The title for this post is a quote from Avraham Shalom one of the former directors of Israel’s Shin Bet. He provided it during an interview in the documentary The Gatekeepers to explain Israel’s inability to ever actually be successful when dealing with the Palestinians. Ann Laurie’s recent post on Vice President Cheney’s recent interview and Wall Street Journal op-ed where he presents his belief that the negotiated agreement with Iran is a mistake, failure, and will (further) weaken the US and put it and its allies at greater risk seems to be a great example of this. What has always struck me is that Vice President Cheney, as well as a number of the thinkers he has either surrounded himself with, is enamored of, or seems to pay heed to, are all much, much better tacticians than they are strategists. What I mean by this is not that they do not understand the basics of strategy: ends are what one seeks to achieve in order to have a successful policy; ways are how one goes about reaching those objectives; and means are how you pay for it. Rather, Vice President Cheney, as well as his daughter Assistant Secretary of State (Liz) Cheney, and the many others who are attempting to block the P5+1 agreement on Iran’s nuclear program just do not seem to understand the concept of how the strategic level of operations is really ambiguous. There is little doubt that Vice President Cheney is a brilliant, tactical bureaucratic infighter and political tactician, but it seems pretty clear that he, and those he has served with, does not really understand the nuances that are the warp and weft of the strategic level.
If one peruses America’s national strategic documents, and I highly recommend that everyone give them a read – The National Security Strategy; The National Military Strategy; The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review; and The Quadrennial Defense Review – it becomes very clear very quickly that the international political, social, economic, and security systems are all shades of gray. The term we use for this is VUCA, which stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous – as in we are dealing with a VUCA environment. One of the most difficult things is to try to prepare personnel who are used to working and operating at the much less ambiguous tactical and operational levels to deal with the uncertainty and vagueness at the strategic levels of decision making and operation. Not every outstanding foreign service officer (either on the State or USAID tracks) or battalion commander will make an outstanding ambassador or general officer. Often the ability to make the transition is the ability to deal with ambiguity. And this is where Vice President Cheney, Assistant Secretary Cheney, and the numerous Congresspeople, Senators, think tank denizens, pundits, and others come back into the story. At the strategic level almost all problems are ill-structured, complex problems or what we used to call wicked problems. The reason for this is that the easy problems are much less ambiguous and are much more easily resolved at the lower levels. By the time a problem gets to the strategic level it is guaranteed to be hard to resolve. One of the realities of dealing with strategic level issues is not that one is going to solve a problem for all time, but rather that one is going to solve as much of the problem as possible to create both time and space to resolve other outstanding issues and the new problems that will arise from the current solution. And this last part is really important. A close friend of mine and former teammate always describes a successful strategy as creating the dog that caught the Buick scenario: once you’ve caught it, now what do you? It is pretty clear that Vice President Cheney does not seem to grasp the now what/what do we do now questions or recognize that every time that a strategy achieves policy success it changes the environment and creates new challenges, opportunities, and even threats.*
The purpose of the P5+1 Agreement with Iran is not to change Iran’s government or remake its society, rather it is intended to make it as impossible as one can make these things for Iran to achieve and move beyond nuclear weapons break out. One of the reasons, and perhaps the most important reason, that the need to pursue this agreement became so great was not that Iran was on the edge of breakout, but because our allies, partners, and peer competitors (Russia and China) refused to follow the US’s preferred strategy anymore: diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions. What really made this a wicked problem was not formulating the end state – that Iran needed to fully embrace a nuclear inspection regime and protocol, as well as limits on enrichment and production that would only allow for civilian energy use and scientific research and development. Instead it was working out a deal that got everyone on board and kept them on board. From a tactical perspective this is meaningless. The tactical objective is that Iran not be permitted nuclear weapons. The most tactically effective way to achieve the objective is to eliminate their ability to do so. Strategically it was a lot harder than that. Our allies and partners want to be able to tap into the long closed off Iranian markets. Vice President Cheney’s and others’ argument that the US, and especially President Obama, have failed to lead is simply incorrect. The President, for good or for ill, recognized that no one was willing to be lead anymore down the diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions path. By recognizing this reality the US was able to maintain a leadership position within the P5+1. And while it is true that the agreement is only the first step and has a definite expiration date, being able to move this ten to fifteen years down the road is itself a major accomplishment and not a sign of weakness or a bad deal or diplomatic failure. Sometimes the right strategy is to play for more time. Finally, and as is also the case with the recent US-Cuba agreements, opening Iran diplomatically and economically/financially provides the US, as well as its partners and allies a better chance of further encouraging change in Iranian government, domestic, foreign, and economic policies without having to resort to military force. It is very hard to stop the informational signal and it is certainly hard to stop market forces. A nation-state’s power comes in many forms – Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic (DIME) – the best strategists understand that each has their time and place. Perhaps one day Vice President Cheney will learn to appreciate more than just the military form of power.
* The irony abounds given the famous quote Karl Rove gave to Ron Suskind about the Bush 43 Administration changing reality every time they acted.