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Obama’s foreign policy has just one potential legacy– Iran

Israel/Palestine
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Obama with John Kerry and Susan Rice in the Oval Office, March 19, 2014

Obama with John Kerry and Susan Rice in the Oval Office, March 19, 2014

The three-year long civil war in Syria has highlighted the contraction of American influence in the Middle East and West Asia, now an undeniable characteristic of the political landscape here. Washington’s waning influence in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and other countries is partly due to the increasing independence and assertiveness of the players themselves. It is also the result of traditional balance-of-power politics by insurgent regional adversaries, like Iran. Finally, it is due to the internal facts of the American presidency – its lobbyists, bureaucrats and the personality of the president himself.

American policy in the Middle East and West Asia has developed at the seam where geopolitical and domestic forces meet in the Oval office. Among senior American officials a new awareness that events may overtake policymakers in Washington – in Benghazi for instance – has produced a reticence to intercede. That reticence is also the result of a newly parsimonious view of American power. The wide path of Washington’s imperial trajectory has rounded its apex; it is now on its way back to earth. Notably, that constrained, realistic view of American power may produce an accord with Iran, particularly as the president seeks to concretize his foreign policy legacy.

Shaping the presidency

Presidential historians credibly claim that the American president both shapes and is shaped by the office he occupies. The manner in which the evolution occurs is both personal and due to local and international developments.

Consciously or otherwise the president telegraphs his views, biases, and inclinations through his advisors and staff into the far reaches of the foreign policy apparatus. Every node in the network – nearly every individual charged with implementing some aspect of policy – interprets his or her job through the greater or lesser focus of the presidential prism. The relationship is stronger among political appointees and members of their staff, but it also exists among career bureaucrats. In turn, the bureaucracy, its codes and standard operating procedures, carves the deep channels that constrain or direct presidential prerogative.

The interactivity of the office, particularly in a direct media environment that permits ready communication with the American people, means that the electorate also shapes the president’s policy in very real terms. He may respond to criticism or encouragement at a town-hall meeting or he may consider polls that emerge as an issue develops in real time. In this case, consider the decision to bomb, and then not bomb, Syria.

At the same time events themselves shape presidential choices, the foreign policy machinery and ultimately, outcomes. In some instances a president may feel compelled to radically modify an initial posture due to the actions of other actors. In others, he may be forced to create policy extemporaneously to manage developments he and his advisors could not foresee.

It may be hard to remember now, but fifteen years ago George W. Bush communicated a notably constrained foreign policy vision as contender for the Republican Party nomination.  He claimed to believe that nation-building was an exercise in futility and the outcome of bad judgment, an implicit condemnation of his predecessor’s policies in the Balkans.

Yet, nine months into the Bush presidency Al Qaeda attacked New York and other American targets. The terror attacks precipitated a change in policy, but that change was also shaped by a human, bureaucratic legacy of imperial involvement and broad national receptivity to violence. Other countries, for example Spain after the 2004 Madrid bombings, may have chosen to disengage with the Middle East after an attack. Bush, and Americans, chose to wage war in several countries. It is worth noting the fact that national preferences change – Americans today are far less receptive to arguments for war than they were in the days and months following September 11, 2001.

If events, public opinion and the views of presidential staff and the bureaucracy are the inputs and implements of policy – its environment, its ears and arms – the president himself is the locus that integrates the whole. He possesses his own personal prerogatives and views and likely regards himself within a historical context. It is reasonable to believe that Barack Obama knows that his place in history has been firmly and prominently secured by his election in 2008; he is the first black president of a country that enslaved blacks for 250 years. But that achievement alone is insufficient from the perspective of policy triumphs.

Barack Obama and his policy goals

Like many presidents before him, Obama’s understandable drive to achieve real and durable change impacts his view of priorities and opportunities. Franklin Roosevelt defeated the Nazis and brokered the New Deal – two extraordinary foreign and domestic achievements. Lyndon Johnson lost the war in Vietnam but he also worked to close the civil rights gap in America; his is a mixed legacy. Barack Obama implemented a major set of healthcare reforms, and he has reduced the number of Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he has not yet achieved a positive – as opposed to reactive – foreign policy goal that may contribute to his presidential legacy. And that’s a critical point: that the difference between active policy engagements and the resolution of policy failures is a meaningful one. It is easier to remember Johnson’s role in losing Vietnam than it is to remember who withdrew the last troops in that failed war.

