Peter Feaver is impressed by the fact that Republican Iran hawks think Obama should yield to Republican domestic demands:
Obama supporters who would be angry if he showed any sign of flexibility with respect to Republicans would be angry if he approached Iranians without that same kind of flexibility. Republican backers who would be angry if the president showed that flexibility with Iranians are angry that he is not (so far) showing that flexibility with them.
This is overstated, but to the extent that it’s true it’s not surprising. First of all, negotiating with foreign governments and negotiating with domestic political opponents over completely different things are bound to be handled in different ways. Partisans are likely to respond to these two very different things accordingly. Why would anyone expect a president to negotiate with foreign governments and Congressional leaders in the same way? Linking the two doesn’t make much sense when the claim is subjected to closer scrutiny.
A flexible approach may be more suitable for reaching a mutually beneficial international agreement, while there may be political incentives in a domestic setting for a president to be less compromising with his domestic opposition on certain issues. There are strong incentives in domestic politics for partisans to emphasize differences with their opponents, because they are constantly competing with each other for support and also need to placate their core supporters. In international relations, especially relations with adversarial or pariah states, the differences between the U.S. and a foreign government are usually glaring and obvious, and so it is often more productive to focus on those limited areas where interests overlap. Iran hawks that don’t want diplomacy with Iran to succeed or assume that it cannot succeed are always going to be unhappy with an attempt to negotiate with Iran. For that matter, they will often perceive more “flexibility” in the U.S. position than there really is. It also matters that the consequences of inflexibility in international relations are typically much more severe than they are in domestic politics: ratcheting up tensions with another government could escalate into armed conflict, whereas bad relations between the White House and Congress normally just lead to gridlock.
The more nationalist of the two major parties has typically been more suspicious of diplomatic engagement, which makes them more hostile to any signs that the U.S. is willing to be “flexible” in its dealings with foreign governments. Because they are suspicious of diplomatic engagement, hard-liners perceive such flexibility to be dangerous and proof that the U.S. is giving away too much. Strong partisans are to domestic political disputes what hard-liners are to foreign policy debates. In domestic negotiations, strong partisans are almost always convinced that their party is being disrespected or taken advantage of by the other, and so they conclude that their leaders mustn’t give an inch to the other party’s demands. Like hard-liners in foreign policy debates, strong partisans have unrealistic expectations about what the other side is able to give up, and they are quick to fault their own leaders for making too many concessions. In both cases, there is a near-total failure to imagine how the dispute looks from the other side.