How US presidential politics gives leverage to the Taliban, Iran

While America’s adversaries in Afghanistan and Iran cannot actually pull key strings to choose the next US president, election year politics ends up giving them some leverage. 

By , Staff Writer

In a United States presidential election year, peace talks can take on a life and a direction of their own.

As President Barack Obama pushes for peace talks with the Taliban, ahead of an expected withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in 2014, he may keep in mind these two past scenarios, when election-year peace talks went astray:

  • In May 1968, President Lyndon Johnson's administration began three-way peace talks with North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the US. As the election campaign progressed, South Vietnam began to balk at signing a deal, and by Dec. 9 the talks stopped entirely. Pointing to reported secret meetings between South Vietnamese negotiators and a deputy of Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon, President Johnson privately fumed over Nixon’s “treason.” Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, lost the election to Nixon.
  • In 1980, during President Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign, negotiations with Iranian student hostage takers broke down, shortly after a reported meeting between a well-connected Iranian cleric and William Casey, a campaign functionary for Republican candidate Ronald Reagan. Negotiations restarted after Mr. Reagan won the election and were concluded by Mr. Carter’s team at 8:04 a.m. on Reagan’s inauguration day. In his 1991 book, “October Surprise,” Carter official Gary Sick, now a professor at Columbia University, charged that Casey encouraged the Iranians to stall the release of the hostages to deny Carter the symbolic victory of a negotiated hostage release.  

In 2012, there are no obvious signs that candidates in the current election are meeting with the Taliban, with whom the Obama administration has opened its doors to peaceful negotiations, or with Tehran, against whom many American conservatives are urging military action over its suspected nuclear weapons program.

But even without a conspiracy, there are lessons worth learning. The Taliban and the Iranians don’t need agents within the US political establishment to further their own interests. America’s system of lengthy and public presidential politics gives adversaries such as the Taliban and Iran all the leverage they need. Speeding up talks or stalling them rewards certain US politicians and punishes others. Progress, or the mere hint of progress, can be sugar or arsenic, depending on one’s political interests. So while America’s adversaries may not be able to actually pull key strings to choose America’s next president, the penchant of American politicians for politicizing American foreign policy ends up giving enemies – and friends – the tools they need to manipulate the US.

Merely criticizing a sitting president on his foreign policy achievements and blunders, of course, is not treasonous. Given the importance of foreign policy these days, post-Sept. 11, debating differences in foreign policy is an important measure of how different candidates distinguish themselves from the competition. 

On the campaign trail, Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney penned a March 5 opinion piece in the Washington Post promising a much more militant stand with Tehran if elected.

As for Iran in particular, I will take every measure necessary to check the evil regime of the ayatollahs. Until Iran ceases its nuclear-bomb program, I will press for ever-tightening sanctions, acting with other countries if we can but alone if we must. I will speak out on behalf of the cause of democracy in Iran and support Iranian dissidents who are fighting for their freedom. I will make clear that America’s commitment to Israel’s security and survival is absolute. I will demonstrate our commitment to the world by making Jerusalem the destination of my first foreign trip.

I will buttress my diplomacy with a military option that will persuade the ayatollahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Only when they understand that at the end of that road lies not nuclear weapons but ruin will there be a real chance for a peaceful resolution.

The very next day, on March 6, President Obama extended a tentative olive branch (or perhaps a twig) to Tehran, urging Republicans to avoid “loose talk of war,” and hinting that there was a “window of opportunity” for a peaceful resolution with Tehran over its controversial nuclear program. "It is deeply in everybody's interest – the US, Israel, and the world – to see if [the Iranian nuclear situation] can be resolved in a peaceful fashion," Obama said in his first formal press conference of the year.

It was a definite pullback from the Obama administration’s stern warnings over the past month or two, and a signal that the US might be willing to ease up some of the war pressure and the punishing sanctions imposed by the US and Europe against Iran.

In Tehran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei welcomed Obama’s calmer words. And Efraim Halevy, the onetime director of Israel’s security agency, Mossad, in the early 2000s, told the Huffington Post that the Romney's criticism of Obama may actually backfire.

"This means to an Iranian, if you will wait until another few months and there is a change in the White House, then maybe there will be trouble, so the lesson is, Let's redouble our [nuclear] efforts to do it as quickly as we can," Halevy said. "In the effort to demolish the president he is making the situation worse."

"I think people have to be extremely careful with the way they speak," he added. "I don't have any bones about who wins the election, but what Romney has done is a serious problem here. It causes serious issues here."

Similarly, Taliban leaders – who have launched exploratory negotiations to open a political office in Doha, Qatar – have an opportunity to embrace talks with the Obama administration, or to ignore them. Talking with Obama would inevitably give the current US president a foreign policy boost. But since the US has already signaled its intention to withdraw troops by 2014, perhaps the Taliban will be content to stall the start of negotiations, and to wait until after the November elections to figure out which administration it will have to deal with.

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