Obama and Clinton’s choice: humility or humiliation?

This week the Obama administration made what may come to be seen as a blunder of historic proportions. At a moment when tactical agility was a must, it stayed on course because it lacked the diplomatic finesse to show or perhaps even recognize the difference between being resolute and being inflexible.

The sanctions juggernaut plowed into the Iran diplomatic initiative masterminded by Brazil and Turkey and on the basis that these are “lesser” powers, Washington imagined its own agenda must be unstoppable. Or at least the administration felt compelled to bow in obedience to a fear that shackles every Democratic leader: the fear that flexibility will be seen as a sign of weakness.

Common sense and prudence made it clear that the smart way of responding to the new opening from Iran would have been with a cautious opening in return. Instead, Iran, Turkey and Brazil got the door slammed in their face. The calculation in Washington, no doubt, was that Iran, in its usual tempestuous style would swiftly reject the swap deal in the face of the continued threat of sanctions, and the diplomatic upstarts, Lula and Erdogan, would defer to the old world order.

Instead, it seems that Iran remains intent on seizing the initiative, will stick to the deal it signed and thereby demonstrate to the world that in the long-running nuclear dispute it is the United States that is now the intransigent party.

The Jerusalem Post reports:

Turkey’s prime minister is seeking international support for a deal under which Iran would ship much of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office said Saturday he had written to the leaders of 26 countries saying the deal would resolve the nuclear standoff with Iran by way of diplomacy and negotiation. The countries included all permanent and non-permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Iran will submit an official letter to the IAEA on Monday morning conveying its acceptance of the uranium enrichment deal brokered by Turkey and Iran, state-run news agency IRNA reported on Friday, citing a statement by the country’s National Security Council.

“Following the joint declaration by Iran, Turkey and Brazil, permanent representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the IAEA officially announced its readiness to submit our country’s letter to the IAEA Chief per paragraph six of the Teheran Declaration,” the statement reportedly read.

Also on Friday, IRNA quoted a top Iranian cleric as saying that the deal was a “powerful response” that “put the ball in the West’s court.” He reportedly stated that far from being a ploy meant to facilitate enrichment for military use, the deal should be seen as a confidence-building measure.

Meanwhile in Turkey, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed hope that the deal reached last week would “open the door to a negotiated settlement” between Iran and Western nations, according to a Reuters report.

Ban reportedly called the enrichment agreement “an important initiative in resolving international tensions over Iran’s nuclear program by peaceful means.” He went on to praise Turkey’s role and cooperation with Brazil in negotiating the deal, stressing that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would have to make its own assessment concerning the issue at hand.

At this point, it looks like Hillary Clinton has driven the United States into a diplomatic ditch.

The American mindset now as always fixes its attention on power and while the US remains the pre-eminent global power it assumes that it must have its way. But this fixation on power blinds Washington to a more important issue — one that provides the foundation for effective diplomacy, namely, trust.

The Turkish commentator, Mustafa Akyol, says:

This issue of trust, I believe, is the key to not just the Iranian nuclear crisis, but also other conflicts in the region, including the Arab-Israeli one. On all these issues, America has all the eye-catching instruments that give her full confidence: The world’s most powerful military, the largest diplomatic corps, and the most sophisticated brain power with plentitude of universities, institutes and think-tanks.

Yet, I am sorry to say, she terribly lacks the trust of the peoples of the Middle East. So, it would be only wise for her to rely more on the regional actors that do have that trust – such as the new Turkey of the 21st century.

Rami G Khouri adds:

The agreement on Iran’s nuclear fuel announced on Monday after mediation by the Turkish and Brazilian governments should be good news for those who seek to use the rule of law to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation. From both the American and Iranian perspectives the political dimension of the current dynamics is more important than the technical one. The accord should remind us that the style and tone in diplomatic processes is as important as substance.

Iran and its international negotiating partners have not reached agreement on Iran’s nuclear programs in the past half-decade, to a large extent because American- and Israeli-led concerns have been translated into an aggressive, accusatory, sanctions-and-threats-based style of diplomacy that Iran in turn has responded to with defiance.

Iran’s crime, in the eyes of its main critics in Washington and Tel Aviv (they are the two that matter most, as other Western powers play only supporting roles), is not primarily that it enriches uranium, but that it defies American-Israeli orders to stop doing so. (The Iranian response, rather reasonable in my view, is that it suspended uranium enrichment half a decade ago and did not receive the promises it expected from the United States and its allies on continuing with its plans for the peaceful use of nuclear technology. So why suspend enrichment again?)

The Iranians are saying, in effect, that this issue is about two things for them, one technical and one political: The technical issue is about the rule of law on nuclear nonproliferation and the right of all countries to use nuclear technology peacefully. The political issue is about treating Iran with respect, and negotiating with it on the basis of two critical phenomena: First, addressing issues of importance to Iran as well as those that matter for the American-Israeli-led states; and, second, actually negotiating with Iran rather than condescendingly and consistently threatening it, accusing it of all sorts of unproven aims, and assuming its guilt before it is given a fair hearing.

