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The WINEP Letter and the Bipartisan Fallacy

A recent open letter by the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy about the Iran nuclear negotiations was signed by many figures who claim they support a nuclear deal with Iran, but whose past recommendations would have led to war with Iran.

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For the past week, a letter from a varied group of policy experts has been making the rounds, mostly as a case against doing a deal with Iran. More particularly, many of these experts have been opposed to doing this deal currently being hashed out in Vienna. The exact contours of the deal are unknown, but the broad strokes have been apparent since an April “framework” laid out the parameters for many of the larger issues. The letter, which was organized and released by the pro-Israel think tank Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), got a big write-up in The New York Times:

Five former members of President Obama’s inner circle of Iran advisers have written an open letter expressing concern that a pending accord to stem Iran’s nuclear program “may fall short of meeting the administration’s own standard of a ‘good’ agreement”…

For the White House, the letter may raise the level of political risk in seeking approval of any final agreement. A judgment from Mr. Obama’s own former advisers that the final accord falls short would provide ammunition for Republican critics who have already said they will try to kill it when it is submitted to Congress for review.

The Times coverage and the letter, in turn, attracted some gleeful pick up among neoconservative hawks, not least CommentaryThe Weekly Standard, and The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page, which remarked: “Doubts about President Obama’s Iran diplomacy are deepening, and some of the gravest misgivings are coming from his former top officials.”

Enter Robert Einhorn, formerly a non-proliferation adviser in Obama’s State Department and a signatory to the WINEP letter. When the coverage started pouring in with the obvious framing, he complained that the letter’s intent was being distorted. Einhorn, along with another signatory who curiously spoke only anonymously, told Foreign Policy‘s John Hudson that the missive wasn’t intended to state a loss of faith in the Obama administration’s ability to negotiate a deal: “That’s not at all what the statement was about.” Then, in a post on the website of the Brookings Institution where he is a Senior Fellow, Einhorn lamented the interpretation of the letter as “an indication that those former officials had broken ranks with the administration and lost confidence in its ability and determination to achieve a sound agreement.” He went on: “As a signer of the group’s statement and a former member of the Obama administration’s Iran negotiating team, I believe such an interpretation of the statement is unfounded and distorts the statement’s significance.”

I admire Einhorn’s work. His level-headed analyses of Iran negotiations have been valuable resources for anyone dealing with the issue. But I can’t help but note that his apparent discomfort with the interpretation of the WINEP letter stems from his own naiveté. Surely he knows the players involved in the letter and he should have anticipated how hawkish commentators would interpret it. The records of many of the letter’s signatories all but ensured that critics would seize upon it as an admonishment of Barack Obama’s Iran diplomacy.

Opponents of Diplomacy

Einhorn wrote at Brookings that the WINEP group “included [those] who have serious reservations about some of the decisions taken by the administration in the negotiations and who fear that U.S. negotiators may make unwarranted concessions in their eagerness to finalize a deal.” He added, “Participants in the Washington Institute’s study group want the negotiations to succeed.” The first assertion is a gross understatement; the second is patently untrue.

One need only point to Joseph Lieberman, the former senator from Connecticut, on this second score. I recently wrote about how hard it was to take seriously any advice on Iran policy from a group that included Lieberman. Lieberman has nominally supported negotiations with Iran but in tandem with policies that would make the talks virtually meaningless. In fact, if Lieberman had had his way, talks would’ve been over long ago, and we probably would have already attacked Iran. As far back as 2008, Lieberman was joking—yes, joking, as if this were a laughing matter—about the “appeal” of bombing Iran. In a 2010 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations that re-purposed many of the talking points Lieberman had used to push for the invasion of Iraq, he spoke of a six-month deadline—six months! in 2010!—for Iran to roll back its nuclear program before the U.S. had to seriously consider a military strike.

Lieberman’s been at it since then, too. In 2012, he said that a military strike could cause Iran’s nuclear program to “be delayed for enough years that we may hope and pray that there will be a regime change.” And that is the central point of Lieberman’s advocacy: he wants a U.S. policy of regime change. Just this month, he participated by video in a confab of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), the ex-terrorist Iranian opposition group that relentlessly pushes for regime change.

“Inevitably,” Lieberman addressed the MEK members directly, “as individuals you may ask yourself: Is it possible that we can bring about a change of regime in Iran? And I want to say to you that it is. I’m confident that it is and it will happen.” The US, he said, “should be working closely with your resistance group.” The event was even the subject of a “sponsored report“—whatever that means—from The Washington Times that helpfully categorized Lieberman’s statements as “American support for regime change and the Iranian opposition.” Any group that includes Joe Lieberman, in other words, should be seen for what it is: decidedly unserious about negotiations with the Iranian regime.

