Pourquoi le chien remue-t-il la queue ? Parce que le chien est plus malin que la queue. Si la queue était plus maline, c’est qui elle remuerait le chien. Conrad Brean (Des hommes d’influence)
To ‘wag the dog’ means to purposely divert attention from what would otherwise be of greater importance, to something else of lesser significance. By doing so, the lesser-significant event is catapulted into the limelight, drowning proper attention to what was originally the more important issue. Usingenglish.com
Why did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel feel the need to wag the dog in Washington? For that was, of course, what he was doing in his anti-Iran speech to Congress. If you’re seriously trying to affect American foreign policy, you don’t insult the president and so obviously align yourself with his political opposition. No, the real purpose of that speech was to distract the Israeli electorate with saber-rattling bombast, to shift its attention away from the economic discontent that, polls suggest, may well boot Mr. Netanyahu from office in Tuesday’s election. (…) So Mr. Netanyahu tried to change the subject from internal inequality to external threats, a tactic those who remember the Bush years should find completely familiar. We’ll find out on Tuesday whether he succeeded. Paul Krugman
In my eyes, [the US administration’s comments on the two-state solution] are less related to the Palestinian issue but are much more connected to the Iranian issue. We’re having a substantial disagreement with Washington over the agreement they’re about to sign in the coming days and weeks. Dore Gold (former ambassador to the United Nations and close Netanyahu adviser)
Ce qui se vit aujourd’hui est une forme de rivalité mimétique à l’échelle planétaire. Lorsque j’ai lu les premiers documents de Ben Laden, constaté ses allusions aux bombes américaines tombées sur le Japon, je me suis senti d’emblée à un niveau qui est au-delà de l’islam, celui de la planète entière. Sous l’étiquette de l’islam, on trouve une volonté de rallier et de mobiliser tout un tiers-monde de frustrés et de victimes dans leurs rapports de rivalité mimétique avec l’Occident. René Girard
Le problème n’est pas la sécurité d’Israël, la souveraineté du Liban ou les ingérences de la Syrie ou du Hezbollah : Le problème est centré sur l’effort de l’Iran à obtenir le Droit d’Abolir l’Exclusivité de la Dissuasion. La prolifération sauvage, le concept de «tous nucléaires» sera la fin de la Guerre Froide et le retour à la période précédant la Dissuasion. Les mollahs et leurs alliés, le Venezuela, l’Algérie, la Syrie, la Corée du Nord et la Russie…, se militarisent à une très grande échelle sachant qu’ils vont bientôt neutraliser le parapluie protecteur de la dissuasion et alors ils pourront faire parler la poudre. Chacun visera à dominer sa région et sans que les affrontements se déroulent en Europe, l’Europe sera dépouillée de ses intérêts en Afrique ou en Amérique du Sud et sans combattre, elle devra déposer les armes. Ce qui est incroyable c’est la myopie de la diplomatie française et de ses experts. (…) Aucun d’entre eux ne se doute que la république islamique a des alliés qui ont un objectif commun: mettre un terme à une discrimination qui dure depuis 50 ans, la dissuasion nucléaire ! Cette discrimination assure à la France une position que beaucoup d’états lui envient. Ils attendent avec impatience de pouvoir se mesurer avec cette ancienne puissance coloniale que beaucoup jugent arrogante, suffisante et gourmande. Iran-Resist
L’Iran aurait pu être la Corée du Sud; il est devenu la Corée du Nord. (…) Mais n’oubliez pas qu’Ahmadinejad n’est que le représentant d’un régime de nature totalitaire, qui ne peut se réformer et évoluer, quelle que soit la personne qui le représente. (…) Aujourd’hui, le problème ne vient pas de l’idée de se doter de l’énergie nucléaire ; il provient de la nature du régime islamique. (…) je ne crois pas que les mollahs soient assez fous pour penser un jour utiliser la bombe contre Israël: ils savent très bien qu’ils seraient aussitôt anéantis. Ce qu’ils veulent, c’est disposer de la bombe pour pouvoir s’institutionnaliser une fois pour toutes dans la région et étendre leurs zones d’influence. Ils rêvent de créer un califat chiite du XXIe siècle et entendent l’imposer par la bombe atomique (…) il est manifeste qu’un gouvernement paranoïaque crée des crises un peu partout pour tenter de regagner à l’extérieur la légitimité qu’il a perdue à l’intérieur. Les dérives du clan au pouvoir ne se limitent pas au soutien au Hamas, elles vont jusqu’à l’Amérique latine de Chavez. Il ne s’agit en rien d’une vision qui vise à défendre notre intérêt national. Si le régime veut survivre, il doit absolument mettre en échec le monde libre, combattre ses valeurs. La République islamique ne peut pas perdurer dans un monde où l’on parle des droits de l’homme ou de la démocratie. Tous ces principes sont du cyanure pour les islamistes. Comment voulez-vous que les successeurs de Khomeini, dont le but reste l’exportation de la révolution, puissent s’asseoir un jour à la même table que le président Sarkozy ou le président Obama? Dans les mois à venir, un jeu diplomatique peut s’engager, mais, au final, il ne faut pas se faire d’illusion. Même si Khatami revenait au pouvoir, le comportement du régime resterait identique, car le vrai décideur c’est Khamenei. Je ne vois aucune raison pour laquelle le régime islamiste accepterait un changement de comportement. Cela provoquerait, de manière certaine, sa chute. Il ne peut plus revenir en arrière. J’ai bien peur que la diplomatie ne tourne en rond une nouvelle fois et que la course à la bombe ne continue pendant ce temps. Reza Pahlavi
En tant que défenseur de la rue arabe, [l’Iran] ne peut pas avoir un dialogue apaisé avec les Etats-Unis, dialogue au cours duquel il accepterait les demandes de cet Etat qui est le protecteur par excellence d’Israël. Téhéran a le soutien de la rue arabe, talon d’Achille des Alliés Arabes des Etats-Unis, car justement il refuse tout compromis et laisse entendre qu’il pourra un jour lui offrir une bombe nucléaire qui neutralisera la dissuasion israélienne. Pour préserver cette promesse utile, Téhéran doit sans cesse exagérer ses capacités militaires ou nucléaires et des slogans anti-israéliens. Il faut cependant préciser que sur un plan concret, les actions médiatiques de Téhéran ne visent pas la sécurité d’Israël, mais celle des Alliés arabes des Etats-Unis, Etats dont les dirigeants ne peuvent satisfaire les attentes belliqueuses de la rue arabe. Ainsi Téhéran a un levier de pression extraordinaire sur Washington. Comme toute forme de dissuasion, ce système exige un entretien permanent. Téhéran doit sans cesse fouetter la colère et les frustrations de la rue arabe ! Il doit aussi garder ses milices actives, de chaînes de propagande en effervescence et son programme nucléaire le plus opaque possible, sinon il ne serait pas menaçant. C’est pourquoi, il ne peut pas accepter des compensations purement économiques offertes par les Six en échange d’un apaisement ou une suspension de ses activités nucléaires. Ce refus permanent de compromis est vital pour le régime. (…) Il n’y a rien qui fasse plus peur aux mollahs qu’un réchauffement avec les Etats-Unis : ils risquent d’y perdre la rue arabe, puis le pouvoir. C’est pourquoi, le 9 septembre, quand Téhéran a accepté une rencontre pour désactiver les sanctions promises en juillet, il s’est aussitôt mis en action pour faire capoter ce projet de dialogue apaisé qui est un véritable danger pour sa survie. Iran Resist
The Iranian government has responded more positively than the Bush Administration has to the Iraq Study Group’s proposal for talks between the two. And government sources in Tehran tell TIME that this reflects a sincere and calculated desire among the Iranian leadership for improved relations with Washington. Responding to the Baker-Hamilton report’s proposal that Washington move quickly to engage Iran on talks over stabilizing Iraq, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki dangled an offer of cooperation in a statement published by an Iranian news agency. « Iran will support any policies returning security, stability and territorial integrity to Iraq, » he said, « and considers withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and leaving security to the Iraqi government as the most suitable option. » In an interview on Al Jazeera, Mottaki added that if the U.S. needs an « honorable way out of Iraq, » and Iran « is in a position to help. » President Bush, by contrast, appeared to rebuff the suggestion, insisting that Iran would have to suspend its uranium-enrichment program before it could talk to the U.S. about Iraq. And the response from many U.S. lawmakers questioning Iran’s motives in Iraq underscored the continued taboo in Washington over dealing openly with the Islamic Republic. Three Iranian sources — a government official and two figures close to government policymakers — tell TIME that Mottaki’s statement is reflective of a solid consensus among the regime’s foreign-policy decision makers that restoring relations with the U.S. is in Iran’s best interests. « If tomorrow the U.S. seriously — and I emphasize the word seriously — tried to engage Iran, in a way that accepted the 1979 Iranian revolution and engaged Iran in a respectful atmosphere, then Iran would welcome the chance to address mutual concerns, » said one of the sources, a prominent expert on U.S.-Iranian relations. (…) Some Iranian leaders and officials, including President Ahmadinejad, also believe that Iran now has the opportunity to deal with Washington from a position of strength, for the first time since the 1979 revolution. The sources say that this assessment is based on a perception that the U.S. is stuck in quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Iran’s influence in the region and throughout the Muslim world is expanding. These officials see further evidence of Iran’s advantage in the difficulties the U.S. continues to encounter in winning support for U.N. tough sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program. The sources say that Iranian officials believe that to open a serious dialogue with the U.S. in these circumstances would significantly enhance Iran’s international prestige and regional influence. Time (2006)
Sur le long terme, Obama et son entourage ont toujours fantasmé sur une réconciliation globale entre les Etats-Unis et l’islamisme, qu’il s’agisse de l’islamisme sunnite des Frères musulmans ou de l’islamisme chiite iranien. C’était le sens, dès 2009, du discours-manifeste du Caire, prononcé, il ne faut pas l’oublier, au moment même où le pouvoir des mollahs écrasait dans le sang un « printemps iranien ». Cela a été également le sens, par la suite, de la temporisation d’Obama sur la question du nucléaire iranien : Washington s’est prononcé en faveur de sanctions économiques de plus en plus lourdes, mais n’a pas envisagé sérieusement une action militaire contre l’Iran ni accordé de feu vert à une éventuelle action militaire israélienne.(…) Des négociations discrètes ont été menées au début de l’été entre Washington et Téhéran, et elles avaient suffisamment abouti dès le mois d’août – quand Rouhani a pris officiellement ses fonctions – pour que plusieurs revues américaines influentes diffusent presque immédiatement des articles préparant l’opinion à cette « détente », sinon à ce renversement d’alliance. La New York Review of Books publie dans sa livraison datée du 15 août un long article en faveur d’un « nouvelle approche envers l’Iran » cosigné, de manière significative – l’union sacrée, pourrait-on dire -, par un universitaire pro-iranien, William Luers, un ancien ambassadeur aux Nations Unies, Thomas Pickering et un homme politique républicain, Jim Walsh. Quant à Foreign Affairs, elle consacre sa couverture de septembre-octobre au chef véritable du régime iranien, l’ayatollah et Guide spirituel Ali Khamenei. Akbar Ganji, un journaliste prestigieux, souvent présenté comme le « Soljénitsyne iranien », y affirme à la fois que Rouhani ne peut se rapprocher des Etats-Unis sans l’accord préalable et l’appui de Khamenei, ce qui est vrai ; et que les Etats-Unis doivent saisir cette « chance », ce qui est plus discutable. (…) A un autre niveau, à plus court terme, Obama a sans doute vu dans un rapprochement avec l’Iran le moyen d’effacer ou de faire oublier ses échecs répétés au Moyen-Orient : en Libye, en Egypte et finalement en Syrie. Une Grande Puissance, c’est un pays qui peut faire la guerre et qui, par voie de conséquence, est en mesure d’imposer sa volonté à d’autres pays. Et « pouvoir faire la guerre », en amont, cela suppose à la fois des moyens techniques (une armée, des armements, des technologies), et des moyens politiques ou moraux (une vision du monde, des objectifs, une détermination). L’Amérique d’Obama a toujours les moyens techniques d’une Très Grande Puissance, mais elle s’est comportée en Syrie, à travers ses tergiversations et finalement sa capitulation diplomatique devant la Russie de Poutine, comme si elle n’en avait plus les moyens politiques ou moraux. Ce que les alliés traditionnels des Etats-Unis ne sont pas près de pardonner au président sur le plan international (des Etats du Golfe à la France de Hollande), ni les Américains eux-mêmes en politique intérieure.