US prefers to deal with the wolf rather than the lamb
Why does the US make deals with its enemies and abandon its friends? The answer may lie in the fable of “The Wolf and The Lamb,” in which a big bad wolf wants to devour an innocent little lamb. Such stories have been around for centuries and are deeply ingrained in our culture.
In this story, the wolf has an advantage: It symbolizes being wicked and evil, it has nothing to prove and there is no doubt about its identity. Whereas the lamb has a problem: It has to continuously prove its innocence and maintain it. There is, therefore, always that element of doubt about its purity.
This makes dealing with the wolf far more comfortable and risk-free, as it is predictable, and American negotiators eventually adapt to its position.
In the Latin and Greek versions of the story, the lamb keeps trying to prove its innocence in the face of accusations by the wolf, but it ultimately fails and is eaten. The lesson here is that the tyrant can always find an excuse for his tyranny and that the unjust will not listen to the reasoning of the innocent. In the French version of Jean de La Fontaine, it is put more concisely and translates to “might makes right.”
Our instinct is to protect the lamb, but we often end up compromising with the wolf. In Afghanistan, for example, the US made a deal with its enemy, the Taliban, and excluded its allies. It abandoned the Afghan army it helped to create and train, leaving it without support. When the army collapsed and the country fell back into the hands of the Taliban, President Joe Biden justified it by implying that the army was cowardly and would not fight and pointing to the fact that leading politicians fled the country.
The Taliban acted in character, they were like the wolf, so there was no problem there. But the Afghans were not innocent enough to deserve protection — they were a disappointment and did not fit the parable.
This is not too far from what happened in Syria in 2013. President Barack Obama retracted from the red line he had set against the use of chemical weapons to crush the revolt against Bashar Assad. He also refused Turkish appeals for a no-fly zone to protect civilians in the north. Instead, he took the advice of the Russians and made a side deal with the Assad regime, ostensibly to get rid of its chemical weapons, abandoning the Syrian civilians to their fate.
Washington is comfortable negotiating with Iran because Tehran is the wolf in this scenario, behaving as it should and as expected
Again, the Assad regime, like the wolf, was accepted for the evil it is. But the Syrian opposition was a disappointment and was not true to form. Its leaders were disunited, were not secular, some were corrupt and sectarian, and some were even ready to use violence against the regime. They did not fit the innocent lamb part of the equation. There was a romantic vision of a peaceful, secular and nonviolent revolution, but once it tried to fight or showed radical tendencies, it lost its innocence and, therefore, its protection.
Then there is Iran and the negotiations over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. Again, the US in 2015 negotiated a deal with Iran, its sworn enemy, without consulting its allies and it is now renegotiating it while remaining oblivious to their concerns.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are the unelected effective rulers of Iran. Those that are elected can only run if they have this group’s approval. The IRGC has proxies in every country in the Middle East that threaten all of the US’ allies and interests. Wherever Washington has a policy objective, an Iranian-sponsored militia is also there to spoil it.
The US is comfortable negotiating with Iran because Tehran is the wolf in this scenario, behaving as it should and as expected. Whatever evil Iran gets up to in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or Yemen is accepted because it is no surprise — it is the wolf behaving like a wolf, as it should, and there is comfort in that. But the US’ allies are full of faults and do not qualify as lambs by any stretch.
The English version of the story is the only one with a happy ending. The little lamb strays from the flock of sheep and, when attacked by the wolf, uses its wits to buy time and warn the shepherd, who comes to its rescue. The lesson here is that the weaker party should always be alert and use its brains to get the needed protection.
This is what happened in Ukraine, where the US and EU had all but abandoned the country to its fate and accepted the idea of a Russian invasion. They started discussing what to do after the invasion and offered to evacuate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with his family and close circle. The Ukrainian lamb was abandoned to the Russian wolf, but the lamb surprised everybody: It managed to outwit the wolf and regain protection from both the US and the Europeans.
In the US, negotiators are trained to de-escalate and find a zone of possible agreement. Failing that, they learn to define a best alternative to a negotiated agreement. However, the wolf side escalates and sticks to its maximalist demands with consistency and determination. Both Russian and the Iranian negotiators are confrontational — they know that they must not flinch and that the other side will eventually give in.
• Nadim Shehadi is a Lebanese economist. Twitter: @Confusezeus