Foreign policy analysis in any country tends to be the preserve of a tiny elite: a small number of people practise it, and generally a miniscule section of society follows it.
In the UK, to all our shame, a far greater percentage of the population watches The X Factor than exhibits a healthy understanding of the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics.
As such, one of foreign policy’s besetting sins – for both practitioners and followers – is a lofty elitism that is not always borne out by results; think of how the best and the brightest catastrophically led America into the quagmire of Vietnam, for example.
This should serve as a lesson for policymakers today. In the US, neither neo-con hawks nor President Obama’s foreign policy team are known for their intellectual humility, despite their less-than-stellar records.
But over the momentous interim deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, agreed late last week, both would do well to listen to the complicated – but entirely sensible – desires of the vast majority of the much-derided US people, who hold a point of view that finds fault with both of their positions.
In line with Obama’s efforts to reach a deal over Iran’s nuclear programme, a Pew Research poll, published at the end of March, found that average Americans approved of negotiating with Iran by 49 to 40 per cent, despite the country’s long-standing anti-Western record.
One can imagine that the US public – in line with the White House and opposed to the usual neo-con blustering – sees that the deal on offer, while imperfect, is the best of a bad set of options.
For the simple real world fact is that there is no going back to the surprisingly effective international sanctions regime that has sought to constrain the Iranians up until now.
China, Russia, the UK, and Europe in general (with France a hesitant outlier) all favour a deal that – while doing nothing to actually curtail Iran’s nuclear programme – does set back the amount of time it would take Tehran to quickly assemble a nuclear weapon from two-three months to a year.
If America contemptuously reneges on the tentative deal, as the hawks demand, it is an impossibility to imagine the rest of the world falling meekly in line, recommitting themselves to the current punishing sanctions regime in the face of marked US intransigence and Iranian flexibility.
As such, the present real world options for addressing a nuclear Iran are doing nothing, this deal, or air strikes. The public and Obama are right – for all its flaws, there is absolutely no doubt that the interim deal is by far the best way forward, given the doleful alternatives.
But if the President is right over the terms of his accord, as ever, his skittishness in dealing with Congress is his administration’s Achilles’ heel. And here the public is firmly behind his critics.
A Fox News poll of 1 April found that an overwhelming 76 per cent felt that Obama should be required to obtain approval from the US legislative branch on any Iran deal; strikingly, fully 64 per cent of Democrats supported meaningful congressional oversight.
Despite his background as a constitutional law scholar, the President has always seemed to have a shockingly juvenile and self-defeating view of Congress – as they don’t agree with him, he seems to think they can safely be ignored.
From railroading healthcare reform through Congress with strong-arm legislative tactics, to his sullen unwillingness to genuinely work with the legislative branch as it investigates his administration’s peccadilloes, the President has decided that, rather than compromise or reason with his opposition, the White House must constantly find ways to go around it.
The American people are correct to remind him that – however right he is on the policy specifics over Iran (and I, as a Republican, think he is) – over a matter this important, he must get congressional affirmation for such an historic deal, once the final terms are negotiated at the end of June.
Yes, that will indeed place the whole high-risk project in peril, will take up weeks of his time, and will force him to engage in debate with people he simply does not think are worth it. Yet the people are right over this central point as well; for that is what you do in any Republic worth its name. And that is more important than any foreign policy deal.
Dr John C Hulsman is senior columnist at City A.M. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author most recently of Lawrence of Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again. He is president and co-founder of John C Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a global political risk consultancy, and available for corporate speaking and private briefings at www.chartwellspeakers.com.