The fallacy behind the Iran deal’s ‘creative ambiguity’

President Obama’s defense of the “Iran Deal” at his July 15 press conference, as well as Secretary of State John Kerry’s private remarks capping off the negotiations match those of the Iranians and of other interested parties in vehemence and emotion. But the substance of American officials’ understanding of the deal is diametrically opposite to that of the Iranians, of Iran’s clients, and of interested parties in the region who had sought to influence the negotiations.

This disparity illustrates perhaps more clearly than ever what has become arguably the defining feature of US diplomacy over the last half century, a feature that reverses the very purpose of diplomacy, which is to remove ambiguities about each side’s objectives and then to reach genuine agreement on some compromise.

Instead, beginning in the 1960s, US officials who have been unable or unwilling to resolve international disputes in ways that the American public would accept, but nonetheless are eager to claim success for themselves and their points of view, have conducted diplomatic negotiations using ambiguous language that disguises the extent to which the parties’ goals are irreconcilable, or remain far apart. Then, they have concluded these negotiations by signing documents that they pretend have achieved America’s own interests while knowing full well that the other side fully intends to continue pursuing objectives diametrically opposed to America’s notwithstanding the document just signed.

Obama, Kerry

Obama, Kerry

Henry Kissinger gave theoretical cover to this diplomatic malpractice, calling it “constructive ambiguity” or “creative ambiguity.” It was the very basis of his too-clever-by-half conduct of the  negotiations regarding the Vietnam war that ran from the first “bombing pauses” of 1965 to the “Paris Accords” of 1973.

While the US ruling class touted these as “peace with honor” and Kissinger cashed his share of the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, North Vietnam treated the “accords” as America’s surrender. Le Duc Tho rejected his share of the prize. His government demanded ransom for the American prisoners that it kept back and, when it was not forthcoming, just kept them. US officials, whose interest it was to maintain the fiction, just turned the page.

Thus it is with the Iran deal. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman described Secretary Kerry as fighting back tears as he contrasted the Vietnam war that he had fought in his youth with the peace that he had just helped to secure for his old age. President Obama dismissed without argument any concern with the fact that Iran and its clients — From Syria’s Assad to Lebanon’s Hizbollah and Yemen’s Houthi — publicly rejoiced in a victory that enhances their capacity to ramp up the wars they are fighting now.

“That’s what politicians do,” said Obama. Nor did he acknowledge the fears of the Sunni powers that are the targets of Iran’s war today or those of Israel, which may well be the target of Iran’s war tomorrow. No. Reality notwithstanding, for Obama as for Kerry and for the New York Times the deal is peace in our time. Why?

The first-order answer is a truism: because they do not care enough about the reality that they are affecting even to acknowledge it. That reality is twofold: the Sunni-Shia war that is convulsing the Muslim world today, and the nuclear weapons that are now certain to arm America’s disparate enemies in that world in a none-too-distant tomorrow. These US officials did not create that reality. There is a fire in the Middle East. The worst that might have been expected had they left it alone could be no worse than the prospect created by their involvement with it.

They did not just pour gasoline on it helter-skelter. No. They brought fuel — some $150 billion now and various high-tech armaments later — to one side of the war. And they did so without explaining to the American people on whose behalf they did it specifically what effect that might have, above all on America’s own safety. The pretense of peace with which they cover the deal is not credible.

This sharpens the question “Why?” How could they themselves believe this? Henry Kissinger’s “creative ambiguity,” or “constructive ambiguity,” points to the answer. Pretending to others leads one to pretend to one’s self.  Obama & Co., just like Kissinger and the bipartisan establishment he informed, wanted peacefully to adjust rival ambitions in America’s interest — and to take political credit for having done so.

But they were unwilling to exert the America’s power to force the other parties (The USSR and Vietnam the, Iran now) to alter their objectives. And so, as negotiations proceeded, they had to choose between acknowledging that their own ends and means were incompatible with reality, changing either their ends or their means, or pretending. They chose to pretend.

This is not how statesmen worthy of their positions behave. It is how people in all walks of life act when they are small and slippery.

Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University.

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Categories: Angelo Codevilla, Asia Times News & Features, Middle East

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  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    The article addresses the relationship between the US and Iran with examples that include the Vietnam war of the 1960’s to the Paris Accord of 1973 but leaves out one of the most significant revolutions of the 20th century. That revolution was the Iranian Revolution.
    The Iranian Revolution changed this nation into a fundamental Theocracy literally fought at the doorstep of the US Embassy. It redefined the Islamic world. This revolution overthrew the Shah or Iran who was a mouthpiece of the US, and elevated Iran (formerly Persia) as the most powerful Islamic theocracy in the 1980’s, The Iranian revolution stands along the Russian revolution and the Chinese Communist Revolution, as one of the significant revolutions of the 20th century.
    It not only changed how Tehran deals with the Middle East and Islam but also changed how the US deals with these issues. It is still defining geopolitics ranging from the nuclear talks to how the US and Iran handle ISIS.

