The tentative nuclear framework agreement with Iran is the acid test of President Obsma’s worldvirw that the best way to deal with global adversaries is with rigorous diplomacy, rather than military threats. Before long historians will be in a position to assess the wisdom or fallacy of his judgment.
During Obama’s first campaign for office, Hillary Rodham Clinton described him as “dangerously naive” for asserting that the way to deal with an enemy such as Iran is with “aggressive personal diplomacy.” At the start of his presidency, he offered to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
That is Obama’s core philosophy. He believed that in the past the US was too inclined to turn to military power to address problems in the world, as in iraq and Afghanistan. He was convinced he had a better way: persistent diplomatic engagement.
In six years in office, however, he has faced one rebuff or misstep after another. Perhaps until now. But the proof of whether the framework with Iran will be effectively spelled out in finite detail and, more importantly, signed and then faithfully observed, remains to be seen. It is a colossal gamble on the President’s part. In all likelihood it will become the touchstone of his historic legacy, one way or the other.
Obama is fond of quoting former President Jack Kennedy: “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”
In his first speech abroad, delivered in Prague,he made clear his foremost concern was nuclear proliferation, even going so far as to advocate a world without nuclear weapons. That helps explain why the negotiation with Iran has been pretty much his foreign policy fixation in office.
And yet, ironically, if Tehran’s frightened neighbors regard the ultimate deal as making Iran a nuclear threshold state, one that could turn a screw and become nuclear capable, the chances are that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and perhaps one of the Gulf states will seek nuclear weapons for themselves. And the fractious Middle East could become even more perilous than it is today.
Early on in his presidency, Obama said he wanted to shift the emphasis from the Middle East to the Pacific. But events have conspired otherwise.
Following the so-called Arab Spring, which only blossomed positively in Tunesia, came Egypt’s putsch against the Moslem Brotherhood, the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the revolution of the minority Houtis, supported by Iran, in Yemen, with the attendant decision by Saudi Arabja and perhaps Egu[t tp use military force to contest them. The ancient blood feud between the Sunnis and Shiites appears to be rekindling.
Now it’s true that Obama was confronted by two ongoing wars when be came to power–costly and controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then there arose a secular rebellion in Syria, where Obama rebuffed the entreaties of his top officials to help arm and train the rebels, and Libya, where hr reluctantly agreed with European allies to help oust Mammmar Khadafi, by “leading from behind,” only to subsequently back away and allow a failed state to emerge.
And don’t overlook the effort to “reset” relations with Russia. Whether Vladimir Putin regarded the new American president as a creampuff, who would do nothing significant if he annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine, remains a matter of conjecture. But obviously Putin did not feel constrained by Obama who offered an open hand, rather than a mailed fist.
No question that Obama’s rose colored worldview is in question. But not yet decided.
William Beecher is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington correspondent for The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He’s a former Asskitant Secretary of Defense and is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland.
This blog was picked up by the World Policy Institute.