Brett McGurk on Iran

I like Brett McGurk. He is a dedicated diplomat who resigned January 31, 2018 over differences with the Trump administration. He worked as a special envoy to the Middle East under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Let there be no doubt that the man is clearly a patriot.

However, his thinking, in my view, is a demonstration of thinking that has been ineffective in the Middle east for many, many years.

In traditional diplomacy, I’d agree with Mr. McGurk where when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If all you can do is exert pressure, eventually something bad happens when one side or the other decides they’re not going to take it any longer.

President Trump doesn’t act this way. He tends to try different things and definitely isn’t one to keep pounding on something that’s not working. The tit-for-tat cycle is how Iran has played the game for as long as I can recall so I don’t think Trump has made things worse in that regard. I also don’t think it’s made things better and the president will need to do something different.

As far as the objective, this has been clear: “We need to talk and come up with a better and more verifiable arrangement on nuclear power.”

This is consequence of a total lack of process or rigorous inquiry before setting policy and contemplating contingency and risk. It weakens our country and places an impossible burden on our people holding military and diplomatic lines overseas.

With due respect, Mr. McGurk, but we’ve been doing this for a very, very long time with no results. Over the last two administrations there have no doubt been dozens or maybe hundreds of rigorous inquiries which have either been wrong or simply ineffective. If this path led to an answer, we’d already have that answer. But we don’t.

As far as putting a burden on employees of the U.S. government, I couldn’t care less. Change is hard.

We have been in urgent need of a broad international coalition to protect navigation and deter Iran’s reckless acts in the Gulf. But that takes American credibility, trust, leadership, and allies—all of which the WH serves to undermine month-after-month.

My observation on international coalitions is that the U.S. does all the heavy lifting in exchange for a minimal perception that the rest of the world is “with us.” The president is clear — if U.S. interests are at risk around the world, we will act. If U.S. interests are not at stake, it is the responsibility of those in the region to act. In my view, it is not our responsibility to seek out allies — it is the responsibility of nations with a stake in the outcome to seek us out!

Trump may increasingly confront two choices: act military and risk a wider confrontation, or back down and lower declared aims. That’s a terrible spot for any president particularly when it results from a policy that Trump himself seems not to fully support or even understand.

This is when President Trump is at his best. There are not two choices — there are probably dozens of choices. Unfortunately, process oriented people see things mostly as “either . . . or.” What makes President Trump so effective is that he can throw out the old assumptions and ask “but what if we try something completely different, what options would I have then?”

In sales, one of the biggest mistakes a salesman can make is not identifying the person who signs the check and has the final say in whether a deal goes through. My observation is the way the United States has conducted diplomatic efforts over the last few decades is that we assume that any diplomatic effort, if sustained long enough, will eventually bring about an acceptable result.

Iran is different. If the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, doesn’t want something, it’s not going to happen and we can negotiate until the cows come home.We see this all the time in business where underlings meet for perhaps a very long time and then the CEO simply nixes the deal. I’ve been a part of a couple of these.

President Trump’s default negotiating style is to jump immediately to the CEO level, understand their careabouts directly, and then try to make a deal. The risk is that if the two parties don’t have mutual respect, some amount of liking for one another, and a desire to give something to get something, nothing moves forward and can actually get much worse.

In a very “business-like” move, President Trump is sending Rand Paul to see what he can do in starting up talks. When two CEOs don’t trust one another or maybe don’t even like one another, the best thing to do is send a “vice president” to have a chat as a proxy. Rand Paul is the perfect “vice president” since he’s had a long history of opposing military intervention in Iran by the U.S.

If President Trump can architect a breakthrough, my hope is that there are people like Brett McGurk at State who can follow through with the details of the plan and leave behind any notion of animus and jump on board for the good of the country and the world.



Mark Rosneck

Written by Mark Rosneck

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