Destructive Legacy of Obama’s Approach to the Middle East
By Aaron Kliegman
February 22, 2019
As president, Barack Obama's record in the Middle East was
disastrous. Mass slaughter in Syria, ruinous refugee outflows, the rise of a
terrorist proto-state, a belligerent Iran on the march—the 44th president
left the region aflame, more dangerous than when he entered office. When
discussing Obama's policies toward the Middle East, and all of their grisly
consequences, it is natural to focus on the situation in the region itself.
Often overlooked, however, is how the damage caused by Obama's approach was
domestic, not just foreign. Indeed, the figurative fires and partisan divisions
that he created in Washington, D.C., are in some ways more destructive than the
real fires and sectarian divisions toward which he showed such apathy during his
eight years in the White House.
The latest example of this domestic damage came last week,
when the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution calling
on the United States to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, formally called the
Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. The full DNC adopted the measure
at its meeting in Washington, D.C.
"The United States should return to its obligations
under the JCPOA and utilize multilateral and bilateral diplomacy to achieve
political solutions to remaining challenges regarding Iran," the resolution
says, decrying President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the United States
from the accord last May.
The DNC's resolution shows how Obama made not only the
nuclear agreement detrimentally partisan, but also the country's broader
approach to Iran and the Middle East. The measure is a clear sign that the
Democrats running for president in 2020 will campaign to return the United
States to the deal. Not that anyone needed more evidence: all the Senate
Democrats who have launched bids for the presidency opposed Trump's decision to
leave the JCPOA.
This point matters beyond campaign posturing. For months,
experts on Iran have said the
theocratic regime will try to wait out the Trump administration, to see what
happens after the 2020 election. This strategy makes sense: if a Democrat who
will return to the nuclear accord is elected president, then Iran has every
incentive to wait out Trump's campaign of pressure, and not to do anything too
provocative in the interim. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has even accused John
Kerry, his predecessor from the Obama administration, of telling the Iranians to
wait out Trump. When pressed on whether he reassured Iranian officials that
Trump will be voted out of office, Kerry never
explicitly denied doing so.
Think about this situation: an enemy of the United States
is basing its strategy toward its nuclear-weapons program on which political
party is likely to win the next election, because both parties are so divided on
the issue. Tehran knows that Democrats and Republicans are so diametrically
opposed to each other regarding the JCPOA, and Iran more generally, that it can
predict what will happen. A Democratic president will live and die by the
nuclear deal, fearing any coercive action may provoke the regime to leave the
agreement. A Republican president will effectively do the opposite, following
Trump's model, more or less. In each case, the United States cannot find any
bipartisan consensus on Iran's nuclear program, its imperial expansion across
the Middle East, or its human rights abuses, undermining any ability to create
sound, lasting policies. And Obama is largely to blame.
The chief legacy of Obama's foreign policy is not the Iran
nuclear deal, but rather the visceral partisanship that he fostered at home
while trying to defend the deal. As the country debated whether to support the
JCPOA in the summer of 2015, recall how Obama demonized the accord's critics. He
went so far as to compare them to the hard men of Iran's murderous regime.
"It's those hardliners chanting ‘Death to America' who have been most
opposed to the deal," Obama said in August 2015. "They're making
common cause with the Republican caucus." Such language is vile and
dishonest, but the president and his allies employed it consistently, using an
chamber" of experts and media figures to drown out any opposition, no
matter how genuine and well reasoned. Obama also troubled American
Jews at the time with his rhetoric, singling out Israel and flirting, perhaps
unintentionally, with conspiracy theories about nefarious Jewish money seeking
to influence the public debate.
The Obama administration and its allies also made support
for the Iran deal a litmus test of
loyalty for Democrats in Congress. "Opponents of the agreement said they
could not remember another recent policy battle where the White House and [Rep.
Nancy] Pelosi were so driven," the New York Timesreported at
the time. "In tandem, they made the Iran vote a strong test of party
loyalty." Several Democrats expressed strong concerns about the deeply
flawed deal, but they were pressured to fall in line, no matter their
reservations. Only a few voted no.
Meanwhile, as Obama waged his campaign of demonization
against the deal's critics, he carried on a similar campaign against America's
traditional allies in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia. Obama's contempt
for the Saudis has been well
documented, and, whether intentional or not, his approach to the region put
the Democratic Party in the position of defending Iran and criticizing Saudi
Arabia. Naturally, the Republicans did the opposite.
So what do we have now? One party effectively supports the
regime in Iran and opposes Saudi Arabia, while the other party opposes Tehran
and supports the Saudis. Both regimes are odious, but the Saudis are, like it or
not, an essential strategic ally. They are an important security partner and
ensure the free flow of oil from the Middle East. Iran's leaders, meanwhile,
chant "death to America" and seek regional preeminence.
A country so divided on the Middle East cannot create
effective policies in the region. American leaders cannot even agree on who
their friends and enemies are. How can they possibly come to some kind of a
bipartisan consensus? The DNC's resolution is a reminder of how far apart
Democrats and Republicans are regarding the Middle East, and especially Iran. Of
course the parties were never entirely on the same page. But the partisan divide
grew substantially during Obama's presidency. His campaign to garner support for
the Iran deal at all costs hurt American national security in the long run.
Obama did not just cause lasting damage to the Middle East; he also caused
lasting damage to Washington, D.C.