MOMENT LIVE: The Diplomatic View From Washington

November, 15 2016
Nadine Epstein interviews Aaron David Miller at General Assembly

Moment editor Nadine Epstein and former U.S.-Middle East policy analyst Aaron David Miller.


The Diplomatic View from Washington

At yesterday’s General Assembly, Moment Magazine editor Nadine Epstein and former U.S.-Middle East policy analyst Aaron David Miller discussed how Trump the candidate will translate into Trump the foreign policy president. Read excerpts on the Iran Deal, the crisis in Syria and Putin below:

What do you think will happen with the Iran deal in the new administration?

There are three likely options Trump can explore. First is canceling it. Second is renegotiation. Mr. Trump has said (during the campaign) that this is the worst agreement ever in the history of negotiations, and that he would intend to somehow renegotiate it. I think aggregation is probably not an option on day one. I think renegotiation, that would be reconvening the P5, plus one. To somehow renegotiate an agreement that is already embodied in the UN Security Council resolution, that’s unlikely. I think the third option is the most likely and, let me be clear for a moment, I have been a critic of the agreement. It’s imperfect. It’s an arms control agreement that was negotiated in order to serve several objectives. It is not a transformative accord; it was never designed to comprehensively end the problem of Iran’s punitive search for a nuclear weapon. I’m a Rolling Stones fan, and I’ve written repeatedly that Iranians got what they wanted out of the agreement, and this administration got what it needed. That may or may not be the case; but I think, by in large, option three may prevail, which is, I guess, an option driven by the following logic: that if you don’t work assiduously to maintain the agreement—remember, you are going to see the passing, certainly on the American side, of the core negotiators who invested quite a lot in it—if you do not, on one side and the other, the future of Mr. Zarif and President Rouhani, given presidential elections this coming spring, is highly unclear. I think, if you don’t have people who are actively working to maintain an agreement that is politically explosive in the United States (and opposed by powerful elements in Iran), even though the Supreme Leader (for many reasons) has acquiesced it, it’s conceivable that you will see—I don’t want to be overdramatic here—you could use the word death spiral. That’s kind of too dramatic of a characterization. But, you can see an unwinding of this accord over time.

What would we see first?

I feel the administration could choose; a lot of this has to do with positioning. Who do you want to assume the major responsibility for the accord? Do you want to do it? Or make your interlocutors do it. I think that will be a key consideration in the new administration going forward if, in fact, the decision is made to allow it to weed around the vine. Congress is a potential mechanism. You have an enormous number of Republicans who do not like this accord; there are Democrats who don’t like it either. There will be very few constraints on congressional actions. The Iran sanctions act is due to expire at the end of the year. Will it be renewed cleanly as the House wants, and many Democrats, or will it be loaded with additional provisions that could start, at least in Iran, a process of pushback. Finally, let’s be clear: Every new president is going to be tested in many different ways by America’s friends, and its adversaries. I would predict, hardly a genius sort of prediction, that early on in the next administration, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard alone would probably want to test this administration.

Is there a silver lining to the unpredictability now in foreign policy?

I think the way it’s been explained, in my judgment, the answer is decidedly no. This does, in fact, get you on to the issue of temperament. What are the qualities that are critically important to become an effective foreign policy president? Let me just tell you a story. In 1982 I was a lowly INR analyst at the State Department, working on Lebanon. That’s the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, one of the 16 units that comprise our intelligence community. INR has very few analysts, unlike the CIA. I was the Lebanon and Palestinian analyst for the entire State Department at a very important time in American policy toward Lebanon. I was writing very controversial assessments for Secretary of State Schultz, which were not very popular. I was sitting at my desk one morning, and the phone rang, and I pick it up and I hear on the on the other end of the line, “Hold please, it’s the White House calling.” No music; I’m holding one minute, two minutes, three minutes. All of a sudden, this is what I hear on the phone: “Aaron?” I said, “Yeah?” “This is Vice President Bush calling. I read one of your memos on Lebanon, and I was wondering, if you have five minutes or so, if you could talk about it.” He was wondering whether I had five minutes to talk with him. I thought to myself, I know that Kennedy called the Vietnam analyst directly when he didn’t feel as if he was getting what he needed from the president’s daily briefing, or the briefings themselves. I thought to myself—not at the time, but years later and now—that one of the core elements of being an effective foreign policy president is curiosity. It’s the capacity to know what you don’t know, and being in a hurry to find out. This is not a Republican talking point, this is not a Democratic talking point. It is an American talking point. The fact is, this is truly critically important; and I hope that the next administration, through all of its appointments, and the president himself, understands this critically important issue. Because when you live in a museum—that’s what the White House is, it’s a museum—you’re sitting at a desk used by one of the founders, you are surrounded by pictures, it can be incredibly inspiring and uplifting. But at the same time, you live in a hermetically sealed bubble, and it really does make it imperative that the people around you tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. That you yourself understand the nature of that hermetic seal, and try, to the best of your abilities, to figure out a way to hear as many voices as you possibly can.

