There is a disturbing pattern over the decades in Washington’s negotiations with countries deemed to be adversaries.  It is a tendency to adopt a rigid stance marked by unrealistic demands that make achieving a settlement virtually impossible.  Often, harsh economic sanctions against the target country reinforce the provocative diplomatic posture.

Most recently, that conduct has characterized the Obama administration’s strategy for dealing with the civil war in Syria.

Not only has Washington meddled in that internecine conflict by providing financial aid and supposedly “nonlethal” supplies to insurgent forces, but U.S. officials have taken an active role on the diplomatic front in a most unhelpful fashion.  A key U.S. demand is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down before any settlement ending the fighting can be reached.  In essence, Washington insists on Assad’s preemptive surrender.  The Syrian autocrat rebuffed that demand even when the fortunes of war appeared to be going in favor of the insurgents.  Now that government forces are repelling an increasingly divided rebel movement, he is even less inclined to step aside.  That was a major reason why a frustrated Obama administration sought to escalate matters and launch missile strikes against Syrian government targets.  Fortunately, strong congressional opposition and a timely Russian diplomatic initiative saved U.S. policy from its own folly.

Washington’s foreign-policy fiasco in Syria is hardly the only instance in which a rigid, unrealistic negotiating strategy greatly reduced prospects for compromise and the avoidance of war.  Three other episodes illustrate the recurring pattern of clumsy, provocative U.S. diplomacy: the Roosevelt administration’s handling of negotiations with Japan in 1940-41; the Clinton administration’s diplomatic conduct toward Belgrade on the eve of the Kosovo war; and Washington’s demands on Tehran regarding its nuclear program during George W. Bush’s administration and, until very recently, Barack Obama’s administration.

In the first two cases, failed negotiations led to war, and despite recent progress in the talks with Iran, a similar outcome remains all too possible.  We are left to wonder whether the approach reflects diplomatic ineptitude or a cynical attempt to force the opposing side to choose between humiliating capitulation or war.

Washington’s relations with Japan became somewhat testy after Tokyo exploited China’s continuing weakness and severed the province of Manchuria to create the puppet protectorate of Manchukuo in 1931.  But it was Japan’s much broader invasion of China in 1937 that truly caused relations to deteriorate.  Washington viewed that action as a challenge to the U.S. Open Door Policy, adopted in the 1890’s to keep China from falling under the domination of a foreign power that might exclude U.S. trade and investment.

U.S. economic sanctions against Japan became increasingly onerous, especially after Japanese forces occupied French Indochina in September 1940 and Tokyo signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy.  By the summer of 1941, relations were extremely tense.  Washington’s decision in July to freeze Japanese assets in the United States alarmed and angered Tokyo, but it was the August imposition (in collaboration with the British and Dutch) of an oil embargo that ratcheted tensions to an unprecedented level.  An oil embargo threatened the operational capability of the Japanese military and the viability of Japan’s economy.

Tokyo and Washington agreed to conduct negotiations to head off war.  The principal Japanese negotiators, Kichisaburo Nomura, Tokyo’s ambassador to the United States, and special envoy Saburo Kurusu, endeavored to lessen tensions.  Unfortunately, their interactions with Secretary of State Cordell Hull and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew proved unproductive.  The Japanese sought compromise to avoid a breakdown in bilateral relations and a slide to war, but the U.S. side showed less willingness to do so.

Nomura and Kurusu appeared to realize that Japan’s expansionist moves in East Asia, especially the occupation of Indochina, and the signing of the Tripartite Pact had perhaps imprudently provoked the United States.  From the outset, they gave assurances that Tokyo did not intend to keep military forces in Indochina for the long term, and they emphasized that Japan could interpret the Tripartite Pact in ways that would make that document operationally meaningless, if a more cooperative relationship with the United States could be established.

Regarding Indochina, they stated that Japan was prepared to withdraw forces as soon as a peace accord was reached with the Chinese government.  They even indicated a willingness to withdraw most troops (possibly 90 percent) from China herself, although Tokyo would insist on maintaining a handful of military bases (primarily in North China) for an unspecified period of time.  Japan also pledged to encourage greater economic cooperation with the United States, although that stance fell short of respecting the Open Door Policy.  In return, Tokyo wanted economic sanctions lifted and U.S. recognition of Japanese preeminence in Manchuria.

Although those terms were quite favorable to Japanese interests and objectives, they indicated some flexibility and might have been the basis for productive negotiations.  Instead, the U.S. side (primarily Hull) lectured the Japanese about international law and moral principles.  Small wonder, since Cordell Hull was a disciple of Woodrow Wilson.  The diplomatic stance that the secretary took in 1941 overflowed with vague, idealistic Wilsonian rhetoric.

