The Politics of Interim, Confidence Building Agreements

In recent weeks we have seen two agreements between distrusting parties. Neither the budget agreement between Democrats and Republicans about funding the U.S. Government, nor the agreement between Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, settled much.

In both cases, larger, more difficult issues have yet to be resolved. In the U.S. budget case, there are authorization bills for spending and debt to be negotiated. An agreement has not been reached on a long-term fiscal plan balancing tax increases, which Republicans don't like, with trims to government spending on such programs as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and pensions for government workers, which Democrats don't like.

In the international case, an agreement that will restrain Iran's development of nuclear weapons, but permit peaceful nuclear uses, has not yet been addressed. What is interesting to me are the similarities in the objections raised to these agreements.

In both cases, hard-liners have objected that too much has been "given away." In both cases, I think, those who object profit more from the conflict than they would from any agreement that might be reached.

In the Congress, it is all too easy to appeal to the base of one's party, and to claim ideological purity. One sees this in both political parties, but more stridently at the moment in the right wing of the Republican party. But the Democrats and their allies (such as the AARP) can be just as strident on the left.

In the case of the interim agreement with Iran, the hard-liners in Iran find it very easy to shout "Death to America," and are restrained only by the dire economic circumstances brought on by the sanctions. In the Congress, we find sentiment for yet more sanctions, before we see whether the interim agreement leads to a more substantial agreement later. And, of course, the Israeli government doesn't like the interim agreement at all, nor do the Saudis and the other Sunni-led Middle Eastern governments.

A similar confidence-building interim agreement has not been negotiated in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute between Japan and China. The islands are barren and inhospitable; no one lives there. I wonder what would happen if they disappeared. (With enough dynamite and some bulldozers, this could be made to occur.) Would this end the issues between Japan and China? Probably not. For both countries' politicians, stirring up nationalistic enmity may be a good way for governing officials to distract attention from uncomfortable domestic issues. It could be that fostering the dispute is more useful to both than a resolution would be.

Blessed are the peacemakers.