Negotiation 101: How Obama Engineered the Surrender to Iran

Obama and Biden leave the Rose Garden

It might seem odd that 15 years after 9/11, the U.S. seems determined to surrender to terrorists and the radical regimes that support them. Yet that is what the Iran deal represents–the latest in a string of lopsided deals, from the Bergdahl swap with the Taliban to the one-sided détènte with the Castro regime.

President Barack Obama came to office promising “tough diplomacy,” but in practice his approach has been to squander hard-won U.S. military, diplomatic, and economic leverage to achieve deals no previous administration would have considered.

The simplest explanation for these outcomes is that Obama has a radically different vision of America’s role in the world. In his worldview, the U.S. has no legitimate claim to global leadership, and its efforts to exert power cause more harm than good.

Therefore, even at the cost of sacrificing its own national security interests, weakening its allies, and abandoning the principles of freedom for which it once stood, the U.S. must play a humbler role. The best way for America to lead the world is by example–by creating a more equal, “progressive” society at home.

Still, Obama could not impose that view when he came to office. The U.S. was deeply involved in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and had led global efforts to isolate Iran. When Obama had initially proposed his radical approach on the campaign trail in 2007–negotiations with enemies, without preconditions–his rivals pounced, the public recoiled, and his campaign lied to cover up his policy.

So Obama had to tread carefully. But over six years, he has imposed his new policy, defying efforts to challenge him, and leaving opponents with few alternatives.

How did he do it?

In negotiation theory, there is a concept called the BATNA–the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. The parties will reach an agreement if that deal offers better terms than their individual BATNAs.

One way to gain leverage in negotiations is therefore to make your own BATNA better while making your opponents’ BATNAs worse. If your adversary believes you might have a better alternative to a deal, it will sweeten the terms it is offering. And if your alternative becomes worse, you may have to accept whatever is on the table.

Obama has set about making America’s BATNA worse. One way he has done so has been to undermine the U.S. military by cutting its funds even as he spends lavishly on new entitlements. He has also stoked the public’s fear of war–which is really an aversion to losing wars, not to fighting them–by turning a victory in Iraq into a defeat.

When he has used war, as in Libya, he has “led from behind”–and failed. The exceptional success of the Osama bin Laden raid provided a way for Obama to cover up a policy of weakness with pretenses at toughness.

In the Iran talks, the reason the regime came to the table in the first place was that sanctions had made its BATNA worse than agreement with the “Great Satan” and other powers. Obama–contrary to the administration’s revisionist accounts–resisted those sanctions bitterly. But he was limited in his ability to stop what George W. Bush had set in motion, what our European allies supported, and what Congress demanded. So he turned his attention instead to undermining America’s own BATNA–tighter sanctions and the so-called “military option.”

Throughout the talks, Obama justified one concession after another–each seemingly unthinkable until it had happened–by saying that the alternative to his approach was war. He exploited–and reinforced–the public’s reluctance to use the military as a last resort.

Meanwhile, he also disrupted efforts to create a diplomatic and economic alternative to a “bad deal” by rejecting congressional efforts to impose additional sanctions against Iran in the event that talks failed. There was nothing left of America’s BATNA by the time John Kerry arrived in Vienna.

That is why the deal is so extraordinarily bad–and why it is also likely to pass Congress, probably through a failure to override Obama’s veto. It will look ugly for the president to sign the Iran deal unilaterally, with little more than the rump of the Democratic party supporting his approach.

But Obama has ensured that the deal’s opponents have few other options. He has ensured that international sanctions will fall, at least partially. And he has undermined the “military option”–American and Israeli. He has, quite cleverly, imposed a surrender from within.


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