When he first came to office Obama demonstrated an ambitious willingness to address and resolve substantial foreign policy challenges. He aimed to provide a path to a Palestinian-Israeli accord. He pledged to vacate Guantanamo Bay and to forge a new relationship with the Arab and Muslim world, one based on mutual respect and security. He voiced a willingness to reexamine ties with Iran and to secure Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. His policy goals were heroic in their scope and the magnitude of their ambition, and real movement on any of the three would have produced a meaningful legacy.

Regrettably, the policy agenda was encumbered by internal opposition or external events – and in many cases the president failed to overcome those challenges. His failure was due in some part to his personal shortcomings – like his dogged insistence on bipartisan agreement with a recalcitrant Republican party, but it was also because of entrenched domestic lobbyists. The structural context also featured increasingly assertive global adversaries and real resource constraints owing to a recession and a trillion-dollar Afghanistan/Iraq war bill.

In the case of Palestine, Obama began his first term by highlighting the illegality of Israel’s colonization of the occupied territories – a longtime American position on the issue. He spent a great deal of personal credibility when he proclaimed his position in Cairo among people who were listening closely. Yet opportunistic legislators with a deferential relationship to members of the Israel lobby quickly undermined the president. He retreated from his policy goal in Palestine after acknowledging the domestic constraints he faced on issues related to Israel.

And then, in 2010, the Arab revolutions began. Tunisia moved first, but Egypt quickly began to dominate the news around the world. As the largest supplier of military aid and political support to the Egyptian government, the US was widely perceived as having a special responsibility to the Egyptian people. Obama was faced with an unpalatable choice: Push for democracy or preserve a long-time American client. He dithered for weeks before finally backing the revolutionaries. His understandable indecisiveness – or more charitably, his wait-and-see tactic – would later come to define his approach to unrest in Libya and Syria. While prudent from a capacity perspective – Egypt made it clear that American influence was limited – Obama’s decision to “lead from behind,” the dominant strategy in Libya, is hardly the kind of legacy-affirming leadership he would needed to shape a grand, positive foreign policy legacy.

In Pakistan, the administration attempted to “reset” the relationship three different times: first, when Obama became president, then when Asif Ali Zardari replaced Pervez Musharraf, and finally when Nawaz Sharif was elected. But in each case, despite his outward appeal for better relations, Obama’s policy goals were undermined by Pakistan’s insistence on autonomous dealings with groups and people the US regards as a threat, by the American drone attack policy in the country, and by disagreements over Pakistan’s nuclear capability. It became apparent fairly quickly that the Pakistan relationship would not yield a legacy (or any) achievement for the president.

Failure on Palestine and Pakistan left Obama with one major foreign policy challenge around which he could craft a meaningful legacy. The relationship with Iran was a difficult one following the 1979 revolution, and it worsened after George W. Bush issued his infamous “Axis of Evil” speech in 2002.  But a confluence of local and international developments provided the opening that the president needed to begin to move on his long-standing Iran policy goal. First, a war-weary American people exhibited a greater degree of receptivity to a diplomatic resolution of Iran’s nuclear program. That public openness enabled the president to confront AIPAC and its affiliated members of Congress, the Israeli Prime Minister, and the Saudi leadership more forcefully than he otherwise might. At the same time, a change in the Iranian leadership enabled the president to make a credible case for engagement among his diplomats and other world leaders. Finally, the fact that Obama is at the end of his second term has produced an urgency and high degree of engagement with the issue, a critical factor for success.

But success is still a long way off. And from the perspective of the Americans movement on Iran has always required Russian cooperation. Whether that help will be forthcoming in the wake of Crimea is an open question.

A version of this article appeared in The National

Ahmed Moor
About Ahmed Moor

Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American who was born in the Gaza Strip. He is a PD Soros Fellow, co-editor of After Zionism and co-founder and CEO of liwwa.com. Twitter: @ahmedmoor

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23 Responses

  1. seafoid
    seafoid
    March 22, 2014, 10:32 am

    “Finally, the fact that Obama is at the end of his second term has produced an urgency and high degree of engagement with the issue, a critical factor for success.”

    Same with healthcare but it doesn’t necessarily mean he can face down all the vested interests. Maybe he’ll be remembered as a fairly ineffective Prez. What is the big problem with Iran anyway ?