  • harry Kahns

    Obama put Netanyahu in a dog house where he will find nothing but shit all around him.

  • Maria

    @Professor Codevilla, in your garbage article, you wrote:
    “Nor did he acknowledge the fears of the Sunni powers that are the targets of Iran’s war today or those of Israel, which may well be the target of Iran’s war tomorrow.”….Hmm, this line is where your factual distortions come into focus. Israel & the Sunni powers (US-backed human rights abusers, all dictatorships, with the exception of Turkey) are armed to the teeth (US weapons) and support the terrorists attempting to overthrow the democratically-elected (2014) President al-Assad of Syria, and in the case of Yemen, Saudi Arabia is bombing the Houthis (which, Pepe Escobar described as ‘illegal’, btw).
    ___QUESTION: between Iran & the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, *who* is “right”, and who is “wrong”??….well, this The Guardian article (which I’m about to show you) describes that in 1979, Khomeini appealed to the oppressed peoples of the Middle East, and KSA’s reaction was to develop a Shia-vs-Sunni ploy, as a *distraction* (so, KSA’s response to calls for respect for Human-Rights was to ABUSE human rights even further, and to maintain the oppressive dictatorial order, including the promotion of anti-Shia religious hatred/violence/terrorism). From The Guardian (URL provided): [“Saudi Arabian and Iranian threat perceptions are heavily influenced by their fear, suspicion and hatred of each other. This antipathy was born of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, which unleashed a revolutionary Islamist rhetoric that directly challenged the legitimacy of the Saudi Arabian regime, and threated to export the revolution across the Middle East. Khomeini appealed to the oppressed peoples of the region, offering them support to achieve freedom, equality and an end to injustice. Saudi Arabia sought to undercut that rhetoric by highlighting Iran’s Shiism, and by promoting intolerant versions of Wahhabi Islam that, among other unsavoury qualities, encourage vitriolic anti-Shia sentiments.”]
    And that article goes on to describe how this dynamic led to the crisis in Yemen, and describes the democratic/pro-human-rights nature of the Houthi struggle against the oppressive Saleh. KSA profoundly fears democracy, and will commit GENOCIDE against any nation/ethnicity/people to maintain its illegitimate power.
    Professor, you talk of dispelling “ambiguities” in the US’s policies…OK…then what about the US’s ambiguity in its vague platitudes of “Freedom & Democracy” while it supports Human-Rights abusing dictatorships, or torture, or illegal wars (2003 Iraq invasion), or to promote western imperialism (US-Vietnam war, says credible sources)?? What about that, HYPOCRITE??…and if there are any Arabs/Muslims reading this saying ” ‘Maria Adams’, I didn’t know Westerners were so open-minded”, well, let me tell you, I only changed my name to ‘Adams’ so as to avoid discrimination in the West (my real name isn’t ‘Adams’ at all).

  • Maria

    The reason why Professor Codevilla leaves out the Islamic Revolution of 1979 is because he is very selective about history. As my post points out, Codevilla rapes the truth, David-P-Goldman style!!

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    I read your comment to me and to the article. Yours is much more in depth. I found the article a bit,..empty when simply avoided the elephant in the room and then went into another room in another house to bring issues. How can anyone write about Iran, the Middle East and America without mentioning clearly the Iranian Revolution? For God’s sake they took 50 American hostages from the American Embassy right in the middle of that revolution.

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    The importance of the Iranian revolution on US foreign policy was part of the reason for the Carter Doctrine. Even though it was to address the Soviet Unions intervention into Afghanistan, the Carter Doctrine also addressed the Iranian Revolution and the threat it posed to oil supplies and the Persian Gulf ” In 1979, the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet intervention of Afghanistan prompted the restatement of U.S. interests in the region in the form of the Carter Doctrine.[7]

  • Daniel Berg

    Excellent writing, attacking the HEART OF DARKNESS, I think somehow West-white supremacy+hypocrisy is so deep rotted almost like DNA,

  • Daniel Berg

    50 Agent-spy

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    It help create the Carter Doctrine

