We're Talking (While They're Acting)
Churchill's dictum, "Jaw-jaw is better than war-war," is a concept without application in much of the world. Western-style negotiations seek common ground and compromise, while others seek only to "jaw" while the work of war goes on. The West vests the process itself with value, providing our adversaries with instant leverage when they value only their own strategic interests. The result is that the U.S. finds itself compromising or changing its goals unilaterally in an effort to maintain processes that are increasingly disconnected from American interests.
The mother of all processes is the Arab-Israeli "peace process," originally intended to rescind Arab rejection of Israel and provide Israel the "secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force" promised by U.N. Resolution 242 in 1967. It didn't work. To try a different angle, the United States decided to "solve" the "Palestinian problem" first and thus "encourage" the Arab states.
That didn't work, either, but twenty years of Palestinian-Israeli jawing since the 1993 Oslo Accord changed the goal from Arab recognition of Israel to the creation of a Palestinian state. Since Oslo, Israel has fought a bloody war orchestrated by Yasser Arafat from the West Bank and a missile war by Hamas from Gaza. It has been subject to official Palestinian incitement and raw anti-Semitism. Yet, under U.S. pressure, the Israeli government has signed an array of new agreements, each designed to cover up the failure of its predecessor, and the "peace process" remains a priority for American presidents. The Palestinians, both Hamas and Fatah, retain their strategic position that they not agree to the legitimacy of the State of Israel.
Now, President Obama is talking to Russian President Putin and Iranian President Rouhani. Putin is talking to Bashar Assad; Secretary of State Kerry is talking glowingly about Assad, and to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Afghan President Karzai. Karzai is talking to the Afghan Taliban, and so are we. The P5+1 is talking about Iran and to it. The Security Council was talking about Syria, but it has stopped for now.
In each case, the markers for the success of international diplomacy have slid away from long-term U.S. goals.
Bashar Assad's strategic goal is to remain in power -- preferably in Damascus, but if necessary in the Alawite heartland. To that end, more than 100,000 people have been killed, including thousands of children, some by chemical weapons. The original American position, articulated both by President Obama and then-Secretary of State Clinton, was that Assad had lost his legitimacy as a leader. The second, articulated by the president, was that Syrian chemical weapons not be moved or used. Under the threat of a Russian veto, the U.N. Security Council was unable to articulate a unified position on the conventional civilian casualties or condemn the Syrian government, finally voting on eliminating Syria's chemical arsenal.
This changed everything. Assad is no longer an "illegitimate" mass murderer; he is a partner to and guarantor of the UNSCR resolution and OPCW inspectors. He got American credit for the speed with which the experts were permitted access and for cooperation with their mission. The conventional killing, on the other hand -- including bombing and artillery shelling of civilian areas -- continues apace, and without comment from the West.
Because Assad is cooperating, he no longer fears a U.S. military strike, pressure to resign, or additional condemnation. But that has made already remote plans for a peace conference in Geneva more remote, because the National Coalition opposition is opposed to talks while Assad rules. His departure -- the original American goal -- is farther away than ever. But talk about talking continues.
Iran's strategic goal is to continue uranium enrichment with the intention of achieving nuclear weapons. Under serious economic pressure right now, Iran's government wants international sanctions lightened and the next round of sanctions delayed indefinitely. Hassan Rouhani was elected to achieve the first by jawing with the West about the second. He toned down the rhetoric of his predecessor and canceled an annual conference on anti-Zionism. The State Department responded by seeking a delay in new sanctions, and a day later, the U.S. Senate agreed.
The U.S. strategic goal had been to prevent Iran uranium enrichment. Having lost that battle as Iran installed centrifuges while we were jawing in the 1990s, the goal became denying Iran nuclear weapons capability; now it is to deny it nuclear weapons. Delaying sanctions for the sake of negotiations is not the same as agreeing to Iranian demands, but it will change the trajectory of the talks from Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons to a deal on sanctions. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov muddied the water (deliberately) by announcing that Iran doesn't have to give up its nuclear program, but only "absolutely prove" that the program is civilian and cooperate "fully" with the IAEA. This, he said, would require "significant reciprocal steps" from the West. Lavrov undermined the P5+1 by ignoring the fact that Iran is already required to do those things without reciprocity.
But that's a different conversation.
Russia's strategic goal is restoration of the superpower status lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The U.S. appears to have no strategic goal, but the unilateral "reset" has benefited Russia in several ways. The administration came into office canceling the deployment of anti-missile radars in Poland and the Czech Republic hoping for Russian support with Iran and reciprocal missile reductions that never materialized. Earlier this year, the administration canceled long-range interceptors that were to have been deployed in Europe in 2018, a key Russian demand. A look at the U.S. nuclear modernization budget finds little plan for actual modernization, while the Russians have announced plans for nuclear modernization and embarked on their first major military buildup since the collapse. Two other U.S.-Russian "agreements" are for Russia to permit the U.S. to use Russian territory to supply coalition forces in Afghanistan and for the Russians to ferry American astronauts to the International Space Station. Both give Putin bragging rights about American dependence on Russia to attain its national goals.
Finally, the U.S. strategic goal in Afghanistan is to leave, and it is in conversation with both the Karzai government and the Taliban for the terms of its departure. The Taliban's goal is to rule Afghanistan, and Karzai's is likely to remain alive to spend the money he's hidden elsewhere. Talking, in this case, while we withdraw and the Taliban advances, may work for them and us, though perhaps not for Karzai.
The inescapable conclusion is that the United States has jaw-jawed its way to a world of Palestinian intransigence, an unmitigated Syrian bloodbath, increased Iranian progress toward nuclear weapons, a resurgent Russia, and a Taliban-led Afghanistan.