  2. annie
    annie
    March 22, 2014, 11:57 am

    this is excellent. thank you Ahmed.

    The wide path of Washington’s imperial trajectory has rounded its apex; it is now on its way back to earth.

    i was reminded of something outrageous i read recently by someone lamenting that trajectory, or so it seems.

    In Defense of Empire http://m.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/04/in-defense-of-empire/358645/

  3. CloakAndDagger
    CloakAndDagger
    March 22, 2014, 1:05 pm

    And from the perspective of the Americans movement on Iran has always required Russian cooperation. Whether that help will be forthcoming in the wake of Crimea is an open question.

    I have a different perspective on that. Movement on Iran today is not so much of utilizing Russian cooperation, but more likely the result of the threat of a Chinese/Russian block veto of US actions/sanctions. Europe is economically in pain because of their dependence on oil, and with the Crimean debacle, their economy is going to be affected far more than that of the US – giving them cause to rebel against US dictates. With diminishing global influence, the specter of such a threat is not to be sniffed at. The sanctions themselves have pretty much fallen apart and quixotic attempts by our congress-critters to increase sanctions will not only be impotent, but will further diminish US stature abroad, and the mighty dollar is quickly approaching the point where it is no longer the instrument of international transactions – putting our economy into a tailspin.

    All the banker wars have reached their peak, and the chicken are flocking home to roost. Of the 70 or so wars that we have engaged in since WW2, not counting Granada (Ha!), there is not a single one that we can point to as having been victorious or having benefitted the US in any significant way (and I don’t consider Haliburton to be the US).

    Obama still has the chance to redeem himself – in fact he still has the chance to become revered historically if he can normalize relations with Iran. I will go even farther and say that he could become the stuff of legends and seize the mantle of becoming one of our greatest and most cherished presidents, if he can normalize relations with Israel. The latter, unfortunately, depends more on the Herculean task of cleansing the Augean stables that is the US congress. This is not a task that any president can do, but it is one that he could inspire the general public to do by going to the people.

    Will either of these happen? I still have hopes for a positive outcome to the Iran negotiations, although its detractors will throw everything and the kitchen sink at it to make it fail. On the latter issue, which is the root of almost all the current issues, I am less optimistic.

    It is darkest before dawn.

  4. CloakAndDagger
    CloakAndDagger
    March 22, 2014, 1:21 pm

    Yet, nine months into the Bush presidency Al Qaeda attacked New York and other American targets.

    If not for the policy of MW against doing so, I would argue with you on the assertion of who attacked us.

    • March 22, 2014, 6:08 pm

      I hope they would allow this: the only article on the missing Malaysian plane that didn’t allow readers’ comments that I saw dealt w cellphone use, the story leading w planes that on 9/11 “hurtled low over the countryside.” Not a single plane I am aware of is alleged to have “hurtled low over the countryside” — and they weren’t about to open that up to comments.

      • March 22, 2014, 6:46 pm

        That’s comments in the Times.

  5. Citizen
    Citizen
    March 22, 2014, 2:28 pm

    A good analytical article, but not much on whether or not Kerry intentionally gave Obama a mutually preconceived out on Syria after all the often AIPC-ignorant phones in Washington DC rang off the hook from the American grass, telling Congress and WH the American public did not want a strike on Syria. And not addressing who concocted Kerry’s “framework” method of working towards I-P peace, and not addressing what Obama has done to help Kerry’s spending of vast amounts of time on said process. Still, none of these reservations of mine militate against the author’s conclusion that Iran is Obama’s target signature to go into history as an important POTUS beyond being born half black and the kingpin behind Obamacare–the jury’s still out on whether or not that will be a plus on the domestic front like FDR’s social welfare matrix. Won’t it be obvious to historians that Obama’s public stance on Putin’s Hitleresque grab of Crimea is inconsistent with his public stance on Israel’s endlessly stealing Palestinian land, especially since the latter is not based on any ethnic demographics outside the bible?

  6. ToivoS
    ToivoS
    March 22, 2014, 3:14 pm

    Ahmed is quite correct that a peace agreement with Iran is really the only foreign policy issue where Obama can leave a positive legacy. I doubt that it will be seen as all that historic given that it will simply be the correction of a mistake. Rest of Obama’s policies have been an incoherent mix of failures. These include: surge in Afghanistan, R2P in Libya, pivot to Asia, red lines in Syria and promotion of democracy in Ukraine. In all of these he made matters worse, realized his error and somehow managed to stop making things ever more worse. Ukraine is still in play so maybe he will yet manage to lead us into all out war.

