Mafia Don points to his “muscle”—a big, tough goon who is delicately examining his firearm or repeatedly slamming a baseball bat into his palm. The message is unmistakable: deal with me or suffer the consequences. If Iran doesn’t deal with the good cop, aka President Obama, it can have war from Bibi or much tougher sanctions imposed by the Infamous 47.

For this strategy to work, the other side has to believe that the “good cop” has the authority to make a deal. If Iran thinks that President Obama can’t make a deal stick, Iran just won’t bargain. So the vital question that no one (to my knowledge) has yet asked is: how did Iran’s Ayatollah and President Rouhani take the letter?

Did they conclude that no deal can stick? Did Bibi and the Infamous 47 overstep the role of bad cop? We won’t know for certain until the talks fail or succeed, although the Ayatollah expressed some distress at our apparent disarray.

There’s yet another angle to the letter that seems to have dawned on very few: a recent trend in global politics. In our modern era, leaders of one country increasingly talk publicly and directly to the people and the leaders of another.

Nothing about this is new. To name what may be the most famous precedent, think of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s 1946 “iron curtain” speech in Missouri. Because Churchill was Churchill, and because Britain was our closest ally, our then President Harry Truman attended the speech personally. If Stalin didn’t hear the speech over radio, he surely got a translation into Russian.

But if cross-border speech is good for close allies, why not rivals and even enemies? Vladimir Putin styles himself the “great communicator” of Russia, analogous to Reagan for us Yanks, and his claims have some basis in fact. Not long ago, he took the extraordinary step of writing an op-ed addressed to us Yanks and publishing it in the New York Times. The effort failed, but the attempt was notable.

We also have a much darker precedent on our side. Toward the end of Bill Clinton’s tenure as president, the late Senator (and professional bigot) Jesse Helms sent a letter to the Russians very much like the Infamous 47’s letter, claiming that Bill was a lame duck without effective power to bind the US to arms-control agreements then under negotiation.

On the other hand, a little longer ago, our President Reagan had advised the then Soviet Premier, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Mikhail Gorbachev, who was one of Russia’s most empathetic and intelligent leaders, seemed to listen, and he let the Berlin Wall come down without intervening militarily.

Not all across-the-divide communications will have such happy outcomes. But as we humans move from the absurd and possibly sui-genocidal notion of “total war” toward the more accurate understanding that we are all human, what’s wrong with rivals and even enemies talking with each other? Didn’t the arms-control agreements that ended the Cold War come out of such talks? And what’s wrong with minor leaders and public actors getting involved in the discussion?

Adolf Hitler didn’t talk much to the world outside of Nazi Germany. He just harangued his own Storm Troopers in a screechy, ranting tone whose thrust you could understand without knowing a word of German. As Sarah Palin might say, “how’d that work out for our species?”

The Infamous Letter was ill considered. Its basic thrust was an issue of our Yankee division of powers, on which our Constitution hardly gives the Ayatollah or Iranian President Rouhani a say.

So the letter may well have been stupid, and it may yet prove counterproductive. But if “stupid” were the criterion for suppressing speech, Fox would be gone, most of our TV and radio would be off the air, and the vast majority of the Internet cesspool would be dark.

For better of for worse, we Yanks have a thing called the First Amendment, which we treat as our Prime Directive. The Infamous 47 didn’t reveal any classified information, just their own opinions on Congress’ power over our international agreements and some personal “advice” to Iran. However stupid the letter may have been, it would be hard to imagine anything more deserving of the First Amendment’s protection.

Which brings me back to my first point, how smart the Iranians are. Does any Yank really think they’ll take the “advice” offered by a rump group of Yankee Iran-haters at face value? If Iran’s leaders don’t know the Infamous 47’s record on peace with Iran, their intelligence services can enlighten them. Does anyone really believe that the Ayatollah, in chiding our apparent Yankee disarray, doesn’t know what is going on here?

Anyway, what happens if these talks fail? Bibi has all but threatened war. He’s much more likely to start a war if we Yanks fight on Israel’s side, but he implied that he might go to war on his own. And if the talks fail—despite the reasonableness of terms proposed by our most cool, rational and empathetic president in at least two generations—we Yanks are likely to help Israel as much as we can, even if we don’t actually join its war ourselves.