(…) Les clés d’Obama se trouvent dans son livre autobiographique, Les Rêves de mon père. Deux faits, qu’il rapporte avec beaucoup de franchise : d’abord, un drame intime : il n’a pratiquement pas connu son père ; ensuite, un drame identitaire : l’Amérique traditionnelle – anglo-saxonne, judéo-chrétienne, blanche – est pour lui une sorte de pays étranger. Il est certes né aux Etats-Unis, mais il n’y a pas passé son enfance. Il n’a pas été élevé dans la foi chrétienne, mais dans un mélange d’humanisme athée et d’islam libéral. Et bien que sa mère soit blanche, il a toujours été considéré comme un Noir. Comment surmonte-t-il ces deux drames ? A travers l’action politique en vue d’une Amérique nouvelle, multiraciale, multireligieuse, multiculturelle. En fait, il veut enfanter cette nouvelle Amérique qui lui ressemblerait, être à la fois son propre père et celui d’une nation remodelée à son image. Ce qui passe, entre autre choses, par une réconciliation – fusionnelle – avec un islam qui est le contraire même de l’Amérique traditionnelle. Ce n’est là qu’un fantasme. La politique rationnelle d’Obama se réfère à d’autres considérations, d’autres raisonnements. Mais les fantasmes sont souvent aussi puissants ou plus puissants que la rationalité. Et qui plus est, les fantasmes personnels du président actuel recoupent ceux d’une bonne partie de la société américaine : les Noirs, les non-Blancs en général, mais aussi les milieux blancs d’extrême-gauche, une partie des élites intellectuelles… (…) Qui peut encore soutenir sérieusement qu’Israël est au cœur de tous les problèmes du Proche Orient et que tout passe, dans cette région, par la « résolution » du « problème palestinien » ? Depuis près de quatre ans, le monde arabe et islamique n’en finit pas de se décomposer et de se recomposer sous nos yeux, entraîné par ses pesanteurs propres. Une analyste géopolitique, Robin Wright, vient même de prédire dans le New York Times, le quotidien le plus pro-Obama des Etats-Unis, le remplacement de cinq Etats moyen-orientaux (la Syrie, l’Irak, l’Arabie Saoudite, la Libye, le Yemen) par quinze nouveaux Etats à caractère ethnoreligieux. Voilà qui merite au moins autant d’attention que les articles promouvant le « nouvel Iran » du président Rouhani. Et qui relativise le « processus de paix » Jérusalem-Ramallah. Michel Gurfinkiel
The military planners’ scorecard made one thing perfectly clear: by 2011, enough information was available to conclude that absent a significant U.S. military presence, within a few years, the situation in Iraq was likely to deteriorate — perhaps irreversibly. The Iraqi military, for example, was still three to five years away from being able to independently sustain the gains made during the past four years.(…) Had a residual U.S. force stayed in Iraq after 2011, the United States would have had far greater insight into the growing threat posed by ISIS and could have helped the Iraqis stop the group from taking so much territory. Instead, ISIS’ march across northern Iraq took Washington almost completely by surprise. (…) In April (2011), Obama directed (U.S. forces in Iraq commander General Lloyd) Austin to develop a plan that would result in a residual force of just 8,000 to 10,000 troops and to identify the missions that a force of that size could realistically accomplish. In August, according to (then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq James) Jeffrey, Obama informed him that he was free to start negotiations with the Iraqis to keep 5,000 U.S. service members in Iraq: 3,500 combat troops who would be stationed on yearlong tours of duty and 1,500 special operations forces who would rotate in and out every four months. (…) Washington had to drop its insistence that U.S. forces enjoy complete immunity from Iraqi law. Instead, in somewhat ambiguous terms, the agreement gave Iraqi authorities legal jurisdiction over cases in which U.S. service members were accused of committing serious, premeditated felonies while off duty and away from U.S. facilities. In his memoir, Duty, published earlier this year, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates revealed that Pentagon lawyers (during Bush’s negotiations with Iraq) strongly opposed the compromise. But Gates explains that he believed it was worth the risk if it meant that U.S. forces could stay in Iraq past 2008. Commanders in the field were also comfortable with the compromise; after all, since members of the U.S. armed forces are on duty 24 hours a day and are not permitted to leave their bases unless on a mission, there was little chance that an American marine or soldier would ever wind up in the hands of Iraqi authorities. (…) In early September (2011), U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns visited Iraq to press Maliki on both those issues. According to a former administration official familiar with what happened during the meeting, Maliki told Burns that although he could likely persuade Iraq’s parliament to request a residual force, anyone who believed that the parliament would approve a status-of-forces agreement that included complete immunity did not understand Iraqi politics. Instead, Maliki proposed signing an executive memorandum granting immunity without the need to gain parliamentary approval. White House lawyers rejected that offer, arguing that for any such agreement to be legally binding, it would have to be formally ratified by the Iraqi parliament. In early October, as Maliki had predicted, the parliament approved the request for an extended U.S. military presence but declined to grant legal immunity to U.S. military personnel. Later that month, Obama told Maliki that all U.S. troops would leave Iraq by the end of 2011, in fulfillment of the terms of the agreement signed by the Bush administration in 2008. (…) In the nearly three years since Bush had agreed to a similar compromise, no U.S. service member or civilian official stationed in Iraq had been charged with violating an Iraqi law. (…) It is also worth pointing out that the U.S. military personnel stationed in Iraq today count on a promise of immunity backed only by a diplomatic note signed by the Iraqi foreign minister — an assurance even less solid than the one Maliki offered (and Obama rejected) in 2011. Rick Brennan (senior civilian adviser to the U.S. military in Iraq, 2006-2011)
Ok, so we learn to live with Iran on the edge of a bomb, but shouldn’t we at least bomb the Islamic State to smithereens and help destroy this head-chopping menace? Now I despise ISIS as much as anyone, but let me just toss out a different question: Should we be arming ISIS? Or let me ask that differently: Why are we, for the third time since 9/11, fighting a war on behalf of Iran? In 2002, we destroyed Iran’s main Sunni foe in Afghanistan (the Taliban regime). In 2003, we destroyed Iran’s main Sunni foe in the Arab world (Saddam Hussein). But because we failed to erect a self-sustaining pluralistic order, which could have been a durable counterbalance to Iran, we created a vacuum in both Iraq and the wider Sunni Arab world. That is why Tehran’s proxies now indirectly dominate four Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Sana and Baghdad. ISIS, with all its awfulness, emerged as the homegrown Sunni Arab response to this crushing defeat of Sunni Arabism — mixing old pro-Saddam Baathists with medieval Sunni religious fanatics with a collection of ideologues, misfits and adventure-seekers from around the Sunni Muslim world. Obviously, I abhor ISIS and don’t want to see it spread or take over Iraq. I simply raise this question rhetorically because no one else is: Why is it in our interest to destroy the last Sunni bulwark to a total Iranian takeover of Iraq? Because the Shiite militias now leading the fight against ISIS will rule better? Really? If it seems as though we have only bad choices in the Middle East today and nothing seems to work, there is a reason: Because past is prologue, and the past has carved so much scar tissue into that landscape that it’s hard to see anything healthy or beautiful growing out of it anytime soon. Sorry to be so grim. Thomas Friedman (NYT)
The foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State, it is Shiite militias, many backed by — and some guided by — Iran. (…) The current Iranian regime is not our ally in the Middle East. It is ultimately part of the problem, not the solution. The more the Iranians are seen to be dominating the region, the more it is going to inflame Sunni radicalism and fuel the rise of groups like the Islamic State. (…) Our withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011 contributed to a perception that the U.S. was pulling back from the Middle East. This perception has complicated our ability to shape developments in the region and thus to further our interests. These perceptions have also shaken many of our allies and, for a period at least, made it harder to persuade them to support our approaches. (…) Neither the Iranians nor Daesh are ten feet tall, but the perception in the region for the past few years has been that of the U.S. on the wane, and our adversaries on the rise. I hope that we can begin to reverse that now. David Petraeus
French leaders think the U.S. president is dangerously naïve on Iran’s ambitions, and that his notion of making Iran an « objective ally » in the war against ISIS, or even a partner, together with Putin’s Russia, to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis, is both far-fetched and « amateurish. » When Claude Angéli says that both France’s Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, and its President, François Hollande, have told friends that they rely on « the support of the US Congress » to prevent Obama from giving in to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it is the kind of quote you can take to the bank. French diplomats worry that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, every other local Middle East power will want them. Among their worst nightmares is a situation in which Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia join the Dr. Strangelove club. French diplomats may not like Israel, but they do not believe that the Israelis would use a nuclear device except in a truly Armageddon situation for Israel. As for Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Turkey going nuclear, however, they see terrifying possibilities: irresponsible leaders, or some ISIS-type terrorist outfit, could actually use them. In other words, even if they would never express it as clearly as that, they see Israelis as « like us, » but others potentially as madmen. The Quai d’Orsay (the French Foreign Ministry) may loathe, on principle, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: any briefing by French diplomats will, as a matter of course, explain how very wrong Israel is to alienate its « American ally. » All the same, France’s political stance on the projected U.S.-Iran deal is astonishingly close to that of the Israeli PM, as he outlined to the U.S. Congress on March 3. Laurent Fabius — once François Mitterrand’s youngest Prime Minister; today’s François Hollande’s seasoned Foreign Minister — is « fed up with Barack Obama’s nuclear laxity » regarding Iran, a Quai senior diplomat told Le Canard Enchaîné’s usually well-informed Claude Angéli, who can be relied on to give the unvarnished French view on matters foreign. « Just as in 2013, France will oppose any agreement too favorable to Iran if this turns out to be necessary. Fabius made this very clear to John Kerry when they met on Saturday March 7th. » This, Angéli points out, is far from the « soothing communiqué » issued at the end of the Kerry-Fabius meeting in which both men supposedly « shared » the same view of the Iran negotiations. The communiqué itself may have come as a surprise to a number of French MPs and Senators from their respective Foreign Affairs Committees. Fabius himself, in a meeting last week, made extremely clear his deep distrust (« contempt, really, » one MP says) of both John Kerry and Barack Obama. Another of the group quotes Fabius as saying: « The United States was really ready to sign just about anything with the Iranians, » before explaining that he himself had sent out, mid-February, a number of French ‘counter-proposals’ to the State Department and White House, in order to prevent an agreement too imbalanced in favor of Iran. Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
Une intéressante alliance des «faucons» se dessine de facto entre Paris, Jérusalem, le Congrès et les monarchies du Golfe, anxieuses d’un accord avec la Perse qui se ferait sur leur dos. Le Figaro (11.11.13)
