The Corner

When a Tone Becomes the Tune

It is hard to resist the wave of optimism sweeping over Washington and Brussels this week. It seems that, after years of stasis, there is a sudden dawn of diplomatic engagement on two of the thorniest issues facing the West: Iran and Syria. The highest-level meeting in over a half-decade between Iran and the United States took place on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly when Secretary of State John Kerry sat down with Tehran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif. Walking out of the meeting, Kerry lauded the ”very different tone” coming from the Iranians, including a nascent agreement to start “substantive talks” on Tehran’s nuclear program in October. All the while, Iran continues to spin its 3,000 centrifuges, getting ever closer to the amount of uranium needed to produce a bomb.

Meanwhile, most Americans have likely forgotten that just a few weeks ago, President Obama was on the verge of ordering some type of limited military strike to punish Damascus for its gassing of over a thousand innocent civilians. After Russian president Vladimir Putin jumped on Kerry’s offhand remark about Syria giving up its chemical weapons, the Obama administration found itself maneuvered into a new Russian-brokered, U.N. diplomatic process. Yesterday, that process produced a completely predictable U.N. resolution calling on Damascus to surrender all its chemical weapons, one that is supposed to be “binding and enforceable” but includes no mention of the use of force to punish noncompliance. The stage is now set for Moscow to permanently block any future attempts to authorize military strikes, since such would undoubtedly be portrayed as counterproductive to the ongoing negotiations. Instead, Washington is now fully enmeshed in an open-ended set of negotiations, in which Syria’s major benefactor, Russia, plays the role of supposedly disinterested umpire.

Yet John Kerry is simply following the examples of Republican and Democratic secretaries of state before him, all of whom got sucked into years of meaningless negotiations while their antagonists steadily developed weapons of mass destruction, gutted their countries’ liberal opposition, and formed global networks of terror supporters and weapons proliferators. Few in America seem to care that dozens, maybe hundreds of U.S. troops were killed by Iranian-supplied IEDs and other weapons in Iraq. All that matters now is that a different tone is heard. 

The fairly recent Western belief that diplomacy is the only assured means to a more peaceful world of mutual understanding is light years away from older conceptions that hewed in spirit to Clausewitz’s oft-misquoted remark that war is a continuation of policy by other means. Today’s authoritarian regimes understand that diplomacy is an extension of conflict by other means, a perfect way to tie down, misdirect, and absorb the energies of your opponents. Dangle in front of them the glittering prize of peaceful coexistence, and you buy yourself at least a couple of years (and usually more) respite from any type of real pressure or threat of military action.

Yet common sense in international diplomacy seems to be as rare as optimism is overabundant. One does not need grand diplomatic conferences to solve problems like Syria’s civil war, control of chemical weapons, or Iran’s (or North Korea’s) nuclear programs. If those regimes truly wanted to act according to international law and norms, they would. We would not have to entice them to do so. However, when we legitimate them, and undercut those struggling against their oppression, then we enter a world where words and agreements have no objective meaning. Our adversaries understand that, but sadly we seem not to. Tehran, Damascus, and others are simply playing the tune that Barack Obama wants to hear, not changing their tone in any real or meaningful way.

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