Even if no war comes, the sanctions will remain and likely get stronger. So Iran’s leaders have a basic decision to make: do they want Iran to be “nuclear ready” or to have a strong and vibrant economy? It doesn’t look as if Iran can do both.

And there’s still another angle. The outcome of these talks will be a key issue in our next presidential election. If the talks fail, or if the deal they produce is generally perceived as giving Iran a good chance to stay “nuclear ready,” the Republicans may win the next presidential election.

Of course this issue won’t be decisive all by itself. But it will make a difference. If Hillary is the candidate, she will have to sound much tougher than President Obama even to get elected. And so will any other Democrat. The Republicans won’t have to sound tougher. They already are.

If the Republicans win the presidency in 2016, they will have a three-branch sweep of our Yankee government. They will have all the power they need to make war on Iran, to tighten sanctions until until Iran’s economy bleeds, or to do both at the same time.

So however you cut the salami, it’s in Iran’s interest to get the best deal it can now and to try to make it stick. A later deal, if even possible, is likely to be worse for Iran. (Whether any deal sticks will depend on Iran’s actions, as well as the words on paper. An international agreement is not a suicide pact, even if approved by Congress.)

Iran will deal or not deal based on its own assessment of its own interests, just as we will. The letter might marginally decrease Iran’s confidence in having a deal stick. Or it might increase Iran’s desire to get a deal while it still has a chance of getting a reasonable one. Without eavesdropping on high-level discussions inside Iran, there’s absolutely no way of knowing how Iran’s leaders feel about the letter until the talks conclude.

So let’s cut the Infamous 47 some slack. Their letter may have been awkward, inopportune, and even stupid. It may have been an insane attempt to litigate Congress’ gradual abandonment of its constitutional war-making power before an inimical foreign power.

But where war and peace are concerned, talking is usually better than fighting. Even if some perceive talking as a prelude to war, there’s always a chance that cooler heads will prevail.

Adolf Hitler ranted almost entirely to his own people. He’s no one to emulate. If nothing else, writing to foreigners may give our hubristic freshman members of Congress some knowledge of foreign relations, not to mention some empathy. They could use a little of both.

Footnote: Why do I mention Helms’ notorious lifelong bigotry in a post about Iran? Because the kind of bigotry that he represented is, on both sides, responsible for our Little Cold War with Iran.

As we primates evolved on the African savannah, our clans fought one another for territory, food, shelter and survival. That’s our biological evolution. Those struggles continue today.

But our biological evolution also gave us a unique advantage over all other species on this planet: an ability to communicate, empathize and cooperate. Without that ability, our much-vaunted brains, upright posture and opposable thumbs would mean nothing. Dolphins, whales and elephants all have bigger brains than ours, but they don’t have our ability to work together.

In order to capitalize on this unique advantage, our social evolution has had to overcome our biological evolution. Jesus of Nazareth recognized this point two millennia ago, when he coined his famous slogan, “love thy enemy.” Fortunately for our species, social evolution works much faster than biological evolution. But it requires leaders who are both wise and smart.

The task of reforming our species through social evolution is never easy. We Yanks claim to be “exceptional” in that regard. Maybe we are. They’re aren’t too many modern nations with a top leader who represents a tiny oppressed minority and who, unlike Assad, attained that status in free and fair elections, not by force.

But even for us Yanks, overcoming tribalism is a work in progress. And it’s hard work, as Ferguson attests and as the President so eloquently and accurately recognized in his speech on Selma.

Internationally, ending our senseless Little Cold War with Iran is a necessary step on our species’ rocky road to the stars. Yet there are those among us, like Jesse Helms, who cannot overcome their tribalism and hatred toward Iran, just as there are those in Iran who feel the same way about us.

From our side at least, the Iran talks are in good hands. Who better to understand and overcome tribalism than a member of an oppressed minority who managed to get elected president twice, freely and fairly, in a nation that can still produce a Feguson, fifty years after Selma? In order to achieve that feat, Barack Obama had to be both uniquely empathetic and uniquely a realist.

No Jesse Helms can ever match his accomplishment. Nor can any still-wet-behind-the-ears freshman member of Congress, let alone from the Tea Party. That’s why we should all chill out, exercise patience, and wait to see what, if anything, the talks produce.

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