A Reckoning for Obama's Foreign-Policy Legacy

Pete Souza/White House file photo

Embedded in any policy is some theory of victory—some explanation, no matter how inchoate or ill-considered, that explains why this might work. So too with President Trump’s decision to walk away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the agreement with Iran so ungainly that even the acronym JCPOA seems elegant by comparison. The nominal theory of victory here is preposterous: that Iran will come to heel, retreat from its nefarious activities in the Middle East, end ancillary programs such as its ballistic-missile work that support the nuclear program, and permanently renounce its nuclear program in word and deed. Such behavior would be inconsistent with anything Iran has done in the past and would be a crushing humiliation that would jeopardize the very survival of the regime.

The real theory of victory, rather, is that American sanctions—to include those inflicted on European and other foreign companies doing business in Iran—will bring down a regime whose economy is already collapsing. That is the real test of the new lukewarm war with Iran. It is conceivable but unlikely that this will work. For now, the Iranian regime seems able to repress dissent as brutally as it wishes. That is how it survived the uprisings of 2009. Other actors (China and Russia most notably) have every incentive to prop up the Iranian regime if for no other reason than to demonstrate the limits of American power. America’s European allies will cooperate grudgingly with American behavior that most of them view as outrageous, and some of them may actively thwart or undermine American sanctions.

The Iran deal was, in truth, a very bad one. It did nothing to inhibit Iranian behavior in the broader Middle East, did nothing to stop its ballistic programs, and opened the path for a resumption of the nuclear-weapons program in a decade or so. Some of us said so at the time. Walking away from it, however, will make matters worse not only because success is unlikely, but because this shredding of an earlier presidential agreement further undermines the qualities that those who look to American leadership have come to value—predictability, steadiness, and continuity. Even when American allies have doubted the superpower’s wisdom, they usually felt they could count on its constancy.

Trump unchecked is a man who believes in unpredictability, threats, and head-spinning policy pirouettes. One of the few principles by which he has guided his personal and business lives is inconstancy and lack of fidelity. Now, however, there are those who should know better who cheer him on. They will undeceive themselves painfully, much as did those who in a previous administration thought “Don’t do stupid stuff” and “Lead from behind” were profound insights by an equally inexperienced and unconventional but (assumedly) brilliant president.

Which should lead to some reflection by the veterans and supporters of the Obama administration, who find themselves almost daily mortified by the repudiation and dismantling of all their hard work. They are learning a hard lesson: that policies constructed by executive order and executive agreement are just as easily blown up by them. Having contemptuously dismissed the foreign-policy establishment as “the Blob,” they are learning that actually, it had a point: It understood the Russian threat better than they did, and was from the outset far more alert to the dangers of Trump than they were. Their big foreign-policy achievements are smoking (in one case, poison-gas-reeking) ruins—from the recognition of Cuba to the Iran deal, from the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the Libya intervention, and from the supposed pivot to Asia to the treaty eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons.

They deserve their mortification, in part because, while in office, they thought they could treat constitutional requirements and everyone else’s opinions with contempt. Then-Secretary of State John Hay was nearly driven mad by having to persuade the Senate to ratify the treaty signed by the Theodore Roosevelt administration that finally settled America’s disputes with Great Britain, but it was worth it. The Obama team never even considered doing what the Constitution demands and making the Iran deal a treaty. Nor did it attempt seriously to convince Congress to reexamine its authorizations for the use of military force in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. George W. Bush at least sought and received congressional authorization for the 2003 Iraq War. When the Obama administration went to war in Libya, it thought approval by the people’s representatives an unnecessary legal nicety.

Trump is a force—he has real demagogic talents. He is, as well, a symptom of deeper problems and perversities in the American body politic. But he is also, in part, a consequence of the tone and style as well as the policy substance of his predecessor. During the debate over the JCPOA, the Obama administration resorted to its usual debating tactic in dealing with its opponents: If you do not agree with us, you are in favor of another Iraq-style war but on a larger scale. That dishonest and insulting position was its talking point on Syria as well. Its contempt for its opponents in foreign policy merely mirrored its attitude domestically. It was a tone established by a president who, during his first campaign, explained angry working-class voters as those who when “they get bitter … cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

In foreign policy as domestically, the Trump administration’s style is to be the anti-Obama, and a lot of people like it. To some extent this befalls all administrations: If you served in the George W. Bush administration and lived in Washington, you got a full unpleasant dose of that from 2009 onwards. The wheel having turned, Obama veterans are getting something similar to, and in most cases worse than, what they doled out to their predecessors. They may even grudgingly admit that they went a bit far, but the issue is graver than that.

As the Trump administration persists in its reckless disordering of the world, its successors will find it difficult, and perhaps impossible, to recreate the relatively stable post-Cold War world that we will look on far more nostalgically than we now do. The Obama team was a young team. They will return to power, because sooner or later the Republicans will either implode or be evicted from office, or both. The question will then be whether they have learned some lessons.

That is a very hard—in most cases, impossible—thing to do. Once one has experienced the headiness of being at the top, the long hours and multiple pressures, the loss of nights or weekends with family, the sense of urgency and accomplishment that government uniquely brings, it is very hard to say to yourself: “We really screwed up. And the Big Boss, whom I worshipped, screwed up most of all.” But that is the ultimate test of a former appointee’s political maturity. Half-a-dozen years ago, I tried to organize a kind of collective self-criticism session about Iraq with Bush administration veterans. Within 15 minutes, it degenerated into recrimination, furious denial, and sputtering indignation. I never tried it again.

The Bush veterans will not, for the most part, return to government service, but the Obama people, because they are a much younger group, will. As they piece together the fragments of American foreign policy from the wreckage that is the Trump administration, one hopes they can repair some of the damage. They will do so, however, only if they begin by staring unflinchingly in the mirror at their own record, their own rhetoric, and their own failures.

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