Monday, July 20, 2015

The Iran Deal Controversy is About the Doctrine

The heated debate ensuing around the Iran nuclear arms deal is partially about party distrust (with Republicans reflexively not trusting Democrats with foreign policy negotiations), but the more thoughtful and reasonable minds that disagree appear to disagree not on the deal itself, but the fact that there would be a deal at all.

The debate appears to be carved into the etchings of either Obama Doctrine of Foreign Policy or the prior Bush Doctrine of Foreign Policy. To level-set, Thomas Friedman summarized the Obama Doctrine as "we will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities," and according to President G.W. Bush's own memoirs, he characterized his foreign policy as four prongs:

  1. "Make no distinction between terrorists and the nations that harbor them--and hold both to account."
  2. "Take the fight to the enemy overseas before they can attack us again here at home."
  3. "Confront threats before they fully materialize."
  4. "Advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy's ideology of repression and fear."
Beyond the descriptions of each doctrine, a fundamental distinction between these doctrines happens to broadly apply to all Conservative and Progressive thought models: one embraces simplicity and directness, and one embraces complexity, balance, nuance and context.  

Without assigning value to either approach, it's fairly clear that if you embrace the belief that simplicity combined with a proactive, offensive stature sends a potent message to our adversaries and clarifies our stance on behaviors, then no matter what the Iran nuclear deal contains, you're going to see it as the wrong strategy - as any deal with Iran is negotiating with a nation that harbors and funds terrorism against our allies.  Conversely, if you believe that we can segment regimes into rational and irrational components, then you will see this as a great opportunity to use the specter of economic relief as a way to pry away the country's hardliners from power as the mighty Rial empowers the people, and moderates the country.

A great irony in this debate is that the hope and promise of shifting the course of Iran through this deal resembles the same optimistic hope that President Bush, Dick Cheney and the Neoconservatives had with the future of Iraq back in the early 2000s. To add in another layer of irony, Obama's strategy with Iran resembles both Reagan's and Nixon's foreign policy strategies.  In fact, the Iran deal is basically a carbon-copy of Reagan and Nixon's approach, as all three Presidents needed to look at rational engagement despite a host of serious issues we had with both regimes at the time.

This puts Obama's Iran policy of engagement and containment in the company of some historic and successful foreign policy gambles in our history (Soviet Union, China), while also making optimistic bets in terms of behavior modification in the Middle East that puts him firmly in the company of one of the worst foreign policy blunders in history (Iraq). 

This clearly puts the Iran deal into a place of legitimate debate. Within the debate, there needs to be acknowledgement that there cannot be an ideal deal (there's no "i" in "deal"), so we cannot let ourselves fantasize about what should be -- a deal is what can be.

As we listen to and participate in the debate, the doctrine-based analysis arms us with the tools to easily identify the serious pundits while enabling us to more easily sift out the purely partisan rhetoric.

In an effort to help provide clarity, the following is a cheat sheet of what to look for when looking for honest debate brokers:
  • The voices that embrace the Bush Doctrine should only be listened to seriously if they also admit that Obama's optimism for Iran's behavior transformation is similar to their former optimism for transforming the Middle East as a result of the Iraq War.
  • The voices that support the Iran containment plan who did not support the Bush Doctrine should be considered serious only if they also acknowledge that any kind of hope for Iranian behavior change should be compared to the hope and optimism the Neoconservatives had with Iraq. 
  • The voices that embrace Reagan's foreign policy of engagement and containment with the Evil Empire need to acknowledge that, despite the many downsides to the Iran deal, the approach of making a containment deal with Iran is consistent with President Reagan's approach to foreign policy.