When Bill McKibben drew a line in the sand over the State Department’s plans to approve a permit for the climate-mangling Keystone XL pipeline, I rallied to the flag right away.
I was immediately smitten with McKibben’s strategic argument. He drew a line in the sand over Keystone XL in part because the decision to approve the permit was clearly President Obama’s. It wasn’t a question of getting 218 votes in the House or 60 votes in the Senate.
We have a similar dilemma on Iran policy as on climate change. On the one hand, it’s obvious that the administration is constrained by pro-war forces in Congress, the media, and interest groups. On the other hand, it’s obvious that the administration has not done and is not doing everything it could despite these obstacles to move forward the diplomacy agenda it promised the American people in 2008.
President Obama’s decision not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, as well as his recent decision to nominate global health superhero Dr. Jim Yong Kim to lead the World Bank, show that despite the dead-end kvetching of the demoralized, Barack Obama’s presidency can still yield fruit for the majority interest when the forces of progress shake the tree.
How could we get a clean shot at what the administration is not doing to move the ball forward on Iran diplomacy? We can demand the reversal of the “no contact” policy for U.S. diplomats.
The current policy of the State Department — as it has been for the last 30 years — is that State Department officials are prohibited from making direct contact with Iranian government officials without express prior authorization from the Secretary of State.
This is an anti-diplomacy policy. It means that American diplomats are prevented from effectively doing their jobs, because every opportunity to move forward diplomatic engagement with Iran isn’t knowable in advance. Imagine a lobbying firm that said to its employees: you can’t have contact with any government employee without prior approval from the head of the firm. Would anyone do that? You never know when you might be in an elevator with a Member of Congress, when you might have an opportunity to slip in one sentence that would help move forward your agenda. “Thank you for your advocacy against the war.” You just moved the ball forward three yards.
The same is true for U.S. diplomats. Recall the widely reported “cordial exchange” that took place between U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke and Iran’s deputy foreign minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhoondzadeh on the sidelines of a meeting to discuss Afghanistan in March 2009. The widespread reports of the “cordial exchange” helped ease tensions between the U.S. and Iran, increasing the potential for cooperation on Afghanistan. But diplomacy isn’t just about people whose names you know. It’s about people at lower levels, building relationships, exploring opportunities for common ground. “I wanted to express my government’s condolences for the recent calamity in Iran.” You just moved the ball forward three yards.
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And the “no contact” policy — like the Keystone XL permit — is totally under the control of the administration. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton can reverse this anti-diplomacy policy right now. They don’t need a hechsher from Joe Lieberman or Lindsay Graham.
Representative Barbara Lee has introduced a bill which would reverse the “no contact” policy. Because the administration can reverse the policy without Congressional approval, in order to help reverse the policy, Rep. Lee doesn’t need 217 Members to sign her bill. She just needs to reach a critical mass that will compel the State Department to address the question of why it would maintain the “no contact” policy when the policy totally contradicts its stated commitment to diplomacy.
And there is a plausible case that this critical mass can be achieved.
First of all, the task is pushing the administration to implement its own stated and promised policy of diplomatic engagement.
Second, there are impeccably credentialed “validators” for the shift. For example, former Bush administration envoy to Afghanistan James Dobbins has called for President Obama to reverse the “no contact” policy.
Also on the J Street legislative agenda is a bill initiated last week by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) that would direct the president to appoint a special envoy “for the purpose of ensuring that the United States pursues all diplomatic avenues to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, to avoid a war with Iran, and for other purposes.
Many people were very jazzed when J Street came on the scene. “At long last, an alternative to AIPAC!” Some of these folks appear to be very disappointed with J Street now. “Why hasn’t J Street vanquished AIPAC already?” But this misses a crucial point. A key reason that AIPAC is so powerful is that there are thousands of Americans across the country — Jewish and Christian — who are poised to answer its bugle call and follow its banner into Washington battle. What would make J Street more powerful is if thousands of Americans across the country — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, atheist, Wiccan, whatever — would answer its bugle call when it chooses a strategic battle. Now J Street has chosen a strategic battle: to lift the “no contact” policy. How will the forces of progress respond?
Just Foreign Policy is answering the bugle call for the Barbara Lee bill to lift the “no contact” policy.You can join us here.