That aspect became especially apparent during what would prove to be the final stage of negotiations in late November, as bilateral tensions reached crisis levels.  As a last-ditch effort to avert war, the Japanese presented a proposal for a modus vivendi in a note delivered on November 20.  In that concise plan, Nomura requested a mutual moratorium regarding “armed advancement.”  In essence, he was promising that Japan would take no further military steps in Southeast Asia.  Moreover, in a major concession, he offered to have existing Japanese occupation forces in southern Indochina withdraw to the northern portion of the territory.  In return, Tokyo insisted that the United States and her allies lift the oil embargo and unfreeze Japanese assets.

The United States presented her counterproposal (the so-called Hull Note) on November 26.  Despite being nearly six times the length of the Japanese document, the U.S. presentation offered virtually nothing new.  The oral statement accompanying the note repeated familiar Wilsonian bromides: “law and order among all nations,” the principle of “inviolability of territorial integrity and sovereignty of each and all nations,” the principle of “non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries,” and a commitment to a “reliance upon international cooperation and conciliation for the prevention and pacific settlement of controversies.”  Whereas Japan proposed a limited, practical modus vivendi as a short-term step to avoid war, Washington presented a plan for “a broad but simple settlement covering the entire Pacific area.”  A key measure to achieve that noble objective was a joint diplomatic initiative to conclude a multilateral nonaggression pact among the British Empire, China, Japan, the Netherlands, the Soviet Union, Thailand, and the United States.

It might be tempting to regard the Hull Note as the epitome of diplomatic naiveté, and perhaps it was.  But various provisions suggested that U.S. officials did not want an agreement with Tokyo.  One item in particular was certain to be a “poison pill,” making any settlement impossible.  The United States demanded that Japan “withdraw all military, naval, air and police forces” not only from Indochina but from China.  That provision required Tokyo to abandon all of the territorial objectives that it had achieved since 1937.  Indeed, since the United States had never recognized Manchukuo, it appeared that the Roosevelt administration was demanding that Japan abandon the substance of the entire East Asian policy she had pursued since 1931.

Such a proposal was a nonstarter, and it wasted the last opportunity to avoid war.  A little more than two weeks after the presentation of the Hull Note, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, leading to an horrifically bloody war for both the United States and Japan.

A similarly inflexible, provocative diplomatic style was evident in the late 1990’s during the prelude to the U.S.-led military confrontation with Yugoslavia (Serbia) over the status of Belgrade’s restless province of Kosovo.  A secessionist movement there, led by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), engaged in violent clashes with Serbian security forces, and the Clinton administration took an increasingly jaundiced view of President Slobodan Milosevic’s harsh counterinsurgency tactics.

Although U.S. and NATO officials convened a conference at Rambouillet, France, in early 1999 for the ostensible purpose of preventing war between the alliance and Belgrade, the positions the United States and her allies adopted indicated no willingness to compromise.  Indeed, those positions seemed calculated to provoke a Serb rejection and create a justification for war.  University of Arizona Prof. David N. Gibbs points out that U.S. negotiators warned the Serbs that they would be bombed if they rejected the West’s diktat, but if the KLA rejected the proffered terms, “there was no threat of military action” against that side.

Texas A&M University Prof. Christopher Layne makes the case that the diplomatic stance the United States and her allies took toward Serbia was little more than a charade.  “Although the plan provided that Kosovo would nominally remain part of [what remained of Yugoslavia] for three years,” Layne observes, “Belgrade’s actual control of the province would have been reduced to a nullity.”  The United States and NATO insisted on deploying peacekeeping forces in Kosovo and establishing an international authority to govern the province pending a final disposition of its status.  That authority would handle security and all other meaningful governmental responsibilities, so Belgrade’s sovereignty in Kosovo would be nominal.  In essence, the West intended to amputate one of Serbia’s provinces and hand it over to the KLA on the installment plan.  It is difficult to see how any government could agree to such a provision.

That was especially true in this case.  Kosovo was the historical and emotional heart of Serbia, with prominent Orthodox Christian sites dating back many hundreds of years.  Serbs often referred to the province as “Serbia’s Jerusalem.”  U.S. officials knew or should have known that Belgrade’s surrender of such a province, especially with its likely transfer to a Muslim-dominated Kosovo government, could occur only after a decisive military defeat.

But insisting on the political amputation of Kosovo from Serbia was not the most outrageous position that Washington adopted at Rambouillet.  U.S. negotiators inserted an appendix in the draft document that would allow alliance forces to operate at will not just in Kosovo but anywhere in Yugoslavia.  Layne concludes correctly that “Belgrade hardly can be condemned for balking at the prospect of such a pervasive regime of military occupation.  Few, if any, governments would willingly accept such onerous terms.”