We are not exactly impotent little babies. They [Israelis] have to fly over our airspace in Iraq. Are we just going to sit there and watch? (…) Well, we have to be serious about denying them that right. That means a denial where you aren’t just saying it. If they fly over, you go up and confront them. They have the choice of turning back or not. No one wishes for this but it could be a Liberty in reverse. [Israeli jet fighters and torpedo boats attacked the USS Liberty in international waters, off the Sinai Peninsula, during the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel later claimed the ship was the object of friendly fire.] (…) Obama has been very impressive in refining our policy toward the world on a lot of issues, very impressive. But he has been relatively much less impressive in the follow-through. (…) Not as precise, clear-cut, and forthcoming as would be desirable. (…) By now we should have been able to formulate a clearer posture on what we are prepared to do to promote a Palestinian-Israeli peace. Simply giving a frequent-traveler ticket to George Mitchell is not the same thing as policy. It took a long time to get going on Iran, but there is an excuse there, the Iranian domestic mess. And we are now eight months into the administration, and I would have thought by now we could have formulated a strategy that we would have considered “our” strategy for dealing with Iran and Pakistan. For example, the Carter administration, which is sometimes mocked, by now had in motion a policy of disarmament with the Russians, which the Russians didn’t like, but eventually bought; it had started a policy of normalization with the Chinese; it rammed through the Panama Canal treaty; and it was moving very, very openly toward an Israeli-Arab political peace initiative. (…) There was a closer connection between desire and execution. Also the president was not as deeply embroiled, and buffeted, by a very broad, and commendable and ambitious domestic program as President Obama is. I think the Republican onslaught to the president, the wavering of some Democrats, has vastly complicated not only his choices in foreign affairs, but even limited the amount of attention he can give to them. (…) I don’t think it’s the number of issues; it’s how decisively a president acts. A president, in his first year, is at the peak of his popularity, and if he acts decisively, even if some oppose him, most will rally around him, out of patriotism, out of opportunism, out of loyalty, out of the crowd instinct, just a variety of human motives. (…) The first year is decisive. How much you can set in motion the first year sets the tone for much of the rest of the term. In part, that’s because all these things take more than one year to complete. But the point is you want to have a dynamic start that carries momentum with it. Zbigniew Brzezinski (2009)
A l’époque, pendant que nous étions en train de discuter avec les Européens à Téhéran, nous installions des équipements dans certaines parties d’Ispahan, et le projet était sur le point d’être complété. En réalité, c’est en créant un climat de sérénité, que nous avons pu achever Ispahan. Hassan Rohani (03.11.03)
What has been released by the website of the White House as a fact sheet is a one-sided interpretation of the agreed text in Geneva and some of the explanations and words in the sheet contradict the text of the Joint Plan of Action (the title of the Iran-powers deal), and this fact sheet has unfortunately been translated and released in the name of the Geneva agreement by certain media, which is not true. Marziyeh Afkham (Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman)
Iran is already in violation of a number of Security Council resolutions demanding it cease all uranium enrichment and heavy water activity – a process used to create weapons-grade plutonium. Furthermore, none of this activity is even remotely necessary if Iran, as it claims, only wants a peaceful nuclear program. There are many countries that have nuclear power that do not have the capability to enrich their own fuel. They buy it from abroad and that’s what Iran could do. And that’s what the media are neglecting to tell you. There are over thirty countries around the world that have nuclear power programs but according to the World Nuclear Association, only eleven have the capacity to enrich their own fuel. Here are some of the countries that have nuclear energy but don’t enrich their own nuclear fuel: Argentina, Armenia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, South Korea, Lithuania, Mexico, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine. The fact is that, of countries that have enrichment capabilities, the majority also possess nuclear weapons. Countries that enrich nuclear materials but do not have nuclear weapons include Germany, Japan and the Netherlands. Countries that enrich and do have nuclear weapons include Pakistan, Russia and China. When you think of Iran, do you think it fits in with Germany, Japan and the Netherlands? Or, does it fit better with Pakistan, Russia and China? If that isn’t enough to make you uncomfortable, in a speech to the Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council in 2005, Rouhani himself said: A country that could enrich uranium to about 3.5 percent will also have the capability to enrich it to about 90 percent. Having fuel cycle capability virtually means that a country that possesses this capability is able to produce nuclear weapons. Since Argentina, Armenia, Sweden and Spain can buy nuclear fuel from abroad, why can’t Iran? Since our neighbors Canada and Mexico can pursue this policy, why can’t Iran? Camera
La Corée du Nord a appris au monde qu’au poker nucléaire la folie feinte vous vaut de l’aide étrangère ou l’attention planétaire — du fait que même la certitude qu’on a affaire à un bluff à 99% reste suffisante pour effrayer les opinions publiques occidentales. La Corée du nord est le proverbial envieux psychopathe du quartier qui agresse constamment ses voisins prospères d’à côté, en partant du principe que les voisins ne pourront manquer de prendre en compte ses menaces aussi sauvages qu’absurdes parce qu’il n’a rien et qu’ils ont tout à perdre. (…) L’Iran pourrait reprendre à l’infini le modèle de Kim — menaçant une semaine de rayer Israël de la carte, faisant machine arrière la semaine d’après sous prétexte de problèmes de traduction. L’objectif ne serait pas nécessairement de détruire Israël (ce qui vaudrait à l’Iran la destruction de la culture persane pour un siècle), mais d’imposer une telle atmosphère d’inquiétude et de pessimisme à l’Etat juif que son économie en serait affaiblie, son émigration en serait encouragée et sa réputation géostratégique en serait érodée. La Corée du nord est passée maître dans de telles tactiques de chantage nucléaire. A certains moments, Pyongyang a même réussi à réduire les deux géants asiatiques – Japon et Corée du Sud – à la quasi-paralysie.(…) Un Iran nucléaire n’aurait à s’inquiéter ni d’un ennemi existentiel avec une population d’un milliard d’habitants à côté tel que l’Inde ni d’un mécène tout aussi peuplé comme la Chine susceptible d’imposer des lignes rouges à ses crises de folie périodiques. Téhéran serait libre au contraire de faire et de dire ce qu’il veut. Et son statut de puissance nucléaire deviendrait un multiplicateur de force pour son énorme richesse pétrolière et son statut auto-proclamé de leader mondial des musulmans chiites. Si la Corée du Nord est un danger, alors un Iran nucléaire plus gros, plus riche et sans dissuasion serait un cauchemar. Victor Davis Hanson
If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us. Obama
What we intended as caution, the Iranians saw as weakness. Obama’s aide
On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved, but it’s important . . . to give me space. This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility. Obama (to Russian president Dmitry Medvedev)
At our urging, over months, Russia and Iran repeatedly reinforced our warning to Assad. We all sent the same message again and again: don’t do it. Susan Rice
I threatened [sic] kinetic strikes on Syria unless they got rid of their chemical weapons. Obama (March 2014)
The “good news is that Assad’s allies, both Russia and Iran, recognize that this [use of sarin] was—this was a breach, that this was a problem. And for them to potentially put pressure on Assad to say, ‘Let’s figure out a way that the international community gets control of . . . these weapons in a verifiable and forcible way’—I think it’s something that we will run to ground. Obama
“[I]f as a consequence of a deal on their nuclear program, those voices and trends inside of Iran are strengthened, and their economy becomes more integrated into the international community, and there’s more travel and greater openness, even if that takes a decade or 15 years or 20 years, then that’s very much an outcome we should desire. Obama
The White House version both underplays the [American] concessions and overplays Iranian commitments. The White House tries to portray it as basically a dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program. That is the word they use time and again. Javad Zarif (Iranian foreign minister)
Nous avons rappelé que ce genre de discours était contraire aux traditions d’Israël. Bien que ce pays soit fondé sur une terre historiquement juive, et sur le besoin de créer une nation juive, la démocratie israélienne repose sur la notion que tous ses citoyens sont égaux en droits. C’est ce qui fait la grandeur de cette démocratie. Si cela venait à changer, je pense que cela donnerait des arguments à ceux qui ne veulent pas d’un Etat juif, et que cela affaiblirait la démocratie israélienne (…) Disons que nous lui faisons confiance quand il dit que cela n’arrivera pas tant qu’il sera Premier ministre. C’est pourquoi nous devons explorer d’autres options afin d’empêcher que la région ne sombre dans le chaos. J’ai eu l’occasion de parler hier à M. Netanyahu. Je l’ai félicité pour sa victoire, et je lui ai réaffirmé mon attachement à une solution à deux États qui est, de notre point de vue, la seule garantie sur le long terme de la sécurité d’Israël, en tant qu’État juif et démocratique. Je lui ai également rappelé qu’après ses récentes déclarations, il serait difficile de croire qu’Israël est sérieusement attaché à la poursuite des négociations. Cependant, nous continuerons d’insister sur le fait que, du point de vue des États-Unis, le statu quo est intenable, a poursuivi le président américain. Nous sommes attachés à la sécurité d’Israël, mais il n’est pas possible de poursuivre cette voie éternellement, avec l’implantation de nouvelles colonies. C’est un facteur d’instabilité dans la région. (…) Il faut tout d’abord que les Iraniens démontrent clairement qu’ils ne fabriquent pas de bombes nucléaires, et qu’ils nous laissent toute latitude pour nous en assurer. (…) Il n’y aura pas d’accord tant que tout n’aura pas été résolu. (…) Je dois avouer que les Iraniens n’ont pas fait jusqu’ici les compromis que j’estime indispensables pour parvenir à cet accord. Mais ils se sont montrés ouverts, ce qui laisse la porte ouverte à la recherche d’une solution (…). Je vais devoir démontrer au peuple américain, mais aussi aux Israéliens et au reste du monde, que nous avons mis en place des mécanismes qui empêcheront l’Iran d’accéder à la bombe atomique (…) Il est évident que beaucoup d’Israéliens se méfient, à juste titre, de leur voisin iranien. L’Iran a tenu des propos ignobles et antisémites, et menacé Israël d’annihilation. C’est précisément pour cela que j’ai dit, avant même de devenir président, que l’Iran ne devait pas disposer de l’arme nucléaire. Barack Obama
There was a free and fair democratic election, the only nation in the region that will have such a thing. The president should get over it. Get over your temper tantrum, Mr. President. It’s time that we work together with our Israeli friends and try to stem this tide of ISIS and Iranian movement throughout the region, which is threatening the very fabric of the region. The least of your problems is what Bibi Netanyahu said during an election campaign. If every politician were held to everything they say in a political campaign, obviously, that would be a topic of long discussion. But the point is, is the J.V., as the president described them, is just moving over into Yemen. We see this horrible situation in Libya. We see ISIS everywhere in the world. We see the Iranians now backing the Shia militias in Tikrit, where they’re going to – where they’re going to massacre a number of Sunnis. And it is – the guy in charge is a guy named Suleimani, who – who imported – excuse me – I will catch up here – Suleimani moved thousands of copper-tipped IEDs into Iraq and killed hundreds of American soldiers and Marines. And the president of the United States is praising the mullahs and their behavior in the region. (…) I wish he had spoken to the people of Iran in 2009, when they rose up against a corrupt election and he refused to speak out on their behalf while they were chanting ‘Obama, Obama, are you with us or are you with them?’ Again, does anyone – does he believe that anyone in Iran is able to speak up? Are they able to speak up for anything that the mullahs disagree with? They’re either jailed or killed. Again, this is a view, a world view the president has which is totally divorced from reality. John McCain
