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Egyptian anti-goverment demonstrators wave Egyptian flags at Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 10, 2011. (PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Fiction and Foreign Policy

Michael Doran

In his memoirs, Duty, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tells a story that could only have occurred in the Obama White House. In February 2011, as crowds occupying Tahrir Square in Cairo demanded the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a debate swirled over the proper American response: should the U.S. force Mubarak to abdicate, or support his plan to manage an orderly transition of power over the next seven months?

On one side stood Gates and the other principal members of the National Security Council. Mubarak, they argued, though a dictator, had been a reliable ally for 30 years, and toppling him would unleash chaos in Egypt, with no guarantee that the forces replacing him would be sympathetic to Washington, to America’s regional allies, or to democracy. On the other, pro-ouster side stood White House staffers vocally represented by Ben Rhodes—who, though only in his early thirties, bore the grand title of Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication and Speechwriting. In addition to his youthfulness, Rhodes had limited experience in international politics; his master’s degree was in creative writing, and his official role was that of a “communicator,” or spinmeister.

In the end, the president sided with the Rhodes faction, thus placing himself, in a phrase that soon emerged from the White House, “on the right side of history.” That side led, as Gates had warned, to a political vacuum in which the only established and well-organized party was the Muslim Brotherhood, which soon took power.

One might conclude from this story that Ben Rhodes has a deep influence over the president, but in truth he is simply his mouthpiece, or his clone. As Obama’s own two memoirs attest, he himself has long practiced a literary approach to his profession, acting simultaneously as author and as heroic protagonist. In this conception, the exercise of foreign policy is not simply about safeguarding American interests abroad; it is also about fashioning a creative and compelling personal narrative of the effort.

To be sure, all politicians impute pure motives to themselves and malign ones to their rivals. But Obama, raising the practice to the level of art, has recognized a simple but profound truth about political life: if you can convince people that you are well-intentioned, they will tend to side with you even if you fail to achieve your stated aims. In the Middle East, especially, the list of the president’s failed efforts is already long and growing longer by the day; it includes, among many other debacles, solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, launching a humanitarian intervention in Libya, and promoting a political solution to the Syrian civil war. Becoming painfully obvious is the last and greatest item on this list of pious failures: the president’s promises on Iran, embodied most recently and dramatically in the deal struck in Lausanne on April 2.

Obama has presented this deal as an effort to solve, through entirely peaceful means, the most consequential dispute in the Middle East. At the same time, he is signaling that his Iran gambit heralds much more than that. It is nothing less than the birth of a new vision of the American role in the world—an antidote to the military approach that allegedly characterized our foreign policy for decades.

This vision, however, is a fiction. Just as Robert Gates could see clearly in February 2011 that ousting Mubarak would deliver chaos and not democracy, it is clear to sober observers on all sides that the agreement with Tehran will fail to establish the elementary conditions for preventing the regime’s development of a nuclear bomb. Yet most people still do not appear to regard the president as either the cause of this disaster or as the solution to it. Will they ever?

The emerging deal with Iran has three obvious defects that will be impossible to solve in the final round of negotiations. First, instead of phasing out, over a decade’s time, the existing diplomatic and economic sanctions on Iran, the deal, practically speaking, will lift the sanctions immediately. Second, the president’s assurance that sanctions will “snap back” in the event of Iranian misbehavior is absurd on its face. Re-imposition of sanctions will require concerted action by the United Nations Security Council, a body that no one has ever accused of being either speedy or efficient. Finally, Iranian leaders have asserted, repeatedly and explicitly, that they will never allow the United States and its partners to conduct the kind of “anywhere, anytime” inspections that the Obama administration has disingenuously claimed are part of the deal; without such a guarantee, international inspectors will be incapable of verifying Iranian compliance.

Thanks to these core deficiencies, the deal will enable the Iranians to pocket enormous benefits—diplomatic, economic, and military—up front. And once they have enriched themselves by playing nice, there will be nothing to prevent them from beginning to cheat again. Does the president believe otherwise? If so, he must assume that just by signing the deal, the Islamic Republic will be transformed into something other and better than the aggressively hostile and repellent regime we have come to know over the last 36 years. This is like the legitimate businessman who assumes that his new Mafioso partner will abandon his criminal ways once he develops a taste for honest profit. Even if the businessman manages to get out of the deal alive, it will be only after an arsonist’s flames have engulfed his shop and he’s been fleeced of the insurance money.

And yet, no matter how tortured and implausible the president’s claims may be, many respected public figures seem willing to set aside common sense and endorse them. These figures fall into four broad groups, the first of which is composed of Obama’s domestic political allies, some of them celebrity columnists, who are more than happy to parrot the White House line whether because they value their connection to power or because they habitually support Democrats over Republicans. In short, they want the president to win his contest with Congress.

A second group is made up of those in the foreign-policy elite who believe that aligning with Iran is actually a wise move. Regarding Israel as a drag on the United States, many of them see the Islamic Republic as a partner in the great task of stabilizing the Middle East. Moreover, they do not consider an Iranian nuclear bomb to be an unmanageable threat—certainly not one that would justify risking a war. This group is larger than one might think, and it might even include the president himself. Since, however, adopting a ho-hum attitude toward nuclear-tipped Iranian missiles is politically anathema, those who entertain such views usually content themselves with rehearsing the White House insistence that the emerging deal is full of promise.

The third group comprises America’s allies and international partners. Against their better judgment, many of these have stood up and publicly endorsed the deal. Among themselves, they rationalize their actions by reminding themselves that they do not have the power to stop Iran; only the United States can do that. In view of the fact that Obama is fully committed to a deal with the Islamic Republic, and has put them on notice that he will exact a painful price if they fail to support him, the better part of prudence is to go along—and to position themselves at the front of the line for lucrative economic and military contracts with the soon to be sanctions-free Iranians.

In the fourth group are those truly convinced by the arguments of the White House. Who are they? The only thing that can be said with certainty is that they are few and far between. In fact, one of the more striking aspects of the current situation is the dearth of genuine enthusiasm for the deal—anywhere. Among Democrats on Capitol Hill, it is common to hear rumblings of doubt even from the staffers of senators and congressmen who are publicly supportive of the president. Among allies, European as well as Asian, it is common to encounter officials who behind closed doors will express deep dismay at the seemingly unstoppable flow of American concessions.

For a taste of what some of America’s staunchest traditional allies are actually saying among themselves, one can do no better than to read Greg Sheridan, Australia’s leading foreign-affairs columnist. Sheridan writes in his own voice, but he is close to the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and what he has to say about the Iran deal certainly reflects the thinking of Australian officials who dare not express their views openly because they need Obama’s support in Asia. “This agreement,” Sheridan writes bluntly, “guarantees[emphasis added] Iran will acquire nuclear weapons eventually.” He adds: “Perhaps the key analytical question is this: is the fecklessness of present American policy entirely the fault of Obama, or does it reflect a deeper malaise in the U.S. and in Western civilization generally?”

Sheridan’s question is apt. That it has to be asked says bad things about us, who have gone so far as to allow our president to blur the distinction between foreign policy and creative fiction.

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