Nothing reveals a con man like success. He offers his pitch. He lies. He wheedles. He pulls out every trick he knows.
And then, if he gets his way, one of two things happens. Either he gets out of town just ahead of the law and lives to con another day - or the victims of his fraud discover they have been had and they punish him for it.
Of course, sometimes cons are something more than mere financial scams. Sometimes the frauds are for far higher stakes. When political leaders become involved, the consequences of the frauds can be war, the compromising of a nation’s standing and values or other high human costs.
Common con artists - the kind who pitch products that don’t work or fake degree mills or hyped-up brands that have no real value - are almost always working for a quick buck. But political con men are in the game for power.
Their goal is to preserve what power they have and accumulate enough additional from each con to sustain themselves through the fallout from their prior deceptions. For them, the goal is not to get out of town ahead of the law: it is to become the law or, better yet, to rise above it.
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When Bibi Netanyahu launched his sad, transparent, unconvincing Home Shopping Network pitch for his "new, improved" reasons for America to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, he was true to the cardinal rule of all good cons: "Know your audience."
In his case, it was an audience of one, as it happened an all-too-willing victim who was himself a con artist, the President of the United States Donald Trump. It was in some ways the perfect set up.
First, Bibi knew just what kind of pitch would appeal to Trump - short words, pictures, props and fake news designed to make his audience feel good about his own (tenuous) understanding of world affairs.
Next, the odds of Netanyahu’s success were infinitely higher because the mark he was pitching to had already made up his mind to buy what Bibi was selling. In fact, the sale had been pre-cooked beforehand, including during the recent brief visit of new-installed U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Israel.
And here’s the beauty part, the reason it was such an easy sell: Trump himself was in the midst of his own con that turned on the same issue.
It was the old double con, layers upon layers of lies and deceit. Trump as a candidate vowed to get out of the Iran deal because he thought it would make him appear strong, would denigrate the work of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and would emphasize his own carefully cultivated (and fraudulent) image as the master dealmaker.
It was a con because Trump actually hadn’t the first idea about the stakes involved, about nuclear weapons, about the history or dynamics of the Middle East. He wore the position like he wore his hair, purely for effect and not really well-suited to closer examination.
Netanyahu really does understand the Iranian threat. For him the con was to get an American pull-out from the deal at any cost, even if it meant he had to lie, distort and misrepresent. Which he did.
He suggested the evidence he offered was new. (It wasn’t.) He suggested it revealed violations of the JCPOA. (It didn’t.) He argued that it was clearer than ever that the Iran deal needed to be undone. (He actually made clear why Israel’s own top security experts feel the deal, however flawed, is necessary.)
But they are now coming to the fatal part of their joint plans when their "success" will be their undoing. Because it now appears very likely Trump will pull out of the JCPOA, citing Netanyahu’s evidence. And then...
Well, that’s the problem. What then? What happens the day after the U.S. pulls out of the deal? Will Israel be safer? Will the U.S.? Will Iran now be less of a nuclear threat?
No, none of these things will be the case. In fact, the U.S. pull out might be seen by the Iranians as license to renew and redouble their weapons efforts. It will certainly raise tensions in the region. It will also make everyone less safe by weakening the alliance of major powers that are behind the deal.
It might also make America appear weaker if those powers simply continue with the deal without the U.S., offset U.S. sanctions, and shrug off the U.S. action. And if pulling out of the deal makes other deals, like one with North Korea, less likely, the damage will be compounded.
What won’t happen, what is just a fantasy, the hook of the con, is that a new, better deal can be negotiated with all the other parties more or less satisfied with how the current one is working - and no actual real reason to pull out of a deal to which they are already committed.
The problem with all the anti-JCPOA efforts, like most frauds, is that they depend on the victims not really thinking through the consequences of the con. It is called a confidence game because the gullible buy into a premise that is plausible, which has some truth to it. In this case, it is that the JCPOA is actually a flawed deal.
But then it takes it a step further, in this case to achieve the political goals of Netanyahu, Trump and their allies. And as we shall see in the next few days, that will be a step too far.
The question is: What happens then? Will Netanyahu and Trump be held to account for their actions? Much more importantly, what price will the victims of these lies pay?
The fate of millions hangs in the balance. Their prospects aren't good so long as countries like Israel and the U.S. have at their helms men who feel they must lie to lead.
David Rothkopf is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His most recent book is Great Questions of Tomorrow (Simon & Schuster/TED, 2017). Twitter: @djrothkopf
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