Wendy Sherman and the art of failing upward

Despite negotiating disastrous nuclear deals with North Korea and Iran, the veteran diplomat has been tapped by Biden to be No. 2 at the State Department. Tehran must be cheering.

Ambassador Wendy Sherman, Joe Biden's nominee to serve as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Ambassador Wendy Sherman, Joe Biden's nominee to serve as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Albert Einstein didn’t say it. Neither did Benjamin Franklin. Whoever it was who was the first to observe that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity may not have been as smart as either of those two acclaimed geniuses, but they were nonetheless correct. Yet unfortunately no one seems to have informed either President-elect Joe Biden or Wendy Sherman about this.

Sherman, who was officially named as Biden’s choice to be Deputy Secretary of State over the weekend, is yet another familiar name among those slated to lead the new administration. Biden’s foreign-policy team is a veritable Obama era reunion party with virtually every leading figure having been part of the same group that led the nation from 2009 to 2017, including incoming Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

The new president has chosen people with whom he is already comfortable and who know the ropes. After four years of the circus that was the Trump administration, that sounds good to a lot of people. But while Americans will welcome calm and discretion from those in power, that is not necessarily the same thing as being smart or effective. And while experience is usually an asset in most facets of life, there are exceptions to that rule. When people continually fail at their jobs—and then not only don’t learn from their mistakes, but are so self-deluded that they believe they’ve been right all along—that’s where that line about insanity may prove relevant.

Sherman has already served at the State Department in a few different capacities. During the Clinton administration, she was an Assistant Secretary of State and then served as Counselor to Secretary Madeleine Albright. Under Obama, she was Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs, which made fourth in the pecking order at the department. Now, after spending the Trump years raking in cash working for Albright’s consulting group and enjoying a comfortable sinecure as a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, she’ll be the No. 2 at State.

But Sherman’s claim to fame is not her glittering résumé and connections. She is what passes for an “expert” in negotiating nuclear agreements with rogue regimes. That makes her a living, breathing example of how overrated diplomatic experience can be. No one else can claim credit for playing the principal role in two of the worst negotiations ever conducted by an American diplomat.

In 1994, Clinton gave her the job of negotiating an agreement with North Korea with a goal to obligate that mad Communist government to freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program.

Clinton had given her a fool’s errand. North Korea was then led by Kim Jong-il, the father of Kim Jong-un, the current head of that criminal regime. There was no possible inducement that the United States could offer to get him to give up his bid for nuclear weapons. A wiser diplomat than Sherman would have told her superiors that any effort to appease him was doomed to failure, and that the goodies the United States were offering would strengthen him while worsening the plight of North Korea’s people and further destabilizing the region.

But Sherman was not in possession of that kind of wisdom. Instead, she went ahead offering various cash prizes and diplomatic concessions in order to get the North Koreans to sign an agreement that could be presented to the world as a foreign-policy triumph. She continued in that vein until Clinton left office, in spite of the fact that the other side simply pocketed every gift she brought while not actually doing anything they were asked to do. On her watch, the North Korean nuclear problem was not only not solved, but grew worse as rather than “freeze and dismantle,” Kim Jong-il continued to accumulate nukes and missiles.

One would think that after this abysmal failure, Sherman would have lost any credibility as a diplomat. But if you are a member in good standing of the foreign-policy establishment, there’s no such thing as having your work judged by arbitrary standards like success or failure. In that world, the only assets worth having are experience and connections—and Sherman had both. So the next time a Democrat arrived in the White House, she was back in business at the State Department with an even more important title and an even bigger task: negotiating an agreement with Iran that would fulfill President Barack Obama’s campaign promise to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program.

In the talks with Iran, Sherman had an advantage that she hadn’t had when faced with Kim Jong-Il. Unlike the North Koreans, Iran had a large economy that was connected to the rest of the world. It was dependent on the sale of oil to keep its government and the vast terrorist enterprise run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps afloat. Congress had forced Obama to go along with tough international sanctions on Iran and the pain they inflicted forced Iran to the negotiating table.

But while Iran’s position was weak, its chief negotiator, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had one card to play, and he did so expertly. He knew that Sherman’s primary goal—and that of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry—was a deal at any price.

So when Zarif said “no” to each of the West’s demands, Sherman conceded each point. Like all appeasers, Sherman claimed that the only alternatives were a false choice between appeasement and war. In the agreement that Obama heralded as a triumph for diplomacy, sanctions would be lifted, yet there would be no dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program. While it would temporarily halt nuclear enrichment, it would keep its advanced technology. Nor did the deal place any curbs on Iran’s support of terrorism, its illegal missile production or its foreign adventures in pursuit of regional hegemony. Worst of all, Sherman agreed to sunset clauses that would mean that each of the limited restrictions on Iran’s program would eventually expire. The last of them will end in 2030, at which point Iran can race to build a bomb with Western approval.

By any objective standard, Sherman’s handiwork was a disaster. A government that was a merciless tyranny at home, a threat to the stability of neighboring Arab states and pledged to Israel’s destruction had been enriched and empowered.

Sherman was one of those who greatly benefited from Obama’s decision to make support for the deal a partisan litmus test for Democrats. Since something so closely identified with a popular president against whom criticism was often falsely attributed to racism, Sherman’s handiwork escaped the sort of close analysis from journalists who had become—in the words of Obama staffer Ben Rhodes—a “media echo chamber” for the administration.

The deal left future presidents with the unenviable task of having to clean up Sherman’s mess. Sooner or later, the United States was going to have to scrap the pact and start the work of pressuring Iran to renegotiate and get a deal that would foreclose, rather than postpone the nuclear threat, in addition to dealing with its terrorism and missiles. President Donald Trump chose to do so sooner, and his “maximum pressure” strategy returned the West to the position of strength it held in 2013, when Sherman started giving away the store to Zarif. But rather than negotiate, Iran listened to the advice of Kerry and simply waited for a Democrat to win in 2020.

With Biden’s victory, he now has a chance to fulfill his pledge to revive the nuclear deal with Iran. Still, he understands that’s not enough and is therefore also promising to strengthen the agreement to correct Sherman’s mistakes.

But who has he chosen to accomplish that difficult task? None other than Wendy Sherman.

While choosing someone with such a dismal record of failure is a terrible idea under any circumstances, it might be somewhat defensible had Sherman publicly held herself accountable for her errors and pledged not to repeat them in the future. But she has not done so.

While Sherman is clearly an appalling negotiator and a terrible diplomat, she is something of a genius when it comes to gaining favor with Democratic presidents. Indeed, if capitalizing on your mistakes as opposed to learning from them is an art, then she is the Michelangelo of failing upward.

Her ascent in spite of her colossal incompetence is a cautionary tale of the perils of prioritizing political loyalty and familiarity in making appointments. But as comic as the prospect of her returning to the task of appeasing Iran might seem to the theocrats of Tehran, it’s a tragedy for the United States and its allies.

Like allowing someone with a record of drunk-driving arrests at the wheel of a car with your children in the backseat, putting Wendy Sherman in charge of dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat is an act of criminal negligence. While all patriotic Americans wish the new administration success, Biden is already setting himself—and the world that looks to him for leadership—up to fail on one of the most important foreign-policy challenges facing him.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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