    Iran is where he can actually do some good. He has so weakened himself with these other issues that it will embolden the lobby and the war party to work to sabotage the good progress he has so far made with Iran. I am hoping he succeeds.

    • Keith
      Keith
      March 22, 2014, 4:09 pm

      TOIVOS- “Rest of Obama’s policies have been an incoherent mix of failures.”

      Funny, I rate him as the most effective imperial President ever. He has been much more effective in implementing Wall Street’s agenda than George W. Bush. More effective even than slick Willie. Of course, he doesn’t actually set the policies, he merely sells them to a demoralized electorate.

      • libra
        libra
        March 22, 2014, 7:02 pm

        Keith: Funny, I rate him as the most effective imperial President ever.

        Arguably Keith, he’s the first truly imperial President. Look at that profile as he gazes down on a hapless proconsul reporting on his failure to bring some troublesome far-flung province to heel. Wouldn’t that look just perfect adorning the imperial coin?

  7. eljay
    eljay
    March 22, 2014, 3:16 pm

    >> When he first came to office Obama demonstrated an ambitious willingness to address and resolve substantial foreign policy challenges. …

    When Obama first came to office, he demonstrated the ability to talk a really great talk. But when it came time to walk the walk…

    >> Regrettably, the policy agenda was encumbered by internal opposition or external events – and in many cases the president failed to overcome those challenges. His failure was due in some part to his personal shortcomings – like his dogged insistence on bipartisan agreement with a recalcitrant Republican party, but it was also because of entrenched domestic lobbyists.

    His biggest personal shortcoming was not remaining true to, and fighting for, the causes about which he waxed so eloquently, but his willingness:
    – to drop all pretense of (consistently) giving a sh*t about freedom, justice, morality and equality; and
    – to drop to his knees and do the donkey for Zio-supremacists, Zio-supremacism and the supremacist “Jewish State”.

  8. March 22, 2014, 4:24 pm

    “Regrettably, the policy agenda was encumbered by internal opposition or external events – and in many cases the president failed to overcome those challenges. His failure was due in some part to his personal shortcomings – like his dogged insistence on bipartisan agreement with a recalcitrant Republican party, but it was also because of entrenched domestic lobbyists.”

    Was it lobbyists who insisted Obama instruct Susan Rice to veto a SC Resolution condemning Israeli behavior — a resolution GERMANY voted for, for God’s sake — or was it those “personal shortcomings”? (Merkel doesn’t have a Jewish constituency to answer to?)

    Is it lobbyists who forbid Obama to meet w Jimmy Carter, as noted elsewhere on this site? Or is it that we have the smallest man ever occupying the White House? By far.

  9. seafoid
    seafoid
    March 22, 2014, 4:29 pm

    Obama isn’t the first Prez to shaft the Palestinians
    Bush was far more audacious.

    http://www.albawaba.com/news/bush-palestinians-learn-democracy-possible?quicktabs_accordion=2
    “Bush: Palestinians will learn from Iraq that democracy is within their reach”

    Nothing’s changed but the surrounding DC bullshit that has grown

  10. tommy
    tommy
    March 22, 2014, 5:11 pm

    The author is being too kind to the president’s ambitions. Obama’s legacy can only be one of continuing to enforce US hegemony throughout the world. He is the commander in chief who has overseen the drone assassination campaign in Pakistan. The escalation in Afghanistan, militant Libyan involvement, support for the coup in Honduras, arms for Syrian rebels, who may be linked to al Qaeda, betrayal in Egypt, and interference in the domestic affairs in Ukraine with fascists in order to continue the encircling of Russia have to be included in any history of President Obama’s presidency. Despite his early pronouncements about Israel’s intolerable and acquisitive policies towards Palestinians and Palestine, he throws up his hands, or washes them, and claims there is too much political opposition for the president of the US to do anything to improve the situation. He also approves rushing Israel new weapons when there is some minor conflict Israel escalates. Iran is being coerced into complying with US commands no other nation in the world has to put up with, simply because it was a previous oil colony that triumphed over that previously mentioned hegemony. The president will leave no positive legacy; Iran’s capitulation should not be deemed so.