Other members of the WINEP group should raise eyebrows—many of them scholars at WINEP itself. Take for example Dennis Rossand David Makovsky, who have respectively worked for and advised the Obama administration on Middle East policy. In 2012, they too wanted to put an ultimatum to Iran: to deal or face a military attack. Again, if President Obama had taken their advice, we would have already gone to war. Another WINEP signatory to the letter was Patrick Clawson, also a hawkish scholar who has long favored a policy of regime change.

Then there’s the head of WINEP, its executive director Robert Satloff, who in 2013 leveled a criticism at the then-recent Geneva interim deal with Iran that patently distorted its terms (upon learning of the errors, The New Republic, which published the piece, went on to update it without acknowledging the corrections). Satloff’s attack hinged on media coverage of the deal that characterized it as a “freeze” of Iran’s nuclear progress; he and I went back and forth about the characterization on Twitter. I was quite surprised, then, to see that he signed on to the new WINEP letter, which urged the administration to “extend the existing Joint Plan of Action”—the official name of the Geneva interim accord—”while negotiations continue. This will freeze Iran’s nuclear activity and international sanctions at current levels” [emphasis added].

One might be forgiven for doubting that such characters are serious about diplomacy with Iran. They have pushed for awful policies and sometimes by means of disingenuous criticisms, and their letter is organized under the aegis of a think-tank like WINEP, which was founded as a spin-off of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Even if they nominally support the notion of getting a deal rather than going to war, their past utterances, if adopted, would’ve dragged us into war long ago. That doesn’t mean all the experts on the letter come from this school, but surely enough of them do that participating in it should have raised alarms for those who support a genuine compromise and nuclear deal.

Bipartisan Support for a Deal?

Einhorn, in his blog post, lauded the bipartisan nature of the WINEP group. “The significance of the statement is that this diverse, bipartisan group was able to come together on a number of reasonable and achievable recommendations for concluding an agreement that would serve U.S. interests,” he wrote. That’s all fine and well, but one can hardly be surprised that signing on to a letter with a bunch of harsh critics of the Obama administration’s Iran policy that includes several neoconservative hawks would not be seen as, well, a hawkish criticism of the Obama administration’s Iran policy.

The WINEP letter even includes a fine-print disclaimer: “This statement reflects the broad consensus of the group; not every member of the group endorses every judgment or recommendation.” That should give the signatories significant wiggle room; I expect the perpetual critics of Obama’s Iran policy, like Satloff and Lieberman, will object to whatever deal comes down even if it meets the WINEP letter’s conditions, whereas its supporters, like Einhorn, will find themselves supporting a deal even if the circumstances described in the letter are not all perfectly adhered to. Maybe I’m wrong, but one can’t deny the malleability of the positions held over time by the Obama administration critics on the letter.

I don’t doubt Einhorn’s noble goals and his own takeaway from the letter, but bipartisanship in this case seems overrated. I stand by my earlier assessment that partisanship could be helpful to the Obama administration in getting a deal. That’s because the main threat to a nuclear accord, from the American side, isn’t from the pundit class (whom, again, Obama has thankfully ignored). Rather, it comes from Congress. And the hawks in Congress—which is to say, mostly Republicans, and nearly all of them—aren’t going to come around, no matter what the WINEP letter says and who signs it.

On the Hill itself, the bipartisanship is likely not to come from supporters of a deal, but rather its detractors. Pro-Israel hawks among the Democrats will either break with the administration or with its implacable Republican critics. Take, for example, the embattled Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ: he’s introduced legislation, which could’ve derailed talks if passed, alongside Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who opposes any talks and has compared negotiations repeatedly to Nazi appeasement. Menendez’s posturing is indicative of the prevailing bipartisanship in Washington, which hews closely to the line set forth by the hawkish AIPAC. And AIPAC’s demands for the deal, as Einhorn himself seemed to suggest to Foreign Policy, are designed in such a way so as to render any reasonable deal unacceptable.

That was the one small stroke of genius in the compromise struck that allowed the Obama administration to reluctantly endorse a bill giving Congress a review of the Iran deal. Importantly, the “poison pills” were stripped out of the bill, but more importantly it ultimately set the threshold for Congress to reject a deal at a veto-proof majority. That means if the administration can keep one-third-plus-one of either chamber in line, the deal will stand. Republicans won’t have to come around—and they almost definitely won’t—and there’s even enough wiggle room that they can peel off a few of the Democrats who stick to the AIPAC line. Pundit bipartisanship is lovely, but let’s be realistic about its limits in the actual corridors of power.

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