What was not well reported in the American media is that President Obama and his allies were playing in the election to defeat Prime Minister Netanyahu. There was money moving that included taxpayer U.S. dollars, through non-profit organizations. And there were various liberal groups in the United States that were raising millions to fund a campaign called V15 against Prime Minister Netanyahu. (…) an effort to oust Netanyahu was guided by former Obama political operative Jeremy Bird and that V15, or Victory 15, ads hurt Netanyahu in the polls. John McLaughlin (Republican strategist)
Un premier avion iranien est arrivé dimanche à Sanaa, au lendemain de la signature d’un accord entre Téhéran et des responsables de l’aviation de la capitale yéménite, contrôlée par la milice chiite des Houthis, a constaté un photographe de l’AFP. L’appareil de la compagnie Mahan Air est arrivé à Sanaa avec à son bord une équipe du Croissant rouge iranien et des caisses de médicaments, a précisé à l’AFP un responsable de l’aviation yéménite. Il a ajouté que des diplomates iraniens étaient présents pour accueillir ce vol, le premier entre les deux pays depuis des années. AFP (01.03.15)
Des photos et des vidéos amateur prouvent que Qassem Soleimani, le commandant des forces d’élites iraniennes, est en Irak et se bat au côté des forces irakiennes – soutenues et armées par les États-unis – contre les jihadistes de l’organisation de l’État islamique. (…) Les preuves de la présence de ce commandant iranien en Irak se multiplient donc alors même que l’Iran refuse d’admettre sa participation dans la guerre en Irak contre l’organisation de l’État islamique, ce qui reviendrait à officialiser sa collaboration militaire de fait avec les États-Unis. France 24 (04.09.14)
Hezbollah was formed in Lebanon as a popular force like Basij (Iran’s militia). Similarly popular forces were also formed in Syria and Iraq, and today we are watching the formation of Ansarollah in Yemen. Hojatoleslam Ali Shirazi (representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force)
Ansarollah is a similar copy of Hezbollah in a strategic area. IRGC Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami
We witness today that our revolution is exported to Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Ali Akbar Nategh-Nuri (former speaker of Iran’s Majles and head of the Office of Inspection of the House of the Supreme Leader)
The Islamic Republic’s borders … are now transferred to the farthest points in the Middle East. Today, the strategic depth of Iran stretches to Mediterranean coasts and Bab al-Mandab Strait [southwest of Yemen]. Hojjat al-Eslam Ali Said (supreme leader’s representative in the IRGC)
Mort à l’Amérique, parce que l’Amérique est la source d’origine de cette pression. Ils insistent à mettre la pression sur l’économie de nos chères personnes. Quel est leur objectif ? Leur objectif est de monter les gens contre le système. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (20.03.15)
In the giddy aftermath of Obama’s electoral victory in 2008, anything seemed possible. The president saw himself as a transformational leader, not just in domestic politics but also in the international arena, where, as he believed, he had been elected to reverse the legacy of his predecessor, George W. Bush. To say that Obama regarded Bush’s foreign policy as anachronistic is an understatement. To him it was a caricature of yesteryear, the foreign-policy equivalent of Leave It to Beaver. Obama’s mission was to guide America out of Bushland, an arena in which the United States assembled global military coalitions to defeat enemies whom it depicted in terms like “Axis of Evil,” and into Obamaworld, a place more attuned to the nuances, complexities, and contradictions—and opportunities—of the 21st century. In today’s globalized environment, Obama told the United Nations General Assembly in September 2009, “our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. . . . No balance of power among nations will hold.” If, in Bushland, America had behaved like a sheriff, assembling a posse to go in search of monsters, in Obamaworld America would disarm its rivals by ensnaring them in a web of cooperation. For the new president, nothing revealed the conceptual inadequacies of Bushland more clearly than the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Before coming to Washington, Obama had opposed the toppling of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein; once in the U.S. Senate, he rejected Bush’s “surge” and introduced legislation to end the war. Shortly after his inauguration in January 2009, he pledged to bring the troops home quickly—a commitment that he would indeed honor. But if calling for withdrawal from Iraq had been a relatively easy position to take for a senator, for a president it raised a key practical question: beyond abstract nostrums like “no nation can . . . dominate another nation,” what new order should replace the American-led system that Bush had been building? This was, and remains, the fundamental strategic question that Obama has faced in the Middle East, though one would search his speeches in vain for an answer to it. But Obama does have a relatively concrete vision. When he arrived in Washington in 2006, he absorbed a set of ideas that had incubated on Capitol Hill during the previous three years—ideas that had received widespread attention thanks to the final report of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan congressional commission whose co-chairs, former secretary of state James Baker and former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton, interpreted their mission broadly, offering advice on all key aspects of Middle East policy. (…) Expressing the ethos of an influential segment of the foreign-policy elite, the Baker-Hamilton report became the blueprint for the foreign policy of the Obama administration, and its spirit continues to pervade Obama’s inner circle. Denis McDonough, now the president’s chief of staff, once worked as an aide to Lee Hamilton; so did Benjamin Rhodes, who helped write the Iraq Study Group’s report. Obama not only adopted the blueprint but took it one step further, recruiting Vladimir Putin’s Russia as another candidate for membership in the new club. The administration’s early “reset” with Russia and its policy of reaching out to Iran and Syria formed two parts of a single vision. If, in Bushland, America had behaved like a sheriff, assembling a posse (“a coalition of the willing”) to go in search of monsters, in Obamaworld America would disarm its rivals by ensnaring them in a web of cooperation. To rid the world of rogues and tyrants, one must embrace and soften them. (…) The same desire to accommodate Iran has tailored Obama’s strategy toward the terrorist group Islamic State. (…) The administration has indeed subtly exploited the rise of terrorist enclaves to elevate Obama’s outreach to Iran. Behind the scenes, coordination and consultation have reached new heights. (…) With American acquiescence, Iran is steadily taking control of the security sector of the Iraqi state. Soon it will dominate the energy sector as well, giving it effective control over the fifth largest oil reserves in the world. When the announced goal of the United States is to build up a moderate Sunni bloc capable of driving a wedge between Islamic State and the Sunni communities, aligning with Iran is politically self-defeating. In both Iraq and Syria, Iran projects its power through sectarian militias that slaughter Sunni Muslims with abandon. Are there any Sunni powers in the region that see American outreach to Tehran as a good thing? Are there any military-aged Sunni men in Iraq and Syria who now see the United States as a friendly power? There are none. (…) Over the last three years, Obama has given Iran a free hand in Syria and Iraq, on the simplistic assumption that Tehran would combat al-Qaeda and like-minded groups in a manner serving American interests. The result, in both countries, has been the near-total alienation of all Sunnis and the development of an extremist safe haven that now stretches from the outskirts of Baghdad all the way to Damascus. America is now applying to the disease a larger dose of the snake oil that helped cause the malady in the first place. The approach is detrimental to American interests in other arenas as well. We received a portent of things to come on January 18 of this year, when the Israel Defense Forces struck a convoy of senior Hizballah and Iranian officers, including a general in the Revolutionary Guards, in the Golan Heights. Ten days later, Hizballah and Iran retaliated. In other words, by treating Syria as an Iranian sphere of interest, Obama is allowing the shock troops of Iran to dig in on the border of Israel—not to mention the border of Jordan. (…) In November 2013, when Obama purchased the participation of Iran in the Joint Plan of Action, he established a basic asymmetry that has remained a key feature of the negotiations ever since. He traded permanent American concessions for Iranian gestures of temporary restraint. (…) The most significant such gestures by Iran were to dilute its stockpiles of uranium enriched to 20 percent; to refrain from installing new centrifuges; and to place a hold on further construction of the Arak plutonium reactor. All three, however, can be easily reversed. By contrast, the Americans recognized the Iranian right to enrich and agreed to the principle that all restrictions on Iran’s program would be of a limited character and for a defined period of time. These two concessions are major, and because they are not just the policy of the United States government but now the collective position of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, they will likely never be reversed. (…) We can say with certainty that Obama has had no illusions about this asymmetry—that he conducted the negotiations with his eyes wide open—because the White House took pains to hide the truth from the American public. In 2013, instead of publishing the text of the JPOA, it issued a highly misleading fact sheet. Peppered with terms like “halt,” “roll back,” and “dismantle,” the document left the impression that the Iranians had agreed to destroy their nuclear program. (…) Over the last year, Obama has reportedly allowed Iran to retain, in one form or another, its facilities at Natanz, Fordow, and Arak—sites that Iran built in flagrant violation of the NPT to which it is a signatory. This is the same Obama who declared at the outset of negotiations that the Iranians “don’t need to have an underground, fortified facility like Fordow in order to have a peaceful nuclear program. They certainly don’t need a heavy-water reactor at Arak in order to have a peaceful nuclear program. . . . And so the question ultimately is going to be, are they prepared to roll back some of the advancements that they’ve made.” The answer to his question, by now, is clear: the Iranians will not roll back anything. The president believes that globalization and economic integration will induce Tehran to forgo its nuclear ambitions. Meanwhile Iran’s rulers are growing stronger, bolder, and ever closer to nuclear breakout capacity. (…) In making his personal rift with Netanyahu the subject of intense public debate, the White House means to direct attention away from the strategic rift between them—and from the fact that the entire Israeli elite, regardless of political orientation, as well as much of the U.S. Congress, regards the president’s conciliatory approach to Iran as profoundly misguided. Meanwhile, the president is depicting his congressional critics as irresponsible warmongers. He would have us believe that there are only two options: his undeclared détente with Iran and yet another war in the Middle East. This is a false choice. It ignores the one policy that every president since Jimmy Carter has pursued till now: vigorous containment on all fronts, not just in the nuclear arena. Obama, however, is intent on obscuring this option, and for a simple reason: an honest debate about it would force him to come clean with the American people and admit the depth of his commitment to the strategy whose grim results are multiplying by the day. Michael Doran
Given all we know, I would argue that Obama’s mission is to guide America not only out of Bushland (as Doran puts it) but out of Rooseveltland, Kennedyland, and Clintonland—and indeed to reverse most of the foreign-policy legacy of his own party, with the exception of that of Wallace and its 1972 candidate for the presidency, George McGovern. The ideas espoused by Obama “incubated” decades ago, and were most likely adopted back at Columbia University or in the Chicago kitchen of his friends of Weathermen fame, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn. (…) The enduring hold of that ideology is visible not only in his Iran policy but also, most recently, with respect to Cuba. There, too, he has reversed decades of American foreign policy, and has done so, as in the case of Iran, without seeking any deep concessions from the Castro regime. In concluding the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action with Iran, Doran notes, Obama accepted a “basic asymmetry,” trading permanent American concessions [in exchange] for Iranian gestures of temporary restraint.” Similarly, in Cuba, Obama’s recent deal—call it another “Joint Plan of Action”—abandons previous American demands for real political change on the island prior to any lifting of the embargo. And just as he has offered his regrets to Tehran for the (long exaggerated) American role in the 1953 overthrow of the Mossadegh government, so too has he expressed apologies—in this case, in a telephone call with Raul Castro—“for taking such a long time” to change U.S. policy. In both instances, Obama has acted not to advance American national interests but to make amends for U.S. policies and actions that he views as the immoral and retrograde detritus of the “cold-war mentality.” (…) One need only look at the success of the Reagan administration in dealing with the Soviet Union to know that military power, strong alliances, and ideological clarity—what Doran refers to as “vigorous containment on all fronts”—do not lead to war. They lead to success. Elliott Abrams
