McCain’s Iran Statement Is Everything Wrong With American Diplomacy


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After Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s tone-deaf address to the U.N. Tuesday night, there have been — how do I put this delicately — some questions raised about whether the new President and his boss, Supreme Leader Khamenei, are really willing to compromise with the U.S. on Syria, Israel, and the nuclear program. Of course, speeches are never perfect guides to policy, and Rouhani’s warmed-over Third Worldism was still an improvement over his predecessor’s diatribes. So it’s obviously still worth pursuing negotiations with Iran.

That being said, if the Obama Administration goes into the negotiations with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)’s advice in hand, they’ll fail for sure.

Late Tuesday, McCain released a statement cosigned by his Senate amigos Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) on U.S. diplomacy with Iran that read like a road map with all the directions reversed. McCain and co.’s advice is interesting, though, because it points to a deep pathology in American foreign policy: the tendency to think of diplomacy first as an outlet for moral outrage instead of a tactic for actually making the world a better place.

The Amigos get off on the right foot, generously averring that “we support the willingness of the Obama Administration to test the credibility of the Iranian regime’s diplomatic overtures.” That’s actually an improvement given that Graham declared just last year that the “the time for talking [with Iran] is over.” The nub of the statement, and the core of the problem with the Three Amigos’ approach, comes just a few sentences later:

When Secretary Kerry sits down with the Iranian Foreign Minister, we urge him to make clear that the U.S. government, the American people, and the U.S. Congress will never allow the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism to acquire the world’s most dangerous weapon.

Read literally, all they’re asking Kerry to do is recite longstanding Obama Administration policy that an Iranian bomb is unacceptable. Well, yeah. But the letter makes it seem like yelling about Iranian perfidy is the full extent of the Amigos’ preferred negotiation strategy. A huge chunk of their statement is devoted to enumerating bad things Iran has done that they want Kerry to condemn in future negotiations. And those things, like facilitating the murder of tens of thousands of Syrians, are bad! But telling Iran off doesn’t seem like a promising strategy for actually changing its behavior — indeed, various members of our government have been doing it constantly for years.

What the Amigo letter reveals, rather, is that these senators aren’t thinking about diplomacy the way diplomats think about it — a means for effecting a change in policy that advances American priorities better than the status quo. Rather, they see diplomacy first and foremost as a tool of moral expression. “America must stand up for American principles,” the thinking goes, “and that means calling it like we see it. Evil is evil.”

And there’s nothing wrong with that — except when it gets in the way of actually remedying said evil. One question that the Amigos don’t consider and, indeed, never really appear to consider is whether Kerry blustering at his Iranian counterpart in a closed-door meeting is actually a good way to test Iran’s seriousness about a nuclear deal. Diplomacy requires politesse and obfuscation. The most important thing in negotiations is not, as Ayotte and co. suggest, making your side’s moral righteousness plain, but rather figuring what needs to be said to accomplish your goals.

We actually know what happens when you approach nuclear negotiations with the Amigos’ diplomatic strategy in your back pocket. Fred Kaplan’s deep dive into the Bush Administration’s North Korea policy, aptly titled “Rolling Blunder,” details the myriad ways in which President Bush’s moralism fetish guaranteed that the Hermit Kingdom would go nuclear. While the diplomatic arrangement limiting North Korean nuclear progress was dying, the Bush Administration refused to make any real efforts to stanch the bleeding. The reasoning, according to a Bush NSC memo on North Korea, was preserving American “moral clarity.”

Bush “loathed” Kim Jong Il (the President’s word choice, not mine). He wouldn’t talk to Kim’s government on principle. We know now how well that worked out.

By now, the rhetoric on Iran from folks like McCain, Graham, and Ayotte is commonplace enough to read like boilerplate. But that’s all the more reason to challenge it. The lazy equation of a “moral” foreign policy with strident denunciations and/or threats of military action deeply misunderstands the role of morality in foreign policy. A truly moral foreign policy would be devoted to saving lives, American and otherwise, whenever possible. That might sometimes mean holding your rhetorical fire at diplomatic summits, where bluster won’t help get anyone to yes. Understanding that point is real “moral clarity.”