Obama’s Worldview Shown in Iran Nuclear Deal That Averts WarMike Dorning
The Iran nuclear deal is as much the product of Barack Obama’s world view as any diplomatic accomplishment of his presidency.
The agreement reflects Obama’s determination to follow through on a principle -- scorned in 2007 as “naive” by his future secretary of state, Hillary Clinton -- that the U.S. must unclench its fist and reach out to pariah states such as Iran, Venezuela and Cuba.
That foreign policy vision, which distinguished Obama from his predecessor and 2008 presidential rivals, is remaking U.S. relations with the world in historic ways. During the past eight months, Obama ended the half century-long U.S. isolation of Cuba, opened a dialogue with Venezuela, concluded a climate agreement with China and eked out victory in a congressional trade vote to advance the economic component of his strategic pivot to Asia.
The Iran deal will make the world more peaceful and forestall a Middle East nuclear arms race, Obama said at the White House Tuesday.
“Put simply, no deal means a greater chance of more war in the Middle East,” Obama said as he called on Congress to support him. “Moreover, we give nothing up by testing whether or not this problem can be solved peacefully.”
Yet the limits of Obama’s approach have grown clearer as they are tested against the realities of international relations.
Many Republicans charge that Obama’s hesitancy to intervene militarily has been read as weakness by foreign rivals, emboldening them to challenge U.S. interests. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Syria’s largely unchecked civil war against insurgents, the failure of Mideast peace talks and even the rise of Islamic State are all situations in which Obama’s reluctance to use military power has led to dangerous results, in the view of his critics.
“I do not think he has led as confidently and assertively in the Middle East as he might have, and it may be that he over-learned the lessons of Iraq 2003 and Afghanistan,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. undersecretary of state in the administration of President George W. Bush and now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Burns said he’s nonetheless likely to support the Iran deal, pending details on the accord.
When he ran for president in 2008, Obama was presenting himself to a world that had grown increasingly hostile to the U.S. because of the invasion of Iraq and Bush’s embrace of pre-emptive war and unilateral action.
“Another president would not have engaged with Iran -- not in the way that he did, which is directly,” said Ivo Daalder, an early Obama campaign foreign policy adviser and later his ambassador to NATO.
At a stop in Berlin during his campaign, 200,000 Europeans turned out to cheer Obama. Before he completed a full year in office, he won a Nobel Peace Prize for creating “a new climate in international politics.”
Pew Research Center polls of global opinion show Obama remains a popular figure in most countries -- though not in Russia, Israel, Middle Eastern nations or Venezuela. His international appeal will be demonstrated again this month when he travels to Kenya, his father’s homeland, and becomes the first sitting U.S. president to visit the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia.
Obama’s Iran strategy took shape when he deployed diplomats in 2013 to meet secretly with officials of the Islamic Republic.
The same year, he wrote a personal letter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, followed by an unprecedented 15-minute telephone conversation with the Iranian leader, the highest-level contact between the two nations in more than three decades.
Once negotiations commenced, Obama stuck with them despite a campaign to undercut the talks by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, congressional Republicans and even some lawmakers in his own party. He fended off attempts to impose new sanctions on Iran amid the talks, which he said would have sunk an accord.
His approach hasn’t paid similar dividends in other conflicts.
With a civil war in Syria displacing nearly half the country’s population and helping fuel the growth of Islamic State, Obama has largely limited U.S. involvement to airstrikes. He’s been reticent to commit significant U.S. force to the fight against the militant group in Syria or Iraq.
“This proposed deal is a terrible, dangerous mistake that’s going to pave the path for Iran getting a nuclear weapon,” Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who’s frequently critical of Obama’s foreign policy, said Tuesday on MSNBC.
The gains Obama made in an early “reset” with Russia dissipated as Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency with an expansionist agenda, annexing Crimea and menacing Ukraine. Despite the administration’s hopes that economic engagement with China would nurture reform, the Asian power is increasingly aggressive in territorial disputes with its neighbors.
The U.S. public’s fear of terrorism grows as Islamic State beheads foreigners, even after the U.S. killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi that Obama supported brought chaos and terrorist attacks in the country. The outreach to the Muslim world that Obama launched has faltered as the appeal of Islamic radicals grew in the Arab Spring, while U.S. drone attacks and support for Israel continued to alienate the Middle Eastern public.
Obama’s sense that the Iraq War was misguided -- he was an early opponent, calling it “a dumb war” when Bush sought congressional authorization in 2002 -- has been central to his approach to the conflict in Syria, Daalder said.
“He learned the lesson, which I agree with, that our ability to change the internal dynamics of societies through military force is very limited to non-existent,” said Daalder, now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “Most other presidents would have gotten us into Syria a lot earlier, a lot quicker and a lot more deeply and because of that would have been less likely to pivot to Asia.”
Obama won authority from Congress last month to “fast-track” free-trade deals, opening the way to final negotiations on an accord with 11 other Pacific Rim nations, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that is the economic cornerstone of his Asia strategy.
Still, Obama’s foreign policy shortcomings in the Middle East and Eastern Europe loom largest in the minds of his opponents.
The nuclear negotiations with Iran together with Obama’s hesitancy to intervene in Syria together raised anxiety among traditional U.S allies in the Middle East such as Israel and the Arab Persian Gulf states, Burns said. In addition to Netanyahu’s public criticism, several Gulf leaders snubbed Obama by sending underlings to a Camp David meeting this year.
“Reassuring them that we’re going to protect them, that even though we have a nuclear deal with Iran we’re going to contain Iran’s influence -- that’s hugely important going forward,” Burns said.
Similarly, more assertive leadership from Obama may have rallied NATO allies to act “more boldly” against Putin after his incursions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Burns said.
“The great majority of the world depends on the United States to be an assertive, self-confident leader,” Burns said. “We are still by any metric the most powerful country in the world.”