Taking “Yes” For An Answer

by James A. Russell

The image of the finger-wagging Israeli Prime Minister at the United Nations this week provides the international community with a powerful message: the world — and the United States — must tirelessly search for “yes” as an answer in solving the world’s problems.

Israel’s persistent “no” model in seeking accommodation with its various antagonists is exactly the wrong approach — one that has placed it outside most acceptable norms of international behavior. A world of persistent war and confrontation may suit Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party, but it does not serve American or global interests.

After years of confrontation over its nuclear program and support for terrorism, the outstretched hand of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to the US and the international community provides an opening for both countries to end the state of undeclared war that has raged between them since 1979. Arriving at a settlement to end this state of overt hostility and bringing Iran back into the global community of nations would make the world a safer place.

To be sure, taking “yes” for an answer from your antagonists can be difficult. American foreign policy is full of examples. During the Cold War, the United States (through Republican and Democrat administrations) simultaneously negotiated arms reductions with its mortal enemy, the Soviet Union, while they were also engaged in a bitter and dangerous international rivalry.

It was a difficult political sell at home. Hardline Republicans and, at the time, neoconservative Democrats, opposed any compromise with an adversary that many argued was inherently evil, untrustworthy and bent on our destruction. It took great political courage for President Richard Nixon and his successors to pursue the arms control talks while American versions of Netanyahu lectured them on the dangers of such a folly.

Luckily for us, we reached an arrangement with our adversary and took “yes” as the answer to limiting our respective nuclear arsenals, which also helped manage our political relationship. The unintended consequences of arriving at “yes” in the nuclear arena helped us to arrive at a series of subsequent agreements with Russia that will see substantial reductions in our respective nuclear arsenals over the next decade. The world will be a safer place for it.

More recently, the disastrous consequences of abandoning the “yes” policy option stares the United States in the face. America’s 8-year war in Iraq in no small measure unfolded over a 15-20 year period during which the United States boxed itself in politically by refusing to take “yes” from its adversary Saddam Hussein. In 1997, the US foreclosed any “yes” options in Iraq when it formally adopted regime change as its official policy — a decision that, at the time, had everything to do with domestic politics and little to do with a sensible strategy.

I was among the audience in 1997 as a Pentagon staffer when then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave a speech at Georgetown University explaining the US policy of supporting regime change in Iraq. Neither I nor anyone else could foresee the consequences of slamming the door on the possibility of taking a “yes” answer from Saddam Hussein. Earlier that year, I had initialed an internal policy paper to my boss, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, urging him to lobby the senior reaches of the Clinton administration to seek a deal with Saddam — a suggestion that surprisingly made it to his desk but that was of course never taken seriously.

Following the Albright speech, the Clinton administration allowed itself to be forced by neoconservatives and others into adopting the ill-conceived Iraq Liberation Act in 1998 that formalized regime change into law — a law subsequently cited in the October 2002 authorization for the use of military force against Iraq. The war that followed was a human, economic and military disaster for all its participants, but the path to war had stretched back into the 1990s by a series of seemingly innocuous decisions that had foreclosed accommodation and the possibility of “yes.”

These two foreign policy episodes represent opposite poles for American decision makers and, to be sure, simplify the challenges of arriving at “yes” with adversaries.  The arms control agreements that were reached with the Soviet Union resulted from years of painstaking work by committed public servants from both sides through the ups and downs of the overall political relationship. They happened because both parties shared an interest in a “yes” outcome and were prepared to take steps to convince each other about their seriousness.

In the case of Iran, the United States has every incentive to similarly pursue “yes” as the answer and should be under no illusions that the process will be any easier than it was with the Soviet Union. The polarized and fractured domestic political landscape that is exploited by the Israel lobby and others presents the Obama administration with a serious political challenge. As illustrated by the Sept. 23 letter to Obama signed by 79 Senators, the overwhelming preference seems tilted towards “no” and continued pressure and confrontation. Netanyahu further amplified the volume for this approach at the UN this week.

Interestingly, the issues facing the two antagonists pale in comparison to those faced in the US-Soviet Cold War conflict. The path to a US-Iran deal is relatively clear: Iran must honor its obligations as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), open its facilities at Fordow and Parchin for inspection as called for in the treaty, agree to implement the Additional Protocol, and provide the requested information to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about its past nuclear research that was almost certainly part of an illicit weapons program. In short, Iran must agree to have a nuclear program with the kind of transparency that’s called for by the NPT. For its part, the United States must agree to lift sanctions and be ready for an agreement to reach a broader political accommodation if Iran takes these steps. All should recognize that, as was the case with the Soviet Union, such agreements depend on reasonable verification steps and confidence building measures by both parties that demonstrate a commitment to “yes.”

The Obama administration’s stumbling into a “yes” answer with Syria, which may result in the elimination of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpile, suggests that keeping policy options open for solutions that may not be immediately apparent can result in positive outcomes.

The United States needs to keep “yes” on the table as a solution to its standoff with Iran and resist the pressure from those who seem to prefer war and confrontation. The world will be a safer place if we can get to a “yes” with our adversary; after more than a decade of war in the Middle East, it is our responsibility to focus our best efforts on this challenging endeavor.

Photo: Gerald Ford and Leonid Brezhnev signing a joint communiqué on the SALT Treaty in Vladivostok, November 24, 1974

James Russell

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His latest book is titled Innovation, Transformation and War: US Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book about learning in irregular war, focusing on US military operations in Afghanistan. Prior to arriving at NPS from 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on various aspects of US security policy. He holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. The views he expresses here are his own.


One Comment

  1. Considering the results of U.S.Military actions to date in the M.E., a good first step has been taken. Hopefully, the NeoCon/Israeli stranglehold on U.S. Military actions will come to an end, one that has cost the U.S. and the countries involved, bloodshed and treasury, mostly to the civilian population of those countries. What harm can come from diplomacy, other then reigning in the warmongering, as well as perhaps preventing WW lll, the upheaval to the world economy, with the end result of bringing a “Peace instead of War”, solution.

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