By William Beecher
The tentative nuclear framework agreement with Iran is the latest acid test of President Obama’s worldview—one that insists 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 naïve” 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’e core philosophy. He believes that in the past the United States has been too inclined to turn to military power to address problems in the world, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is convinced he has found a more workable path: persistent diplomatic engagement.
In his six years in office, however, he has faced one rebuff or misstep after another in applying this philosophy, 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 that in all likelihood will become the touchstone of his historic legacy, one way or another.
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, President Obama 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 while 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 of American foreign policy from the Middle East to the Pacific. But events have conspired otherwise.
Following the so-called Arab Spring, which only blossomed positively in Tunisia, came Egypt’s putsch against the Moslem Brotherhood, the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the revolution by the minority Houthis, supported by Tehran, in Yemen, with the attendant decision by Saudi Arabia and Egypt to use military force to contest them. The ancient blood feud between the Sunnis and the Shiites appears to be reaching a new climax.
It’s true that the president was confronted by two ongoing wars when he came to power–costly, 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 he reluctantly agreed with European allies to help oust Muammar 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 have no significant response if he annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine—remains a matter of conjecture. But Putin obviously did not feel constrained by Obama who offered an open hand, rather than a clenched fist.
There is no question that Obama’s rose colored worldview remains up for debate, but with this latest deal to deter a nuclear Iran, it is hardly 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 Assistant Secretary of Defense, and is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland.