Cutting the deal

Obama’s worldview shows in Iran agreement


WASHINGTON – The Iran nuclear deal is as much the product of Barack Obama’s worldview as any diplomatic accomplishment of his presidency.

President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in the White House on Wednesday.(OLIVIER DOULIERY/ABACA PRESS/TNS)
President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in the White House on Wednesday.

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.

Direct talks
“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.

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.

‘New climate’
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.

Limited success
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.

“The president’s desire to retrench entirely from the Middle East helped create the conditions for the Islamic State to arise,” Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who’s frequently critical of Obama’s foreign policy, said Sunday on the CBS program “Face the Nation.”

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.

Mideast mess
The U.S. public’s fear of terrorism grows as Islamic State beheads foreigners, even after the U.S. killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

The overthrow of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi 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 nonexistent,” 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.


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