In Dueck’s judgment, Obama’s approach to the world is predicated first and foremost on his bedrock intention to be a “transformational” president. The transformation in question is largely domestic—hence his preoccupation with the Affordable Care Act, which remakes a rather large swath of the American economy. Abroad, and in aid of the main focus on his domestic agenda (“nation-building at home”), the president’s overwhelming objective has been to keep international affairs at bay. But when world events do inevitably impose themselves, Obama is no less confident of his unique ability to exert a transformational impact. (…) As Dueck sees it, the strategy is twofold: retrenchment, and accommodation. Retrenchment means liquidating some of what Obama construes to be overinvestments the U.S. has made around the world, particularly in the Middle East, while also reducing the strength of the U.S. military—since, in his view, our temptation to resort to military force has itself been responsible for many of the world’s ills. Accommodation, in turn, means reaching out and “engaging” America’s adversaries, thereby turning them, in the common phrase, from part of the problem into part of the solution. Understanding this strategy of retrenchment and accommodation is a useful vehicle for explaining many apparently discrete episodes in Obama’s tenure, from the early “strategic reassurance” of China, to the “reset” of relations with Russia, and of course to the “open hand” approach to Tehran that Michael Doran dissects so well. It also clarifies the chronic neglect of allies, and it illuminates, as Abrams rightly underlines, the president’s chronic need—the political equivalent of Tourette syndrome—to express regret and apologize publicly for past exercises of American power in pursuit of our national interests. (…) What distinguishes Obama is the ideological aversion to American power and the formulation of a strategy whose overriding impetus is to constrain that power. The scandal is not that the administration has kept this a secret but that a supine press and intellectual class have failed—“declined” may be the better (if much too polite) word—to explain it to the American people. Eric Edelman
As former George W. Bush White House aide Michael Doran meticulously lays out in his recently published tour-de-force “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy,” the U.S.-Iran partnership that is reshaping the Middle East has been in the making since Obama first came to office. The most salient point then about the current P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran isn’t the nuclear issue, but the fact that they create a channel to allow both sides to keep talking—which means that all sorts of subjects are going to come up, from Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon to Yemen and maybe even other thorny issues, like Argentina and the Nisman investigation into Iran’s alleged role in the bombing of the Israeli embassy in 1992 and Jewish Community Center in 1994. U.S. response to everything in the region is now tied to the fate of the Iranian nuclear program, which in turn is simply the linchpin of Obama’s larger vision of a partnership between Washington and Tehran. (…) From Iran’s perspective, then, it controls not only four Arab capitals, but it also holds Washington captive. (…) First of all, it’s not clear how Iran can accept any permanent agreement with the White House about the nuclear program, or anything else, for that matter. From Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps’ perspective, a deal might empower President Hassan Rouhani at their expense. From Rouhani’s perspective, a deal might make him, a so-called moderate, superfluous as someone who’s already played his role. Most important, there is the point of view of Khamenei, which partakes of the historic rationale of the Islamic Republic. Its founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini promised one thing—not to raise the standard of living or educate women, nor even to hasten the return of the Mahdi, but rather that the life of a genuine Muslim rested on the pillar of resistance against the godless, the arrogant West, especially America. Signing an accord with the Great Satan would undermine the fundamental legitimacy of the regime. Obama wants a deal with Iran so much in large part because he doesn’t think the United States should be the world’s policeman—and he’s right. Our oil and natural gas industry won’t make us energy independent but it makes us less dependent and we simply don’t need that high a profile in a part of the world that has seldom returned our love. So, why keep shedding blood and spending money—as well as domestic political capital—in the Middle East? The answer is not that we need to look out for the world’s interests, but that we need to continue protecting our own. A nuclear weapon in the hands of an expansionist regime doesn’t get the United States out of the Middle East. It puts Iran on our doorstep, by turning the clerical regime into an aggressive global nuclear-armed power. There can’t be much question by now about what Iran has in mind for the Middle East, or for other countries that it enlists in its schemes, like Argentina. What Iran wants makes the world a more dangerous place for Americans. The question is not whether there’s a deal to be had with Iran, but if it’s too late to crash the comprehensive agreement the White House has already struck with our new regional partner—whose sickening consequences are plain to see. Lee Smith
Et si la queue se révélait plus maline que le chien ?
Refus de bombarder la Syrie, hostilité contre ses alliés israéliens et égyptiens ou à présent français, abandon de l’Irak, de la Libye et maintenant, sans armes ni bagages, du Yemen, fourniture de renseignement au Hezbollah …
A l’heure où le monde se gratte la tête devant une politique étrangère américaine de plus en plus déroutante …
Qui, après Baghdad, Damas et Beirut, vient de livrer avec Sanaa pas moins de quatre capitales arabes à son prétendu pire ennemi …
Et réussit l’exploit, comme l’expliquait le Figaro il y a deux ans, de réunir à nouveau contre elle « une intéressante alliance des «faucons» de facto entre Paris, Jérusalem, le Congrès et les monarchies du Golfe » …
Pendant que pour avoir tenté d’alerter le monde sur le danger nucléaire iranien, le Premier ministre sortant israélien se voyait accuser de « remuer le chien » …
Comment ne pas repenser …
A la lecture de la brillante déconstruction de la doctrine Obama sur l’Iran par l’ancien conseiller de George Bush Michael Doran …
A cette excellente comédie de Barry Levinson de la fin des années 90 (Wag the dog – titre français: Des hommes d’influence) …
Où, selon l’expression anglaise du titre, un président américain n’était pas loin de lancer une guerre pour détourner l’attention médiatique d’une histoire de moeurs risquant de menacer sa réélection ?
Sauf que le chien dont il faudrait cette fois détourner l’attention (graal de la diplomatie américaine depuis plus de 40 ans) ne serait autre que l’entente avec un régime …
Qui ne peut tout simplement pas renoncer, sans signer son arrêt de mort immédiat, à sa vitale capacité de nuisance …
Et que la queue censée servir de diversion ne serait rien de moins que la discussion sur l’acquisition par ce dernier…
De l’arme nucléaire ?
Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy
The president has long been criticized for his lack of strategic vision. But what if a strategy, centered on Iran, has been in place from the start and consistently followed to this day?
Feb. 2 2015
About the author
Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He is finishing a book on President Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.
President Barack Obama wishes the Islamic Republic of Iran every success. Its leaders, he explained in a recent interview, stand at a crossroads. They can choose to press ahead with their nuclear program, thereby continuing to flout the will of the international community and further isolate their country; or they can accept limitations on their nuclear ambitions and enter an era of harmonious relations with the rest of the world. “They have a path to break through that isolation and they should seize it,” the president urged—because “if they do, there’s incredible talent and resources and sophistication . . . inside of Iran, and it would be a very successful regional power.”
How eager is the president to see Iran break through its isolation and become a very successful regional power? Very eager. A year ago, Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national-security adviser for strategic communication and a key member of the president’s inner circle, shared some good news with a friendly group of Democratic-party activists. The November 2013 nuclear agreement between Tehran and the “P5+1”—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—represented, he said, not only “the best opportunity we’ve had to resolve the Iranian [nuclear] issue,” but “probably the biggest thing President Obama will do in his second term on foreign policy.” For the administration, Rhodes emphasized, “this is healthcare . . . , just to put it in context.” Unaware that he was being recorded, he then confided to his guests that Obama was planning to keep Congress in the dark and out of the picture: “We’re already kind of thinking through, how do we structure a deal so we don’t necessarily require legislative action right away.”
Why the need to bypass Congress? Rhodes had little need to elaborate. As the president himself once noted balefully, “[T]here is hostility and suspicion toward Iran, not just among members of Congress but the American people”—and besides, “members of Congress are very attentive to what Israel says on its security issues.” And that “hostility and suspicion” still persist, prompting the president in his latest State of the Union address to repeat his oft-stated warning that he will veto “any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo [the] progress” made so far toward a “comprehensive agreement” with the Islamic Republic.
As far as the president is concerned, the less we know about his Iran plans, the better. Yet those plans, as Rhodes stressed, are not a minor or incidental component of his foreign policy. To the contrary, they are central to his administration’s strategic thinking about the role of the United States in the world, and especially in the Middle East.
Moreover, that has been true from the beginning. In the first year of Obama’s first term, a senior administration official would later tell David Sanger of the New York Times, “There were more [White House] meetings on Iran than there were on Iraq, Afghanistan, and China. It was the thing we spent the most time on and talked about the least in public [emphasis added].” All along, Obama has regarded his hoped-for “comprehensive agreement” with Iran as an urgent priority, and, with rare exceptions, has consistently wrapped his approach to that priority in exceptional layers of secrecy.
From time to time, critics and even friends of the president have complained vocally about the seeming disarray or fecklessness of the administration’s handling of foreign policy. Words like amateurish, immature, and incompetent are bandied about; what’s needed, we’re told, is less ad-hoc fumbling, more of a guiding strategic vision. Most recently, Leslie Gelb, a former government official and past president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has charged that “the Obama team lacks the basic instincts and judgment necessary to conduct U.S. national-security policy,” and has urged the president to replace the entire inner core of his advisers with “strong and strategic people of proven . . . experience.”
One sympathizes with Gelb’s sense of alarm, but his premises are mistaken. Inexperience is a problem in this administration, but there is no lack of strategic vision. Quite the contrary: a strategy has been in place from the start, and however clumsily it may on occasion have been implemented, and whatever resistance it has generated abroad or at home, Obama has doggedly adhered to the policies that have flowed from it.
In what follows, we’ll trace the course of the most important of those policies and their contribution to the president’s announced determination to encourage and augment Iran’s potential as a successful regional power and as a friend and partner to the United States.
