A lot of people watching or reading the news had the impression that it was only in response to the latest Syrian government attack, that the President of the United States was suddenly threatening to drop bombs on Syria, then was suddenly asking Congress for permission to do that, then was saved from a possible defeat in Congress by the President of Russia who came up with a last-minute plan to avoid bloodshed. In fact, however, we are gradually learning that the deal between the U.S. and Russia to disarm the Syrian government of chemical weapons had been discussed behind the scenes for a long time. It needed a precipitating event to make it happen. It might have needed a threat of force by the United States to make it happen. But it was in the works for a long time. So Putin doesn't get all the credit for this diplomatic breakthrough. President Obama should also be getting a lot more credit than he has been.
Similarly, we received the exciting news this week that the recently-elected President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has, in advance of his planned speech to the UN General Assembly next week, taken to the American op-ed pages (like President Putin) to announce a new policy of constructive engagement with the US. Here are some excerpts from Rouhani's piece in the Washington Post:
"The world has changed. International politics is no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities. . . .
"In a world where global politics is no longer a zero-sum game, it is — or should be — counterintuitive to pursue one’s interests without considering the interests of others. A constructive approach to diplomacy doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rights. It means engaging with one’s counterparts, on the basis of equal footing and mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives. In other words, win-win outcomes are not just favorable but also achievable."
All very encouraging stuff, but to put this matter in context let's remember that it was President Obama who, while tightening sanctions on Iran and making bellicose statements about what we might do if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, has long been interested in opening a dialogue with Iran. When candidate Obama talked about the possibility of an opening to Iran during the 2008 campaign, that was one of the major points that differentiated his candidacy from Clinton's and then McCain's, and the idea turned out to play well for him. We are also now learning that there have been letters exchanged between the two presidents for some time leading up to Rouhani's announcement. In other words, the possibility of a sudden breakthrough in relations with Iran has been years in the making, and the product of steady work behind the scenes by President Obama and his foreign policy team. What has changed is the election of a new president in Iran who may represent a reasonable negotiating partner. And that, using Rouhani's words, is what can turn threats into opportunities.
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