  11. James Canning
    James Canning
    March 22, 2014, 7:30 pm

    Clearly, Obama failed to stop Israel’s idiotic and continuing growth of the illegal colonies of Jews in the West Bank, and his failure can be laid at the feet of powerful Aipac stooges in his own party.

  12. Bandolero
    Bandolero
    March 23, 2014, 2:12 am

    I more or less agree with Ahmed that ran could be a positive with the Obama presidency.

    However, I completely disagree about hanging around Obama’s other policies an anonymous coat of history. Let me explain. Ahmed writes:

    And then, in 2010, the Arab revolutions began.

    But the reality, as I see it, is: in August 2010, Obama signed his “Presidential Study Directive 11” – which was the order to unleash the so-called “Arab revolutions.”

    So, when someone judges the actions of Obama, I think, one should take such covert action into account, too.

    Obama signed the surge in Afghanistan, which caused some dozen thousand more ppl dead. Obama unleashed the arab spring, thereby bringing death to about 200K thousand Libyan and Syrian ppl dead. Add to this the dead American soldiers and some thousand ppl droned to death in places like Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. And, of course, add to this many more people in all these areas not killed, but maimed, in a ratio of about one to five, bringing maimed people following Obama’s orders to over a million.

    Seeing all this, one might still judge that Obama has some net positive on his side, like his so far incompleted attempt to bring peace with Iran and his efforts in taking on AIPAC to resolve the I/P conflict. I tend to see it this way. The previous president GWB started even more devastating wars than Obama did, the president before, Bill Clinton, had his UN ambassador Albright saying 500.000 dead children is a price worth going after a man like Saddam Hussein and guys before him, like Nixon, LBJ and so on, where even worse.

    So, instead of lauding Obama prematurely, I would say, he just killed about 200k people, and that’s better than some guys before him in the same job, but we are still waiting for the final results of the positives, like making peace with Iran or solve the IP-conflict.

    I think that would put things into perspective. And, yes, I appreciate that Obama doesn’t say he will smoke up the world trying to secure the Russian base in Sevastopol.

    • Bandolero
      Bandolero
      March 23, 2014, 2:37 am

      A quic addendum to make my stance better understandable:

      The policy of the GWB admisnistration was set up to invade Iran. GWB didn’t invade Iran, because after the misadventures in Afghnaistan and Iraq he realized, his US troops would get smoked up if he invaded Iran.

      The same things Obama was told by the generals: if the US invades Iran the US will lose and the US troops will get smoked up, don’t do it, the US will lose.

      So, in the face of reality, Obama didn’t invade Iran, but that’s not worth any credit. It’s just military reality. Worth a credit would be, if Obama manages to strike a peace deal with Iran, and Obama indeed made laudable inroads in that direction. However, the peace deal is so far not finally done. Real credit is due when the deal is done and stands against spoilers.

      • James Canning
        James Canning
        March 23, 2014, 1:31 pm

        The CIA played a key role in blocking neocon conspiracy to set up war with Iran. (2007 NIE on Iran)

  13. Justpassingby
    Justpassingby
    March 23, 2014, 5:19 am

    Nope, I think its naive to think that US/Israel will accept Iran. Israel and Aipac want the war.

    • James Canning
      James Canning
      March 23, 2014, 1:55 pm

      Israel and Aipac want to continue to scr*w the Palestinians. Iran helps deflect attention from this programme.

  14. Citizen
    Citizen
    March 23, 2014, 7:14 am

    23 Democratic Senators have joined the ton of House representatives to sabotage diplomacy with Iran: http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/03/22/senate-dems-join-house-in-pressing-obama-again-about-final-iran-nuclear-deal/

  15. Citizen
    Citizen
    March 23, 2014, 11:01 am

    Netanyahu allocated about the same sum of $ US gives Israel in direct aid yearly–To Prepare Attack On Iran: http://www.heavy.com/news/2014/03/israel-idf-netanyahu-strike-iran-preparation-2014/

    He did the same thing last year.

    Always good to have US taxpayers dollars to play with. Nobody does it better than AIPAC, the Zionist Orchestra which allows money to fall from trees to catch so long as you’re a prostitute and traitor.

  16. Citizen
    Citizen
    March 23, 2014, 11:38 am

    How the Iran Scare has been churned up, manufactured by the usual suspects, and the US mainstream media has been the usual echo: http://www.amazon.com/Manufactured-Crisis-Untold-Story-Nuclear/dp/1935982338/scotthortonshow

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