Shultz and the Shadow of Power

Yesterday, in an interview with BBC, former Secretary of State George Shultz employed racist tropes of Iranians to suggest how fraught negotiations are:

“The Iranians are known as great rug merchants, not for nothing. They’re good at this business of smiling, encouraging you on, and then cutting your throat.”

Jeez. These are choice words, no doubt. Not least from someone who played a tremendous role in shaping U.S. support for the Iraqi war effort during the Iran-Iraq War.

But it’s not that quote I care about so much from Shultz as it is this one, which he made while Secretary of State in 1986 and which should serve as background for his Wall Street Journal Op-Ed today:

“Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the table.”

Shultz was talking about the Sandinistas in Nicaragua at the time, which he called during the same speech a ‘cancer on our landmass’ that needed to be ‘cut out.’ (Obviously, he has been a real sweet guy for some time now.) But his remarks do go a good deal of the way to telling us not just Shultz’s own thoughts on the U.S.-Iran talks, which he discusses in that Op-Ed piece this morning, but also about the spectrum of debate in Washington concerning the negotiations.

To be frank, I hardly think there is anybody who gets a hearing at the White House or in Congress who, as a matter of opinion, disagrees with Shultz’s sentiment. After all, the robust sanctions regime targeting Iran — which even that most benevolent of hearts, Samantha Power, proudly proclaimed yesterday as ‘so biting and crippling’ – was not put in place for shits and giggles. Instead, it was put in place to make sure, as Shultz notes, that the next time Iran came to the table to negotiate, the ‘shadow of power’ would tower over them. (Whether this, in fact, happened or not is a separate question.)

That is, after all, how it should be, according to Shultz. Respecting Iran’s legal rights to nuclear energy, its political independence and territorial sovereignty, etc. – all these are silly rules that ignore what is and should be the central fact: ‘the power element of the equation’. Why the U.S. should play by the rules, honor the commitments it made in international treaties, respect Iran’s rights, put an end to what amounts to economic warfare, etc., so long as the power equation is as it is, is lost both on Shultz and the rest of the political elite in Washington.

Hopefully, though, it’s not lost on us.


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