Let’s switch to Putin for a second. What could the new Trump administration do to contain—and to deal with—Putin in Syria?

Mr. Putin functions according to the two elements that I referred to earlier. He is a prisoner of Russian history; he is a prisoner of Russian aggression geography. As a consequence, he’s chosen to project his power in areas where he believes Russian interests matter, and where the projection of that power might conceivably play well at home. That’s Crimea, despite the fact that it costs him a fortune every day. It’s Eastern Ukraine. It’s Syria, where he has a 40 to 50 year relationship with the Assads. And he’s determined, for a many number of reasons, to frustrate American objectives, and not allow Mr. Assad, as Mr. Gaddafi, and Saddam Hussein have fallen under the pressure of American military power. That is his objective, not to take over the Middle East (he’s too smart for that, he’s not gonna violate the notion that great powers should intervene in the affairs of small tribes only if they’re at risk). He’s invested; and frankly, up until now, he’s gotten considerable returns from that investment. Unless an administration, any administration—this current administration, a punitive Clinton administration, a Trump administration—was prepared to make the kind of investment in Syria that would be sustained by the U.S. Congress, and by a risk-averse public, tired and exhausted by the two longest wars in American history. The standard for victory was never clearly won, and when could we leave. Unless an administration is prepared to make that kind of investment in Syria, and the necessary leverage that’s required to compete with Mr. Putin on the ground (with Hezbollah, with Mr. Assad, and of course with Iran). I don’t see how you push, confront or impel Mr. Putin to basically change his policy. If that is in fact the case, and that was in large measure the case during eight years, since at least 2011, with this administration, and the next administration is risk averse, not risk ready, the default position has to be some kind of deal, some kind of combination. Whether that’s possible or not is not as lasting as this administration, I haven’t a clue. But the mindset going into this strikes me as not confrontational. It’s not a no fly zone in which we are prepared to challenge, if not destroy, Russian aircraft. It is not, despite talk of a safe zone, an enterprise in which we are prepared to deploy thousands of American ground forces in order to keep a safe zone safe (which is a large part of the problem with safe zones, if you don’t). It strikes me that negotiation is likely to be the default. Negotiation and cooperation will likely be the default positions, not confrontational.

What about democracy building in the Middle East right now?

Again, I suppose foreign policy realists—although I don’t subscribe to the notion that, if you’re a realist, putting order before freedom, and putting interests before values, that’s what a realist is. I think, I’m not quite prepared, the order before freedom part is problematic to me, because it would mean acquiescence and support for authoritarian regimes around the world. But the truth is, over time, the gap between our propensity for wanting to change the world (according to the values by which we live), and our capacity to deliver, that gap, in my judgement, helped erode American credibility, which has fallen into it. And, I point out, great powers behave anomalously, inconsistently and hypocritically. It isn’t, in the very nature of the job description, for a great power to behave that way. We invade Iraq, but not Syria. We want an Arab spring in Egypt, but not in Saudi Arabia. It goes on and on and on. I would never give up the idea that we should always promote American values. At the same time, we must be extremely careful when we go to a level of rhetoric that implies action. I think the war amongst values and policies (foreign policy) is going to be extremely difficult to harmonize. I suspect the Trump administration may very well follow the default position that the Obama administration came to in the last several years. Its extremely difficult, if you say Assad must go, if you basically want to continue to talk about comprehensive settlements in Israel. If you say anything, and you can’t (or won’t) make good on what it is you are saying, then you are not respected, you are not admired and you are not feared. And a great power, in this part of the world, has to at least be some of all of those things in order to be credible. Just to conclude, mean what you say, and say what you mean.

How will Trump the candidate translate into Trump the foreign policy president?

It may be time to take the science out of political science. I guess I don’t mean that literally; some would argue we need more science. But after the Arab spring, after Brexit, after the violation of every conceivable political law in gravity with the primary and the general election, which has confused and befuddled the vast majority of people who spend their lives studying this question, I think it’s virtually impossible to say. It seems to me that the ultimate test is coming. Can the laws of government be suspended as well? That is a frightening position. How imperfect the institutions of this republic really are, I can’t answer. I hear both of my kids telling me this is a lot worse than it’s ever been, and it’s going to get worse than even you think it is. As a human being, as an American, as a member of the Jewish community of this country, I’m torn by the fears and the pain that have driven so many people to a level of distraction and upset that I have not seen. I’ve seen it in my lifetime briefly, after JFK’s assassination, that kind of grief and outpouring. I’ve seen it in the wake of 9/11, but I’ve never seen anything like it here. I’m caught in the throes of a country that I love, whose values, no matter how imperfect, are worth preserving. Frankly, I don’t know. I wish I could tell myself, my children and the rest of you that it’s going to be OK. I hope that is the case. But the ultimate test, it seems to me, is coming, and I think it will require time to… see where we come up. That’s the best I can do at the Washington Hilton this morning.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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