The age in which the non-Western world could be expected to show deference to the dictates of the dominant global powers is over. Western leaders must either humbly adapt to a world that has changed or suffer the humiliations that arrogance now invite.

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6 thoughts on “Obama and Clinton’s choice: humility or humiliation?

  1. delia ruhe

    I find it hard to believe that Obama and Clinton could be this stupid. It’s right up there with the Bush regime and Israel refusing to recognize the results of the Palestinian election in 2006 after demanding that an election take place. There must be something else going on that I’m not understanding. Where do Obama and Hillary think this refusal to acknowledge Lula and Erdogan’s success will get them? CNN is reporting that Iran intends to notify the UN of its swap intentions on Monday. If so, what’s Washington’s next move?

  2. Christopher Hoare

    Perhaps Washington’s problem is the perception that backing down on this issue will lead to a retreat on a host of other issues where the US stance is at odds with the wishes of humanity. Perish the thought that they should have to listen to the wisdom beyond their borders.
    During the Bush years people longed for adult supervision in Washington. Now we will see if Obama has the guts to supply it.

  3. delia ruhe

    I’m not convinced that it’s quite that simple, omop, but you have a major point. After reading Neve Gordon’s piece at CounterPunch.org today, in which he brings all the Israeli hasbara parts together, I begin to understand why Obama & Co. — and politicians in my own country (Canada) — fawn all over Israel and its lobbyists, and end up making decisions not in the national interest.

    Campaign contributions may play a bigger role in the US than in Canada, since we have fairly reasonable legislation limiting (albeit not eliminating) the corrupting influence of money, but both political cultures are no doubt terrified of the powerful Israeli smear machine. Politicians don’t want to be goldstoned. Here’s the URL to Gordon’s article:


    In Canada, what’s gets our politicians sycophantic behaviour going is the fact that the biggest Canadian media conglomerate is owned and operated by a right-wing Zionist family in a position to wreck the career of any politician they don’t like. And, of course, that kind of situation is not unique to Canada. As Peter Novick has written of American Jews: “We are not just ‘the people of the book,’ but the people of the Hollywood film and the television mini-series, of the magazine article and the newspaper column, of the comic book and the academic symposium.” What this means is that when there’s a disagreement among Jews, the entire non-Jewish world knows about it (to wit, Beinart’s NYRB article and Jewish responses to it). Is it any wonder that there are Zionists who want to stifle all Jewish-authored criticism of Israel? But this relationship between Jews and media ownership also means that any important person — Jew or non-Jew — who steps out of line can be crushed.

    To mention Jews and media ownership in the same breath is to be guilty of antisemitic conspiracy theorizing — and so far, only Phil at Mondoweiss has had the courage to address these kinds of issues on a regular basis. But it’s impossible to believe that he’s the only American who understands that the progressive Jewish community in the US is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to the media.

    As for Obama — like Harpo in Canada — it’s the media that mediate the relationship between the Israeli smear machine and the electorate. So these politicians would rather suffer momentarily humiliation than permanent destruction.

  4. DE Teodoru

    There was an incident in 2003 Iraq where US forces had shot into a peaceful demonstration and killed several people. Things got very tense and the soldiers were ready to mow down as many of the unarmed protestors as they ammo supply would permit. Then the colonel in charge of the force walked past his line and towards the raging crowd, laid down his weapon and went down in his knees before them, defusing the entire incident. You might find that Obama may have realized that Israel has pushed the US into a box, seen as the mad “Christian Crusader” whom Israel would sick at Muslims in order to dominate them. Obama may well have realized that his attempt to appease both sides– led by a SecState whose only successful role so far has proven to be playing the cockled wife who stands by her man– were an utter failure and if he is going to bring about peace he had better bring America down a couple of notches of hubris or the Chinese will own America lock-stock-and-barrel, as it is China that is funding our neocon “World War IV” against Islam at cost of ONE TRILLION DOLLARS PER YEAR. If China increases the interest rate on the American debt that it holds by 1% we’re right back economically where we were when Obama took office. So stay tuned folks, this Tuesday President Obama may express his realization that Rahm Emmanuel thugishness is only making enemies, both at home and abroad, and he, Obama, had better state a departure from the universal panacea of Bush/Cheney (both draft evaders during Vietnam) of “send in the Marines.” Indeed, he may well indicate, subtlely to be sure, that America is NOT Israel’s mad dog on a leash but a new humbler America that wants MULTILATERALISM rather than follow the neocon (also none served in combat) prescription as attack dog mode for Israel.

  5. Evert Cilliers

    The Iran-Turkey-Brazil deal is a new watershed in international relations. The US-European international diplomatic dominance is OVER. After Bush-Cheney, nobody trusts us. Not even Obama can regain international trust; and if he and Hillary are this peevish about a deal organized by folks that Iran can trust, then they are being as stupid as Bush-Cheney. It will simply lead to the US being cut out of more deals. BRIC and the SCO don’t need us. We are becoming the dispensable nation, not the indispensable one. We’re losing the power of our example, because our example — Wall Street, Goldman Sachs, our ineffective military — is not very exemplary.

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