24 March 2015

Captain Obama and the Great White Whale

This article by Walter Russel Mead is a relatively short concise summary of the state of US-Iran nuclear negotiations and the amazing hardheadedness displayed by the current administration in its seemingly senseless drive toward the goal. Where the goal is illusory, the partner is a proven cheat and the Senate and the Congress are growing more and more united in their resistance to the agreement.

There seem to be four leading scenarios on the horizon. One is that the President gets his deal, somehow steers it past (or around) Congress, and the deal works: Iran becomes our friend and the Middle East gets better. At that point he looks like a genius and the doubts are forgotten. The critics look bad as the United States sails into a bright new day, and President Obama goes down in history as a courageous and visionary peacemaker who stuck to his guns when the going got tough. This seems unlikely, but it can’t be ruled out.

The second is uglier, but more probable. In this scenario, Iran signs a deal, and after an ugly fight, Congress gives it a grudging and perhaps partial OK. Then pundits and policymakers argue for years about whether it was a success or not, the public mostly dislikes it, and the Iran deal, like Obamacare, becomes a pyrrhic victory. The President notches up a win but his party stumbles under the weight of the baggage.

The third possibility is uglier and, based on today’s news from Congress, more probable still. In this scenario, Iran and the President strike a deal, but Congress succeeds in crippling it. Perhaps it passes a bill and then overrides his veto; perhaps it refuses to pass enabling legislation that the Iranians say is necessary. At that point, the deal breaks down, some of the P-5 begin to circumvent the sanctions, and the President will have a big mess on his hands as Iran, perhaps, accelerates its march toward a bomb.

The final possibility is that the Iranians walk away from the deal. That is not a worst case scenario for the President; if there isn’t any deal he doesn’t have to consume the next several months of his presidency in an all-out effort to protect it from Congress. The biggest downside: He will then have to start from close to zero on Middle East policy, and presumably head back to some angry, jilted allies for help even as relations with Iran grow worse.

The President himself gives 50-50 odds for a deal at this point; if he’s right, and if we assume that the other scenarios are equally probable, he has about a 17 percent chance of emerging from this process with a clear win, a 17 percent chance of a pyrrhic victory, and a 67 percent chance of an outcome that will be considered a defeat.
Dispensing with the mathematics above, the prognosis is not good for Obama.

But the article is focused on the internal fallout (no pun intended) of the looming agreement on US internal politics, leaving mostly aside the existential nightmare that is nuclear Iran. The fallout in question might be bad for White House political standing. But the possible outcome is even worse for the world in general and the disparate group of countries in the Middle East that heretofore considered themselves to be US allies in particular.