Barack Obama and His Diplomatic Legacy: From an Iranian viewpoint

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Kaveh Afrasiabi
As the torch passes from Obama to Trump, questions about Obama’s legacy gain momentum, often couched in the familiar historicist language of ‘how will history judge his presidency?’. Careful historians are disinclined to issue rash judgment, usually preferring to let future generation of historians issue their verdict with the benefit of safe distance from the present reality, too convoluted to lend itself to apt generalizations. Besides, such judgments are relative, based on comparisons with the other US presidents in US history, not to mention other world leaders. Not only that, our judgments are filtered by our vested interests and points of views shaping our perceptions of a political leader’s significance.

From Iran’s vintage, Obama appears a lot more significant than any other US president since the Iranian revolution, essentially for causing important loopholes in the American orthodoxy against Iran, which first emerged in the form of a Carter Doctrine and then Reagan Doctrine etc., each firmly anchored in the "containment" approach. Although Obama did not spell doom for this approach, he was able to nuance and modify it enough to nest the seeds of a rapprochement that was articulated in the parlance of "Iran engagement." The Iran nuclear accord was the end product of this new initiative that resulted in secret bilateral talks in Oman and sustained multilateral negotiations that vastly benefited from a like-minded secretary of state, John Kerry, who shared Obama’s vision on Iran.

In the grand scheme of things, therefore, Obama’s legacy of the Iran nuclear accord is meritorious of positive interpretation by historians, as a tissue of smart American diplomacy that ultimately yielded a breakthrough because it was mirrored by Iran’s leadership who reciprocated Obama’s engagement impulse. Faced with strong Israeli opposition and internal dissent, Obama and his foreign policy team succeeded on the Iran front but also incurred some (tolerable) damages in terms of US-Israel relations, which reached new heights more recently by Obama’s decision to avoid vetoing a UN Security Council resolution condemning the settlements.

But Obama’s last hurrah was on Russia, reflected in his decision to up the ante against Moscow through the dispatch of American military hardware to Russia’s vicinity, perhaps as a payback for the perceived Russian interference in US’ elections as well as to tie Trump’s hands and make it more difficult for his successor to ‘reset’ US’ Russia policy, which is basically in tatters today.

Indeed, the huge setback in US-Russia relations during the Obama era is bound to figure prominently in any future objective assessment of his era. No doubt, historians will debate about the root causes and who shoulders the main blame, Putin? Obama? Or both? Obama who began his presidency with the promise of a genuine Russian reset leaves the Oval Office with precious little to show on this arena, except the Moscow-Washington cooperation on the Iran nuclear issue and, to a much lesser extent, on Syria, e.g., on Syria’s chemical weapon disarmament. Otherwise, despite marathon negotiations and joint initiatives on Syrian ceasefire, the US-Russian cooperation on Syria ultimately bore little fruit while Obama was in office, due to a variety of reasons one of which was undoubtedly a built-in American ambivalence about the importance of Syria for America’s vital national interests. A similar ambivalence toward Ukraine dominated the American policy thinking, combined with elements of a new NATO-based aggressiveness that contributed, if not instigated, the coup in Ukraine and the subsequent turn of events culminating in Putin’s defensive takeover of Crimea to safeguard Russia’s naval assets. Lest we forget, even the icon of American Cold War policy, Henry Kissinger, criticized the Obama administration for failing to pursue meaningful dialogue with Moscow on Ukraine. Kissinger was not alone and he was joined by a number of others, such as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who also acknowledged the Russian paranoia of NATO’s "eastward expansion," which has now reached to the verge of permanent US military presence in the Baltic Sea region. Needless to say, this is a highly dangerous development that emerged under Obama’s watch, requiring serious scrutiny.

Equally important is the question of how one is to grade Obama in the ‘war on terror,’ in light of irrefutable evidence that he pursued a contradictory policy vis-a-vis ISIS, as a result of which ISIS was able to funnel smuggled oil across borders for over two years unmolested by American air power, i.e. a conscious decision by Obama to follow a hands-off approach -- that had clear ramifications in strengthening ISIS at a time when US bombers were targeting ISIS in other areas. Again, due to information scarcity, we are unable to conclude if this was mainly due to the old American propensity to use the "radical Islamist card" or the result of Saudi influence and pressure. What is clear, however, is that Obama deliberately turned a blind eye to ISIS’ Summer 2014 onslaught on Mosul, characterizing it as an "internal Iraqi problem," which can be traced to more than a mere lapse of foreign policy judgment. Consequently, the net legacy of Obama with respect to radical jihadism and Daesh is largely negative, leaving a lot to be desired. This is a legacy of half-steps and thoroughly sub-optimal focus on this threat, reflected in small US budget allocated to fighting ISIS, which were in combination with Obama’s extra-legal drone wars (thus earning him the title drone president), not to mention his propensity for covert action that, in Iran’s case, was responsible for the dangerous cyberattacks. The Stuxnet story has already been solidly documented, deserving attention in any neutral appraisal of Obama and his legacy.

To return to the subject of Obama’s Iran legacy, he half-opened the door for rapprochement and then basically shut the door after the nuclear deal was achieved. His post-accord statement that "we are not normalizing relations with Iran" simply meant that the accord would have to survive in a turbulent environment of diplomatic estrangement and oppositional relations with Iran. With respect to his commitments to the agreement too there are some question marks, in light of the Iranian complaints about the US’ reneging on certain promises and the like. On the whole, however, the agreement remains valid and its longevity is attributable to Obama’s singular focus on the nuclear crisis, which ranks high in importance irrespective of the shortcomings (or its fate in Trump’s hands).

To conclude, a decent assessment of Obama and his legacy must of course evaluate his net impact on US’ domestic politics, economy, and societal relations. Obamacare, covering some 20 million more Americans with "affordable insurance" is a contribution in the annals of America’s ‘welfare state’ that harks back to Roosevelt’s New Deal. But, on the whole, Obama was a pro-Wall Street care-taker president who avoided any ambitious plans for restructuring and the like, compared to the neo-isolationist Trump who harbors a bigger ambition to alter the existing arrangements, in part as a reaction to the pro-globalization Obama. How far or how well Trump succeeds in shifting course from the Obama-led pattern of US’ interaction and integration in the world economy will be his litmus test. But for Obama, the verdict on his globalization impulse is already out in the form of the Trump backlash, determined to wipe out his entire legacy. Yet, it is hardly surprising if Trump’s own legacy would somehow end up showing marked continuities with the care-taker Obama, rather than discontinuities. In a word, incremental changes rather than wholesale changes might have the upper hands in the coming Trump administration.

Source: IrDiplomacy


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