2009-2010: Round One, Part I
In the giddy aftermath of Obama’s electoral victory in 2008, anything seemed possible. The president saw himself as a transformational leader, not just in domestic politics but also in the international arena, where, as he believed, he had been elected to reverse the legacy of his predecessor, George W. Bush. To say that Obama regarded Bush’s foreign policy as anachronistic is an understatement. To him it was a caricature of yesteryear, the foreign-policy equivalent of Leave It to Beaver. Obama’s mission was to guide America out of Bushland, an arena in which the United States assembled global military coalitions to defeat enemies whom it depicted in terms like “Axis of Evil,” and into Obamaworld, a place more attuned to the nuances, complexities, and contradictions—and opportunities—of the 21st century. In today’s globalized environment, Obama told the United Nations General Assembly in September 2009, “our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. . . . No balance of power among nations will hold.”
If, in Bushland, America had behaved like a sheriff, assembling a posse to go in search of monsters, in Obamaworld America would disarm its rivals by ensnaring them in a web of cooperation.
For the new president, nothing revealed the conceptual inadequacies of Bushland more clearly than the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Before coming to Washington, Obama had opposed the toppling of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein; once in the U.S. Senate, he rejected Bush’s “surge” and introduced legislation to end the war. Shortly after his inauguration in January 2009, he pledged to bring the troops home quickly—a commitment that he would indeed honor. But if calling for withdrawal from Iraq had been a relatively easy position to take for a senator, for a president it raised a key practical question: beyond abstract nostrums like “no nation can . . . dominate another nation,” what new order should replace the American-led system that Bush had been building?
This was, and remains, the fundamental strategic question that Obama has faced in the Middle East, though one would search his speeches in vain for an answer to it. But Obama does have a relatively concrete vision. When he arrived in Washington in 2006, he absorbed a set of ideas that had incubated on Capitol Hill during the previous three years—ideas that had received widespread attention thanks to the final report of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan congressional commission whose co-chairs, former secretary of state James Baker and former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton, interpreted their mission broadly, offering advice on all key aspects of Middle East policy.
The report, published in December 2006, urged then-President Bush to take four major steps: withdraw American troops from Iraq; surge American troops in Afghanistan; reinvigorate the Arab-Israeli “peace process”; and, last but far from least, launch a diplomatic engagement of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its junior partner, the Assad regime in Syria. Baker and Hamilton believed that Bush stood in thrall to Israel and was therefore insufficiently alive to the benefits of cooperating with Iran and Syria. Those two regimes, supposedly, shared with Washington the twin goals of stabilizing Iraq and defeating al-Qaeda and other Sunni jihadi groups. In turn, this shared interest would provide a foundation for building a concert system of states—a club of stable powers that could work together to contain the worst pathologies of the Middle East and lead the way to a sunnier future.
Expressing the ethos of an influential segment of the foreign-policy elite, the Baker-Hamilton report became the blueprint for the foreign policy of the Obama administration, and its spirit continues to pervade Obama’s inner circle. Denis McDonough, now the president’s chief of staff, once worked as an aide to Lee Hamilton; so did Benjamin Rhodes, who helped write the Iraq Study Group’s report. Obama not only adopted the blueprint but took it one step further, recruiting Vladimir Putin’s Russia as another candidate for membership in the new club. The administration’s early “reset” with Russia and its policy of reaching out to Iran and Syria formed two parts of a single vision. If, in Bushland, America had behaved like a sheriff, assembling a posse (“a coalition of the willing”) to go in search of monsters, in Obamaworld America would disarm its rivals by ensnaring them in a web of cooperation. To rid the world of rogues and tyrants, one must embrace and soften them.
How would this work in the case of Iran? During the Bush years, an elaborate myth had developed according to which the mullahs in Tehran had themselves reached out in friendship to Washington, offering a “grand bargain”: a deal on everything from regional security to nuclear weapons. The swaggering Bush, however, had slapped away the outstretched Iranian hand, squandering the opportunity of a lifetime to normalize U.S.-Iranian relations and thereby bring order to the entire Middle East.
Obama based his policy of outreach to Tehran on two key assumptions of the grand-bargain myth: that Tehran and Washington were natural allies, and that Washington itself was the primary cause of the enmity between the two. If only the United States were to adopt a less belligerent posture, so the thinking went, Iran would reciprocate. In his very first television interview from the White House, Obama announced his desire to talk to the Iranians, to see “where there are potential avenues for progress.” Echoing his inaugural address, he said, “[I]f countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.”
Unfortunately, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, ignored the president’s invitation. Five months later, in June 2009, when the Green Movement was born, his autocratic fist was still clenched. As the streets of Tehran exploded in the largest anti-government demonstrations the country had seen since the revolution of 1979, he used that fist to beat down the protesters. For their part, the protesters, hungry for democratic reform and enraged by government rigging of the recent presidential election, appealed to Obama for help. He responded meekly, issuing tepid statements of support while maintaining a steady posture of neutrality. To alienate Khamenei, after all, might kill the dream of a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations.
If this show of deference was calculated to warm the dictator’s heart, it failed. “What we intended as caution,” one of Obama’s aides would later tell a reporter, “the Iranians saw as weakness.” Indeed, the president’s studied “caution” may even have emboldened Tehran to push forward, in yet another in the long series of blatant violations of its obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), with its construction of a secret uranium enrichment facility in an underground bunker at Fordow, near Qom.
When members of Iran’s Green Movement appealed to Obama for help in 2009, he responded meekly—after all, to alienate Khamenei might kill the dream of a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations.
This time, Obama reacted. Revealing the bunker’s existence, he placed Khamenei in a tough spot. The Russians, who had been habitually more lenient toward the Iranian nuclear program than the Americans, were irritated by the disclosure of this clandestine activity; the French were moved to demand a strong Western response.
But when Khamenei finessed the situation by adopting a seemingly more flexible attitude toward negotiations, Obama quickly obliged. Delighted to find a receptive Iranian across the table, he dismissed the French call for toughness, instead volunteering a plan that would meet Iran’s desire to keep most of its nuclear infrastructure intact while proving to the world that it was not stockpiling fissile material for a bomb. In keeping with his larger aspirations, the president also placed Moscow at the center of the action, proposing that the Iranians transfer their enriched uranium to Russia in exchange for fuel rods capable of powering a nuclear reactor but not of being used in a bomb. The Iranian negotiators, displaying their new spirit of compromise, accepted the terms. Even President Ahmadinejad, the notorious hardliner, pronounced himself on board.
Obama, it seemed to some, had pulled off a major coup. Less than a year after taking office, he was turning his vision of a new Middle East order into a reality. Or was he? Once the heat was off, Khamenei reneged on the deal, throwing the president back to square one and in the process weakening him politically at home, where congressional skeptics of his engagement policy now began lobbying for more stringent economic sanctions on Tehran. To protect his flank, Obama tacked rightward, appropriating, if with visible reluctance, some of his opponents’ rhetoric and bits of their playbook as well. In 2010, he signed into law the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA), which eventually would prove more painful to Iran than any previous measure of its kind.
In later years, whenever Obama would stand accused of being soft on Iran, he would invariably point to CISADA as evidence to the contrary. “[O]ver the course of several years,” he stated in March 2014, “we were able to enforce an unprecedented sanctions regime that so crippled the Iranian economy that they were willing to come to the table.” The “table” in question was the negotiation resulting in the November 2013 agreement, known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), which we shall come to in due course. But masked in the president’s boast was the fact that he had actually opposed CISADA, which was rammed down his throat by a Senate vote of 99 to zero.
Once the bill became law, a cadre of talented and dedicated professionals in the Treasury Department set to work implementing it. But the moment of presumed “convergence” between Obama and his congressional skeptics proved temporary and tactical; their fundamental difference in outlook would become much more apparent in the president’s second term. For the skeptics, the way to change Khamenei’s behavior was to place him before a stark choice: dismantle Iran’s nuclear program—period—or face catastrophic consequences. For Obama, to force a confrontation with Khamenei would destroy any chance of reaching an accommodation on the nuclear front and put paid to his grand vision of a new Middle East order.
2011-2012: Round One, Part II
“The hardest cross I have to bear is the Cross of Lorraine,” Winston Churchill supposedly cracked about managing his wartime relations with Charles de Gaulle. As Obama sees it, his hardest cross to bear has been the Star of David, represented by Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
To the Israelis, who have long regarded Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat, Obama’s engagement policy was misguided from the start. Their assessment mattered, because influential Americans listened to them. What was more, American Jews constituted an important segment of the Democratic party’s popular base and an even more important segment of its donors. In the election year of 2012, for Obama to be perceived as indifferent to Israeli security would jeopardize his prospects of a second term—and hardly among Jews alone.
When the Israelis threatened to attack Iran, Obama responded by putting Israel in a bear hug. From one angle, it looked like an expression of friendship. From another, like an effort to break Netanyahu’s ribs.
The Israelis did more than just criticize Obama; they also threatened to take action against Iran that would place the president in an intolerable dilemma. In 2011, Ehud Barak, the defense minister at the time, announced that Iran was quickly approaching a “zone of immunity,” meaning that its nuclear program would henceforth be impervious to Israeli attack. As Iran approached that zone, Israel would have no choice but to strike. And what would America do then? The Israeli warnings grew ever starker as the presidential election season heated up. Netanyahu, it seemed, was using the threat of Israeli action as a way of prodding Washington itself to take a harder line.
To this challenge, Obama responded by putting Israel in a bear hug. From one angle, it looked like an expression of profound friendship: the president significantly increased military and intelligence cooperation, and he insisted, fervently and loudly, that his policy was to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon by all means possible. With the aid of influential American Jews and Israelis who testified to his sincerity, Obama successfully blunted the force of the charge that he was hostile to Israel.
From another angle, however, the bear hug looked like an effort to break Netanyahu’s ribs. Even while expressing affection for Israel, Obama found ways to signal his loathing for its prime minister. During one tense meeting at the White House, for example, the president abruptly broke off to join his family for dinner, leaving Netanyahu to wait for him alone. In mitigation, Obama supporters would adduce ongoing friction between the two countries over West Bank settlements and peace negotiations with the Palestinians. This was true enough, but the two men differed on quite a number of issues, among which Iran held by far the greatest strategic significance. In managing the anxieties of his liberal Jewish supporters, Obama found it useful to explain the bad atmosphere as a function of Netanyahu’s “extremism” rather than of his own outreach to Iran—to suggest, in effect, that if only the hothead in the room would sit down and shut up, the grownups could proceed to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem along reasonable lines.
The tactic proved effective. At least for the duration, Obama prevented Israel from attacking Iran; preserved American freedom of action with regard to Iran’s nuclear program; and kept his disagreements with the Israeli government within the comfort zone of American Jewish Democrats.
If, however, Netanyahu was Obama’s biggest regional headache, there was no lack of others. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was certainly the most consequential. Obama had assumed that the king would welcome his approach to the Middle East as a breath of fresh air. After all, the Baker-Hamilton crowd regarded the Arab-Israeli conflict as the major irritant in relations between the United States and the Arabs. Bush’s close alignment with Israel, so the thinking went, had damaged those relations; by contrast, Obama, the moment he took office, announced his goal of solving the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all, and followed up by picking a fight with Netanyahu over Jewish settlements in the West Bank. How could the Saudis react with anything but pleasure?