Following the predictable failure to secure such an agreement at Rambouillet, U.S. forces conducted an air war against Serbia lasting 78 days.  It was certainly nothing remotely on the scale of World War II’s massive violence, and the United States did not suffer a single military fatality.  But despite its small scale, the Kosovo war was not a trivial matter for the Serbian people.  The relentless air bombardment killed at least 500 and possibly more than 1,000 Serb civilians, and wrecked much of the country’s infrastructure.

Once the war was over and NATO forces occupied Kosovo, the United States and her allies quietly dropped the demand to deploy troops elsewhere in Yugoslavia.  That change suggested that the reason for such an outlandish demand in the first place was to guarantee that Belgrade would reject the proffered agreement and instead choose war to preserve a modicum of national pride.

Such precedents of obdurate U.S. diplomatic behavior are especially pertinent now that the United States is in the midst of delicate negotiations with Iran over that country’s nuclear program.  Until very recently, all signs indicated that Washington was engaging in the same conduct that prevented those earlier diplomatic settlements and led to war.  Conventional wisdom inside the Beltway has long been that Tehran is actively pursuing a nuclear-weapons program; that the program was advancing rapidly and would result in the ability to build bombs in a few years; that Iran’s political leadership is so irrational that the fundamentals of deterrence used to deal with such adversaries as the Soviet Union and China do not apply; and that the United States and “the international community,” therefore, cannot tolerate a nuclear-capable Iran.

There is considerable evidence that all of those beliefs are fallacious or at least highly questionable.  The notion that Iran is on the brink of building nuclear weapons has been around since 1993, when then-CIA director James Woolsey, a neoconservative luminary, told Congress that Iran could have a bomb within five years.  The inconvenient fact that Tehran still does not have such a weapon 21 years after Woolsey’s prediction has done little to deter those who advocate an uncompromising U.S. policy.  Nor has an assessment from U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran has not even pursued a nuclear-weapons program since at least 2007.

Various experts have also debunked the notion that the Iranian leadership is irrational and undeterrable.  Even the former head of Israel’s Mossad concedes that Iran behaves in a rational, albeit ruthless, fashion.  And allegations that Tehran cannot be deterred eerily echo the erroneous arguments that hawks made in the 1960’s about Maoist China—allegations that led to discussions during Lyndon Johnson’s administration about whether to launch preemptive military strikes against Chinese nuclear facilities.

Despite repeated assurances from U.S. officials that the United States and the other P5+1 powers (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany) want a peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue, Washington’s negotiating posture toward Tehran has suggested otherwise.  In the case of Iran, there are two positions that have been especially unhelpful.  One is the insistence throughout the Bush years and most of Obama’s presidency that Tehran end all enrichment of uranium.  The other is the refusal to give any assurance to Iran that if she complies with U.S. and international demands regarding the nuclear issue, the United States will lift all of her unilateral economic sanctions and lead an effort to have international sanctions rescinded.  In essence, Washington has demanded that Tehran give up any right to control the nuclear fuel cycle in exchange for nothing more than a partial lifting of sanctions.  Not surprisingly, the Iranian government has been unwilling to accept such terms, despite the impact of ever-tightening sanctions on the country’s economy.

In late 2013, there seemed to be a softening of the U.S. position, and that change produced a limited interim agreement with Tehran.  Negotiations continue, with the goal of producing a permanent settlement.  The mere prospect of such a result enrages hawks (in the foreign-policy community, the media, and, most worrisome, in Congress), who condemn the interim accord and seem determined to sabotage diplomacy with Iran.  The centerpiece of that effort is a bill, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, which already attracted 58 cosponsors in the Senate by February.  Not surprisingly, ultrahawkish senators such as John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Mark Kirk, and Charles Schumer are the most vocal proponents of that legislation.

That bill would revive the worst aspects of the pre-2013 position.  It insists that Iran be stripped of any ability to enrich uranium, even for power generation, and it threatens to impose even harsher U.S. sanctions if the current negotiations falter or fail to produce a settlement acceptable to the Senate.  Finally, even if Tehran agrees to U.S. terms, there is no provision for a comprehensive repeal of existing sanctions.

The adoption of such an uncompromising negotiating stance would almost guarantee the failure of the current talks.  And as in the earlier failed negotiations with Japan and Yugoslavia, a breakdown would likely lead to war.

Sen. Rand Paul puts it well: “If you insist on unconditional surrender as a prerequisite to diplomacy, there will be very little diplomacy.”  But that is what Washington has done in its dealings with Damascus and what hardliners in Congress, the news media, and the foreign-policy community want the administration to resume doing with Tehran.  We’ve been down the path that Senator Paul describes, producing a minor, but nevertheless tragic, conflict in the Balkans and a bloody catastrophe in the Pacific.  We must not continue down a similar path with Iran or Syria.