Negotiating From an Illogical Position

In the previous two columns (“A Second Opinion” and “Conflicted Interests”), an underlying theme was the Obama administration’s strategy regarding negotiations with Iran over its pursuit of weapon-ready uranium. The subtext that the position of the White House allies (that the Menendez-Kirk-Schumer sanctions should be killed) is indeed the wrong strategy is an opinion shared by the overwhelming majority of Americans.

A recent poll by the (Democrat-linked) Mellman Group found that when respondents were asked if they favored the legislation, they answered overwhelmingly in the affirmative, by a margin of 78–15.

And while that gap shrunk a bit when they were told the administration’s stated rationale for opposing the threat of increased sanctions, they still came down on the side of Menendez-Kirk-Schumer, 63–28.

As stated in the poll — and by Secretary of State John Kerry — the argument is that “…part of the agreement states that no new sanctions are to be imposed while the permanent agreement is being negotiated. Therefore, new sanctions now will cause this deal to fall apart and Iran will continue developing nuclear weapons. Moreover, the United States risks losing support from our allies who made these sanctions successful. We can always restore and strengthen sanctions against Iran if things change, but we should give this agreement a chance to work first.”

These are not the result of an unpopular president dragging down his policies. This poll has the president outperforming his personal favorability average by four points and reads more accurately as a specific indictment of the president’s approach to the Iranian negotiations. The most telling results of the poll (which also help better explain why it is that the increased sanctions have so much appeal to Americans) are the questions that relate to the negotiations themselves.

The poll is interesting in that it finds repudiation of Obama’s opposition to the threat of increased sanctions despite backing the original deal 55–37. So it would be a fool’s errand to argue that it is just another way of Americans expressing opposition to the entire deal.

What is clear is that for many of the people who agree with the president that it is worth taking the chance and negotiating with the Iranians, it is still acceptable to think that a sanction package still be ready.

Why is it that people think that way?

Two more of the questions in the poll serve to help answer that question. The question was asked “How likely do you think it is that Iran will live up to and abide by this interim agreement?” The answer was 66–31 unlikely, with 45 percent saying they thought it was very unlikely. And when asked to choose a statement that is closer to their point of view, between “Iran is negotiating in good faith and will eventually give up its ability to make nuclear weapons” and “Iran is using these negotiations to stall as it continues to develop its ability to make nuclear weapons,” over 70 percent chose the latter.

While Americans are ready to negotiate with Iran on the however-unlikely chance it actually produces a deal (a total of 11 percent of those polled thought it was both at least “unlikely” Iran would live up to the deal but still backed the deal), they still understand that it’s foolish to hold back from legislating threats — which serves the purpose of making them real — just because that would anger the Iranians and they would then pull out.

This is especially true in light of the fact that, as Senator Menendez said, “Current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith at the negotiating table.”

But one thing the president’s defenders are right about. It is very easy to critique his performance from a purely analytical perspective. But as British philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead said in 1943, “Ninety percent of our lives is governed by emotion. Our brains merely register and act upon what is telegraphed to them by our bodily experience. Intellect is to emotion as our clothes are to our bodies; we could not very well have civilized life without clothes, but we would be in a poor way if we had only clothes without bodies.” It is true that in just about everything we do as human beings our actions are some sort of mix of emotion and intellect — with the proper mix being intellectually guided emotion.

There are times when things we do are based primarily on emotions and times when they are based mostly on intellect. And there are times when we perceive what people are doing as being the entirely wrong course of action — but when we are faced with a similar situation end up doing the same thing — because it is only then that our emotions play a role. This may very well be one of those times.

People can see that the president’s strategy is faulty — but for some reason he cannot. The simple reason for this is that in this case, as is the case in many other negotiations, sometimes the drive for any kind of success leads to a situation where emotions take over totally. And the fear of having all your efforts exposed as having been for naught and it somehow reflecting upon the very essence of who you are as a person is a powerful emotion.

So it is understandable why people might engage in self-defeating behavior at that point. But, just as Whitehead said, “we could not very well have civilized life without clothes,” and we cannot operate in a reality where we throw intellect to the wind and operate purely based on our emotions.

So while we can recognize why it is that the president and others in similar situations do things that are counterintuitive to their stated goals, it is also reasonable to ask that they recognize why those efforts are counterproductive.

Emboldening terrorists and sponsors of any kind of terror by forcing others to withhold the threat of consequences for destructive actions should they be committed is, by any stretch, an illogical course of action to pursue. And while their hearts may be in the right place, you also always need to use your head.