In fact, they distanced themselves—bluntly and publicly. While meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the end of July 2009, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal announced that Obama’s approach to solving the Arab-Israeli conflict “has not and, we believe, will not lead to peace.” Behind that statement lay a complex of attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, but much more than that. At the end of the Bush administration, King Abdullah had made his top regional priority abundantly clear when, according to leaked State Department documents, he repeatedly urged the United States to destroy Iran’s nuclear program and thereby “cut off the head of the snake” in the Middle East.
When Obama strode into office and announced his desire to kiss the snake, the Saudis lost no time in making their displeasure felt. Three months later, the king responded gruffly to an extensive presentation on Obama’s outreach program by Dennis Ross, then a senior official in the State Department with responsibility for Iran. “I am a man of action,” Abdullah said according to a New York Times report. “Unlike you, I prefer not to talk a lot.” He then posed a series of pointed questions that Ross could not answer. “What is your goal? What will you do if this does not work? What will you do if the Chinese and the Russians are not with you? How will you deal with Iran’s nuclear program if there is not a united response?” The questions added up to a simple point: your Iran policy is based on wishful thinking.
As it happens, one traditional American ally in the region was—at least at first—untroubled by Obama’s policy of Iran engagement: the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Indeed, Erdoğan found much to extol in the new American initiative, which dovetailed perfectly with his own foreign policy of “zero problems with [Arab and Muslim] neighbors.” Among other things, Erdoğan meant to establish Ankara as the middleman between the United States and Iran and Syria, Turkey’s traditional adversaries. This vision nested so comfortably within Obama’s planned concert system that Erdoğan quickly became one of the few international personalities with whom Obama developed a close personal rapport.
Contrary to what observers have long assumed, Obama does connect his Iran policy and his Syria policy: just as he showed deference to Iran on the nuclear front, he has deferred to the Iranian interest in Syria.
Soon, however, serious tensions arose. By the summer of 2012, one problem overshadowed all others: Syria—and behind Syria, Iran. Erdoğan watched in horror as the Iranians together with their proxies, Hizballah and Iraqi Shiite militias, intervened in the Syrian civil war. Iranian-directed units were not only training and equipping Bashar Assad’s forces in his battle for survival, but also engaging in direct combat. At the same time, within the Syrian opposition to Assad, a radical Sunni jihadi element was growing at an alarming rate. In short order, the Turks were adding their voice to a powerful chorus—including Saudi Arabia, the Gulf sheikhdoms, and the Jordanians—urgently requesting that Washington take action to build up the moderate Sunni opposition to both Assad and Iran.
The director of the CIA, David Petraeus, responded to this request by America’s regional allies with a plan to train and equip Syrian rebels in Jordan and to assist them once back in Syria. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all supported the Petraeus plan. But Obama rejected it.
Why? Undoubtedly the president had a mix of reasons and possible motives, which were the objects of extensive speculation in the media. But one motive was never included in the list: namely, his fear of antagonizing Iran. For the longest time, it was simply assumed that Obama drew no connection between his Iran policy and his Syria policy. This, however, was not the case. In fact—as we shall see below—just as, from the beginning, he showed deference to Iran on the nuclear front, he showed the same deference to the Iranian interest in Syria.
2013-2014: Round Two, The Secret Backchannel
An ostensible thaw in American-Iranian relations occurred early in the president’s second term. To hear him tell it today, what precipitated the thaw was a strategic shift by Tehran on the nuclear front. In his version of the story—let’s call it the “official version”—two factors account for the Iranian change of heart. One of them was American coercive diplomacy; the other was a new spirit of reform in Tehran. And the two were interrelated. The first, as Obama himself explained in the March 2014 interview cited earlier, had taken the form of “an unprecedented sanctions regime that so crippled the Iranian economy that [the Iranians] were willing to come to the table.” The second was a corollary of the first. The same sanctions regime had also helped bring to power the new government of Hassan Rouhani, whose moderate approach would in turn culminate in the November 2013 signing of the interim nuclear deal, which “for the first time in a decade halts their nuclear program.”
Obama’s version is an after-the-fact cocktail of misdirection and half-truths, stirred by him and his aides and served up with a clear goal in mind: to conceal Round Two of his Iran outreach.
The turning point in the American-Iranian relationship was not, as the official version would have it, the election of Hassan Rouhani in June 2013. It was the reelection of Barack Obama in November 2012.
In early 2013, at the outset of his second term, Obama developed a secret bilateral channel to Ahmadinejad’s regime. When the full impact of this is taken into account, a surprising fact comes to light. The turning point in the American-Iranian relationship was not, as the official version would have it, the election of Hassan Rouhani in June 2013. It was the reelection of Barack Obama in November 2012.
Indeed, the first secret meeting with the Iranians (that is, the first we know of) took place even earlier, in early July 2012, eleven months before Rouhani came to power. Jake Sullivan, who at the time was the director of policy planning in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, traveled secretly to Oman to meet with Iranian officials. The Obama administration has told us next to nothing about Sullivan’s meeting, so we are forced to speculate about the message that he delivered.
Most pertinent is the timing. At that moment, pressure was mounting on the president to intervene in Syria. Sullivan probably briefed the Iranians on Obama’s strong desire to stay out of that conflict, and may have sought Tehran’s help in moderating Assad’s behavior. But summer 2012 was also the height of the American presidential campaign. Perhaps Sullivan told the Iranians that the president was keen to restart serious nuclear negotiations after the election. Recall that this meeting took place shortly after a hot microphone had caught Obama saying to Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved, but it’s important . . . to give me space. This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.”
Did Sullivan give the Iranians a similar message? Did he tell Ahmadinejad’s officials that Obama’s need to secure the pro-Israel vote had forced him to take a deceptively belligerent line toward Iran? That Iran had nothing to fear from an Israeli attack? That after the election Obama would demonstrate even greater flexibility on the nuclear issue?
Whatever the answers to these questions, it is a matter of record that Obama opened his second term with a campaign of outreach to Tehran—a campaign that was as intensive as it was secret. By February 2013, a month after his inauguration, the backchannel was crowded with American officials. Not just Sullivan, but Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, National Security Council staffer Puneet Talwar, State Department non-proliferation adviser Robert Einhorn, and Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice were all engaging their Iranian counterparts.
According to the official version, this stampede toward Tehran had no impact on Iranian-American relations. Nothing notable occurred in that realm, we are told, until the arrival on the scene of Rouhani. In fact, however, it was during this earlier period that Obama laid the basis for the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action. And that agreement was the product of three American concessions—two of which, and possibly the third as well, were made long before Rouhani ever came to power.
In April 2013, the Americans and their P5+1 partners met with Iranian negotiators in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where they offered to relieve the sanctions regime in exchange for the elimination of Iran’s stockpiles of uranium that had already been enriched to 20 percent. This was concession number one, bowing to the longstanding Iranian demand for economic compensation immediately, before a final agreement could be reached. Even more important was concession number two, which permitted the Iranians to continue enriching uranium to levels of 5 percent—this, despite the fact that six United Nations Security Council resolutions had ordered Iran to cease all enrichment and reprocessing activities.
Iranian negotiators rejected these two gifts—or, rather, they pocketed them and demanded a third, the one they coveted the most. Hailing the proposals by their counterparts as a step in the right direction, they criticized them for failing to stipulate the Iranian “right to enrich.” There was a difference, they argued, between temporarily permitting Iran to enrich uranium to 5 percent and recognizing its inalienable right to do so. If Obama wanted a deal, he would have to agree to shred the Security Council resolutions by offering, up front, an arrangement that would end the economic sanctions on Iran entirely and that would allow the Iranians to enrich uranium in perpetuity.
By exaggerating the spirit of reform in Tehran, the White House was able to suggest that Iran, and not America, had compromised.
Obama’s acceptance of this condition, the third and most important American gift, is what made the Joint Plan of Action possible. The American negotiators transmitted the president’s acceptance to the Iranians in the backchannel, and then John Kerry sprang it on his hapless negotiating partners in November. We do not know when, precisely, Obama made this offer, but the Iranians set their three conditions before Rouhani took office.
In brief, the Iranian election was hardly the key factor that made the interim deal possible. But it did supply window dressing at home when it came to selling the deal to Congress and the American public. By exaggerating the spirit of reform in Tehran, the White House was able to suggest that Rouhani’s embrace of the deal represented an Iranian, not an American, compromise. In truth, Obama neither coerced nor manipulated; he capitulated, and he acquiesced.
Round Two: Iran, Syria, and Islamic State
The nuclear issue wasn’t the only tender spot in U.S.-Iran relations in this period. Before returning to it, let’s look briefly at two other regional fronts.
Obama’s second term has also included efforts to accommodate Iran over Syria. Susan Rice, by now the president’s national-security adviser, inadvertently admitted as much in an address she delivered on September 9, 2013, a few weeks after Bashar Assad had conducted a sarin-gas attack on Ghouta, a suburb outside Damascus, that killed approximately 1,500 civilians. Reviewing past American efforts to restrain the Syrian dictator, Rice blithely depicted Tehran as Washington’s partner. “At our urging, over months, Russia and Iran repeatedly reinforced our warning to Assad,” she explained. “We all sent the same message again and again: don’t do it.”
Why did Obama back off on strikes against Syria? Could it have been fear of scuttling the biggest—and still secret—foreign-policy initiative of his entire presidency?
Rice’s remarks were disingenuous. In reality, the Islamic Republic was then precisely what it remains today, namely, the prime enabler of Assad’s murder machine. But Rice’s intention was not to describe Iranian behavior accurately. In addition to accustoming the American press and foreign-policy elite to the idea that Iran was at least a potential partner, her speech was aimed at influencing Congress’s deliberation of air strikes against Syria—strikes that Obama had abruptly delayed a week and a half earlier in what will certainly be remembered as one of the oddest moments of his presidency.
The oddity began shortly after Obama sent Secretary of State John Kerry out to deliver a Churchillian exhortation on the theme of an impending American attack. While that speech was still reverberating, the president convened a meeting of his inner circle in the Oval Office, where he expressed misgivings about the policy that his Secretary of State had just announced. Curiously, the meeting did not include either Kerry or Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the principal members of his senior national-security staff. Obama then invited Denis McDonough to break away from the others and join him for a private walk around the White House grounds. On his return, Obama stunned the waiting group with the news that he had decided to delay the strikes on Assad in order to seek congressional approval.
What thoughts did Obama share with McDonough? We can dispense with the official explanation, which stresses the president’s principled belief in the need to consult the legislative branch on matters of war and peace. That belief had played no part in previous decisions, like the one to intervene in Libya. Clearly, Obama was hiding behind Congress in order either to delay action or to kill it altogether. The true reasons for the delay were evidently too sensitive even for the ears of his closest national-security aides. Could they have included fear of scuttling the biggest—and still secret—foreign-policy initiative of his second term, possibly of his entire presidency?