  • Maria

    #1) Thank you, Daniel. I would say the worst hypocrites/revisionists among the whites are the US-military veterans (I point out historic facts from credible sources, which totally contradicts their lies that the US’s war against Vietnam was legitimate; and that the US invasion of Iraq 2003 was legal – it was actually illegal, citing law professors), and their stupid response is that THEY (veterans) are right, because they were there, and they KILLED the enemy (it’s like they are a bunch of narcissists, so proud of their violence, just like stupid animals)…btw, if you’re interested, I can show you the same points I show the US-war supporters, so that you can copy/paste them whenever you get into an argument with them.
    #2) But the worst hypocrites & revisionists aren’t even the narcissistic US veterans. Actually, I find the worst ones are the “African Americans”…You see, there’s nothing more pathetic than to continue to believe in lies, even after the documented facts (forensic science & non-contradictory witness testimony supports the contrary)…the “African Americans” have a regular pattern of this: “Justice 4 Trayvon” (where they insists Zimmerman’s self-defense claim is a lie), and insisting that Officer Wilson “executed” Michael Brown, when everything supports that MB attacked the policeman & tried to take away the policeman’s gun…. So, yeah, whites are bad revisionists, but the worst revisionists (and racists) I would have to say are the “African Americans”.

  • Maria

    Daniel, “racism” is a pretty serious accusation to make on even a single individual, and when someone makes an accusation against a group of people (as a pervasive characteristic, say MOST of them, although certainly not 100% of them), I do so only because I have noted that *consistency*, that is very common for that group, over a great number of examples.___ If you look at this Youtube video, it documents a typical example of the “African American” community protecting a criminal JUST because the criminal is BLACK while the victim is WHITE…in America, ONLY the “African Americans” CONSISTENTLY, (and as a group) decide who is rightwrong based upon the person’s skin color: (and when a Black person describes a white MAN as a “White Boy”, it is a racist insult, to say that white men are NOT men, but rather boys):

  • Lion Heart

    What a rubbish an alleged Professor.

    This professor forgot to mention about Israeli nukes…and also forgot the fact that Israel is supporting and providing free ambulance service to Al Nusra terrorists …

    This man need to read following poem written by Gunter Grass: “What must be said”…..all Zionists started cursing him—let us remember his prophetic words:


    Why do I say only now,
    Aged and with my last ink,
    That the nuclear power of Israel endangers
    The already fragile world peace?

    Because it must be said
    What even tomorrow may be too late to say
    It is the alleged right to first strike
    That could annihilate the Iranian people

  • Lion Heart

    These types of “professors” and “think tanks” were responsible for Iraq invasion and death of 1 million Iraqis.

    blood thirst of these scums are not quenched yet—they want more blood—now Iranian blood

  • Jay

    Kind of late to point this out, but it’s not whites who run Western foreign policy.

  • Infidel007

    I’ve heard Chinese racist supremacy is much worse. How can you claim racism is a major issue still in this country, when a black president was elected twice. Many Chinese people are quite racist themselves.

  • Infidel007

    “Khomeini appealed to the oppressed peoples of the region, offering
    them support to achieve freedom, equality and an end to injustice.”

    What freedom equality and justice is to be found in Iran? Don’t get me wrong Saudi Arabia is also the antithesis of all three, but so is Iran. sharia is the antithesis of freedom equality and justice. Nowhere on earth where sharia is present will you find any of those things.

    The Ayatollah Khomeini’s Book: Sex with Children and Animals

    The leader of the Iranian Revolution in 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, wrote extensively on Islamic Jurisprudence. A two-volume book, which was published originally in Arabic, was called ‘Tahrir al Wasilah’. Translated into Farsi, the book is called “Tahrirolvasyleh.” (read entire text here.) Khomeini also had another treatise on Islamic rules for living, called in English, “The Little Green Book.” (see entire text here.)It is useful to understand what an esteemed Islamic leader such as the Ayatollah teaches his followers.

    Rest is in link.

  • Lion Heart

    You are partially correct…….but nothing can beat Zionists RACISM.

    Jews believed that they are CHOSEN RACE

    Hitler begged to differ.

  • Lion Heart

    Iran does not DEMOLISH homes of Jews

    Israel does demolish homes of Palestinians on a REGULAR basis.

  • Lion Heart

    Zionists are FUMING with following news:

    A poll by the Los Angeles Jewish Journal released Thursday (23 July 15), showed U.S. Jews support Iran deal, despite misgivings.

    According to the survey, 49 percent of American Jews support the deal and 31 percent oppose it. Among all Americans, 28 percent support the deal and 24 percent oppose it.