If his negotiators
strike an agreement next month, we already know that it will be far from ideal:
Rather than eradicating Iran’s nuclear-weapons potential, as once was hoped, a
pact would seek to control Iran’s activities for some limited number of years.
Such a deal might be defensible on the grounds
that it is better than any alternative, given that most experts believe a
military “solution” would be at best temporary and possibly
But making that kind of lesser-evil defense
would be challenging in any circumstances. Three conditions will make it
particularly hard for Obama to persuade Congress and the nation to accept his
assurances in this case: the suspicious, poisonous partisanship of the moment
here, with Israeli politics mixed in; worries that he wants a deal too much; and
the record of his past assurances.
The partisanship needs no explanation, but the
record of foreign-policy assurances is worth recalling:
●In 2011, when he
decided to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq, Obama belittled worries that
instability might result. Iraq and the United States would maintain “a strong
and enduring partnership,” Obama
said. Iraq would be “stable, secure and self-reliant,” and Iraqis would
build a future “worthy of their history as a cradle of civilization.”
Today Iraq is in deep
trouble, with a murderous “caliphate” occupying much of its territory and
predatory Shiite militia roaming through much of the rest.
●That same year,
Obama touted his bombing campaign in Libya as a model of U.S. intervention and promised,
“That’s not to say that our work is complete. In addition to our NATO
responsibilities, we will work with the international community to provide
assistance to the people of Libya.”
The United States and
its NATO allies promptly abandoned Libya, which today is in the grip of civil
war, with rival governments in the east and west and Islamist terrorists in
●Obama also said
then, “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other
countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I
refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking
That was before Syrian
dictator Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs, systematic and well-documented prison
torture and other depredations of civil war killed
200,000 of his compatriots , and drove millions more from their homes.
●In August 2011,
that Assad must “step aside.” In a background briefing a senior White House
official added, “We are certain Assad is on the way out.” In August 2013
statement that “the worst chemical attack of the 21st century . . . must be
confronted. . . . I have
decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime
No military action was
taken, and Assad remains in power.
●In September, the
president said his strategy for defeating the Islamic State “is one that
we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” Shortly
thereafter, an Iran-backed rebellion deposed Yemen’s pro-U.S. government,
forcing the United States to abandon
its embassy and much of its anti-terror operation.
●Just last month,
in the State of the Union address, Obama presented his Ukraine policy as a
triumph of “American
strength and diplomacy.
“We’re upholding the
principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small by opposing Russian
aggression and supporting Ukraine’s democracy,” he said.
Since then Russian
forces have extended their incursion into Ukraine, now controlling nearly
one-fifth of its territory. Russia’s economy is hurting, but Ukraine’s is in
far worse shape.
This litany of
unfulfilled assurances is less a case of Nixonian deception than a product of
wishful thinking and stubborn adherence to policies after they have failed. But
inevitably it will affect how people hear Obama’s promises on Iran, as will
his overall foreign policy record.
That record includes
successes, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden, warming ties with India and a
potentially groundbreaking agreement with China on climate change. By most
measures, though, the world has not become safer during Obama’s tenure.
Islamist extremists are stronger than ever; democracy is in retreat around the
globe; relations with Russia and North Korea have worsened; allies are
questioning U.S. steadfastness.
Openings as well as problems can appear unexpectedly in foreign affairs, but
the coming two years offer only two obvious opportunities for Obama to burnish
this legacy: trade deals with Europe and with Pacific nations, and a nuclear
agreement with Iran. That limited field fuels worries that administration
negotiators will accept the kind of deal that results from wanting it too badly.
Whatever its contours,
Obama would be making a big mistake to try to implement such a momentous pact,
as administration officials have suggested he might, without congressional
buy-in. But it’s not surprising that he would be tempted to try.