In the event, the punt to Congress bought Obama some time, but at a significant political cost. At home the decision made him appear dithering and weak; on Capitol Hill, Democrats quietly fumed over the way the White House was abruptly ordering them out on a limb. In Syria, Assad crowed with delight as his opponents crumpled in despair. Elsewhere, American allies felt exposed and vulnerable, wondering whether Obama would ever truly come to their aid in a pinch.
As we know, Obama’s quandary would become Moscow’s opportunity. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov offered the president a way to regain his balance. Russia and the United States, Lavrov proposed, would cooperate to strip Assad of his sarin gas. From the sidelines, the Iranians publicly applauded the proposal, and Obama jumped to accept it.
But the deal was a quid pro quo. In return for a minor (though highly visible) concession from Assad, Obama tacitly agreed not to enter the Syrian battlefield. In effect, the Russians, Assad, and the Iranians were offering him, and he was accepting, surrender with honor, enabling him to say later, with a straight face, that the episode was a successful example of his coercive diplomacy. “Let’s be very clear about what happened,” he bragged in his March 2014 interview. “I threatened [sic] kinetic strikes on Syria unless they got rid of their chemical weapons.” In reality, Assad only gained—and gained big. Obama immediately muted his calls for Assad to step down from power, and his behavior thoroughly demoralized the Syrian opposition. Nor did the deal stop Assad from launching further chemical attacks. Once deprived of his sarin stockpiles, he simply switched to chlorine.
During an interview on primetime television shortly after Lavrov offered his country’s help, Obama pointed to Russian and Iranian cooperation with Washington as one of the bargain’s greatest benefits. The “good news,” he said, “is that Assad’s allies, both Russia and Iran, recognize that this [use of sarin] was—this was a breach, that this was a problem. And for them to potentially put pressure on Assad to say, ‘Let’s figure out a way that the international community gets control of . . . these weapons in a verifiable and forcible way’—I think it’s something that we will run to ground.”
This was fictive. Obama made it sound as if Tehran was eager to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons, but nothing could have been farther from the truth. Even as he was speaking, Iran was publicly blaming the Syrian rebels, not Assad, for the Ghouta attack. Nor was stopping the slaughter ever the president’s true goal. From his perspective, he did not have the power to prevent Assad’s atrocities. He did, however, have the sense to recognize a good thing when he saw it. The opportunity to join with Iran in an ostensibly cooperative venture was too good to let slip away—and so he seized it.
That Obama has treated Syria as an Iranian sphere of interest all along has been brought home in a recent report in the Wall Street Journal. In August 2014, according to the Journal, the president wrote a letter to Ali Khamenei, acknowledging the obstacle to their cooperation presented by the nuclear impasse but taking pains to reassure Khamenei regarding the fate of Assad, his closest ally. American military operations inside Syria, he wrote, would target neither the Syrian dictator nor his forces.
This element of the president’s thinking has received remarkably little attention, even though Obama himself pointed to it directly in a January 2014 interview with David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker. The Arab states and Israel, Obama said then, wanted Washington to be their proxy in the contest with Iran; but he adamantly refused to play that role. Instead, he envisioned, in Remnick’s words, “a new geostrategic equilibrium, one less turbulent than the current landscape of civil war, terror, and sectarian battle.” Who would help him develop the strategy to achieve this equilibrium? “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now,” the president responded, alluding to the acknowledged godfather of the cold-war strategy of containment. What he truly needed instead were strategic partners, and a prime candidate for that role was—he explained—Iran.
Obama was here revealing his main rationale in 2012 for rejecting the Petraeus plan to arm the Syrian opposition that we examined earlier. Clearly, the president viewed the anti-Assad movement in Syria just as he had viewed the Green Movement in Iran three years earlier: as an impediment to realizing the strategic priority of guiding Iran to the path of success. Was the Middle East in fact polarized between the Iranian-led alliance and just about everyone else? Yes. Were all traditional allies of the United States calling for him to stand up to Iran? Yes. Did the principal members of his National Security Council recommend as one that the United States heed the call of the allies? Again, yes. But Obama’s eyes were still locked on the main prize: the grand bargain with Tehran.
The same desire to accommodate Iran has tailored Obama’s strategy toward the terrorist group Islamic State. That, too, has not received the attention it deserves.
Last June, when Islamic State warriors captured Mosul in northern Iraq, the foreign-policy approval ratings of the president plummeted, and Obama’s critics claimed, not for the first time, that he had no strategy at all. Ben Rhodes sprang to his defense, suggesting that despite appearances to the contrary, the administration actually had a plan, if a hitherto unannounced one. “We have longer-run plays that we’re running,” he said. “Part of this is keeping your eye on the long game even as you go through tumultuous periods.”
The administration has subtly exploited the rise of the Islamic State to elevate Obama’s outreach to Iran. Behind the scenes, coordination and consultation have reached new heights.
Rhodes offered no details, and subsequent events seemed to confirm the impression that Obama actually had no long game. In addition to being caught flat-footed by Islamic State, moreover, he was reversing himself on other major issues: sending troops back to Iraq after having celebrated their homecoming, ordering military operations in Syria that he had opposed for years. How could such reversals be consistent with a long game?
The answer is that the reversals, although real, involved much less than met the eye, and the long game remained in place. In August, it seemed as if the American military was preparing to mount a sustained intervention in both Iraq and Syria; today, however, it is increasingly apparent that Obama has at best a semi-coherent containment plan for Iraq and no plan at all for Syria—a deficiency that was obvious from the start. At a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Senator Marco Rubio pointed to the obvious weaknesses in the administration’s approach, and asked John Kerry how to fix them. Kerry stunningly suggested that the gaps would be filled by . . . Iran and Assad. “[Y]ou’re presuming that Iran and Syria don’t have any capacity to take on” Islamic State, Kerry said. “If we are failing and failing miserably, who knows what choice they might make.”
Here, giving the game away, Kerry provided a glimpse at the mental map of the president and his top advisers. The administration has indeed subtly exploited the rise of terrorist enclaves to elevate Obama’s outreach to Iran. Behind the scenes, coordination and consultation have reached new heights.
Meanwhile, so have expressions of dissatisfaction with traditional allies for taking positions hostile to Iran. Our “biggest problem” in Syria is our own regional allies, Vice President Joseph Biden complained to students at Harvard University in early October. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were “so determined to take down Assad” that they were pouring “hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons” into the Syrian opposition. A few weeks later, a senior Obama administration official cuttingly described another ally, Israel’s prime minister, as “a chickenshit,” and a second official, similarly on the record, bragged about the success of the United States in shielding the Islamic Republic from Israel. “[U]ltimately [Netanyahu] couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”
Of course, administration officials routinely insist that the United States is not working with Tehran. The coordination, however, is impossible to disguise. Thus, when Iranian jets recently appeared in Iraqi skies, they professed ignorance. Reporters, noting that the jets were flying sorties in the same air space as American jets and striking related targets, asked the Pentagon spokesman how the American and Iranian air forces could work in the same space without colliding. “We are flying missions over Iraq, [and] we coordinate with the Iraqi government as we conduct those,” said the spokesman. “It’s up to the Iraqi government to de-conflict that airspace.” When Kerry was asked about the news that the Iranian air force was operating in Iraq, he responded that this was a “net positive.”
A positive? With American acquiescence, Iran is steadily taking control of the security sector of the Iraqi state. Soon it will dominate the energy sector as well, giving it effective control over the fifth largest oil reserves in the world. When the announced goal of the United States is to build up a moderate Sunni bloc capable of driving a wedge between Islamic State and the Sunni communities, aligning with Iran is politically self-defeating. In both Iraq and Syria, Iran projects its power through sectarian militias that slaughter Sunni Muslims with abandon. Are there any Sunni powers in the region that see American outreach to Tehran as a good thing? Are there any military-aged Sunni men in Iraq and Syria who now see the United States as a friendly power? There are none.
In theory, one might argue that although an association with Iran is politically toxic and militarily dangerous, the capabilities it brings to the fight against the Islamic State more than compensate. But they don’t. Over the last three years, Obama has given Iran a free hand in Syria and Iraq, on the simplistic assumption that Tehran would combat al-Qaeda and like-minded groups in a manner serving American interests. The result, in both countries, has been the near-total alienation of all Sunnis and the development of an extremist safe haven that now stretches from the outskirts of Baghdad all the way to Damascus. America is now applying to the disease a larger dose of the snake oil that helped cause the malady in the first place.
The approach is detrimental to American interests in other arenas as well. We received a portent of things to come on January 18 of this year, when the Israel Defense Forces struck a convoy of senior Hizballah and Iranian officers, including a general in the Revolutionary Guards, in the Golan Heights. Ten days later, Hizballah and Iran retaliated. In other words, by treating Syria as an Iranian sphere of interest, Obama is allowing the shock troops of Iran to dig in on the border of Israel—not to mention the border of Jordan. The president’s policy assumes that Israel and America’s other allies will hang back quietly while Iran takes southern Syria firmly in its grip. They will not; to assume otherwise is folly.
Round Three: 2015-
In November 2013, when Obama purchased the participation of Iran in the Joint Plan of Action, he established a basic asymmetry that has remained a key feature of the negotiations ever since. He traded permanent American concessions for Iranian gestures of temporary restraint.
The most significant such gestures by Iran were to dilute its stockpiles of uranium enriched to 20 percent; to refrain from installing new centrifuges; and to place a hold on further construction of the Arak plutonium reactor. All three, however, can be easily reversed. By contrast, the Americans recognized the Iranian right to enrich and agreed to the principle that all restrictions on Iran’s program would be of a limited character and for a defined period of time. These two concessions are major, and because they are not just the policy of the United States government but now the collective position of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, they will likely never be reversed.
In his negotiations with Iran, the president has traded major American concessions for Iranian gestures of temporary restraint. These concessions will likely never be reversed.
Obama has repeatedly stated, most recently in his 2015 State of the Union address, that the interim agreement “halted” the Iranian nuclear program. Or, as he put it in his March 2014 interview, the “logic” of the JPOA was “to freeze the situation for a certain period of time to allow the negotiators to work.” But the agreement froze only American actions; it hardly stopped the Iranians from moving forward.
For one thing, the JPOA restricts the program only with respect to enrichment capacity and stockpiles; it is entirely silent about the military components: ballistic missiles, procurement, warhead production. For another, to call what the JPOA achieved even in these limited domains “a freeze” is a gross exaggeration. Iranian nuclear scientists have continued to perfect their craft. They are learning how to operate old centrifuges with greater efficiency. And thanks to a loophole in the JPOA permitting work on “research and development,” they are also mastering the use of new, more effective centrifuges.
Therefore, the Iranian nuclear program is poised to surge ahead. The moment the JPOA lapses—a date first scheduled for July 2014, then rescheduled to November 2014, then re-rescheduled to June 30 of this year, possibly to be re-re-rescheduled yet again—Iran will be in a stronger position than before the negotiations began. This fact gives Tehran considerable leverage over Washington during the next rounds.
We can say with certainty that Obama has had no illusions about this asymmetry—that he conducted the negotiations with his eyes wide open—because the White House took pains to hide the truth from the American public. In 2013, instead of publishing the text of the JPOA, it issued a highly misleading fact sheet. