Axis of Fantasy vs. Axis of Reality
France, Israel and Saudi Arabia confront an administration conducting a make-believe foreign policy.
By Bret Stephens, WSJ Opinion, November 11, 2013
When the history of the Obama administration's foreign policy is written 20 or so years from now, the career of Wendy Sherman, our chief nuclear negotiator with Iran, will be instructive.
In 1988, the former social worker ran the Washington office of the Dukakis campaign and worked at the Democratic National Committee. That was the year the Massachusetts governorcarried 111 electoral votes to George H.W. Bush's 426. In the mid-1990s, Ms. Sherman was briefly the CEO of something called the Fannie Mae Foundation, supposedly a charity that was shut down a decade later for what the Washington Post called "using tax-exempt contributions to advance corporate interests."
From there it was on to the State Department, where she served as a point person in nuclear negotiations with North Korea and met with Kim Jong Il himself. The late dictator, she testified, was "witty and humorous," "a conceptual thinker," "a quick problem-solver," "smart, engaged, knowledgeable, self-confident." Also a movie buff who loved Michael Jordan highlight videos. A regular guy!
Later Ms. Sherman was to be found working for her former boss as the No. 2 at the Albright-Stonebridge Group before taking the No. 3 spot at the State Department. Ethics scolds might describe the arc of her career as a revolving door between misspending taxpayer dollars in government and mooching off them in the private sector. But it's mainly an example of failing up—the Washingtonian phenomenon of promotion to ever-higher positions of authority and prestige irrespective of past performance.
This administration in particular is stuffed with fail-uppers—the president, the vice president, the secretary of state and the national security adviser, to name a few—and every now and then it shows. Like, for instance, when people for whom the test of real-world results has never meant very much meet people for whom that test means everything.
That's my read on last weekend's scuttled effort in Geneva to strike a nuclear bargain with Iran. The talks unexpectedly fell apart at the last minute when French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius publicly objected to what he called a "sucker's deal," meaning the U.S. was prepared to begin lifting sanctions on Iran in exchange for tentative Iranian promises that they would slow their multiple nuclear programs.
Not stop or suspend them, mind you, much less dismantle them, but merely reduce their pace from run to jog when they're on Mile 23 of their nuclear marathon. It says something about the administration that they so wanted a deal that they would have been prepared to take this one. This is how people for whom consequences are abstractions operate. It's what happens when the line between politics as a game of perception and policy as the pursuit of national objectives dissolves.
The French are not such people, believe it or not, at least when it comes to foreign policy. Speculation about why Mr. Fabius torpedoed the deal has focused on the pique French President François Hollande felt at getting stiffed by the U.S. on his Mali intervention and later in the aborted attack on Syria. (Foreign ministry officials in Paris are still infuriated by a Susan Rice tirade in December, when she called a French proposal to intervene in Mali "crap.")
But the French also understand that the sole reason Iran has a nuclear program is to build a nuclear weapon. They are not nonchalant about it. The secular republic has always been realistic about the threat posed by theocratic Iran. And they have come to care about nonproliferation too, in part because they belong to what is still a small club of nuclear states. Membership has its privileges.
This now puts the French at the head of a de facto Axis of Reality, the other prominent members of which are Saudi Arabia and Israel. In this Axis, strategy is not a game of World of Warcraft conducted via avatars in a virtual reality. "We are not blind, and I don't think we're stupid," a defensive John Kerry said over the weekend on "Meet the Press," sounding uncomfortably like Otto West (Kevin Kline) from "A Fish Called Wanda." When you've reached the "don't call me stupid" stage of diplomacy, it means the rest of the world has your number.
Now the question is whether the French were staking out a position at Geneva or simply demanding to be heard. If it's the latter, the episode will be forgotten and Jerusalem and Riyadh will have to reach their own conclusions about how to operate in a post-American Middle East. If it's the former, Paris has a chance to fulfill two cherished roles at once: as the de facto shaper of European policy on the global stage, and as an obstacle to Washington's presumptions to speak for the West.
A decade ago, Robert Kagan argued that the U.S. operated in a Hobbesian world of power politics while Europe inhabited the Kantian (and somewhat make-believe) world of right. That was after 9/11, when fecklessness was not an option for the U.S.
Under Mr. Obama, there's been a role reversal. The tragedy for France and its fellow members of its Axis is that they may lack the power to master a reality they perceive so much more clearly than the Wendy Shermans of the world, still failing up.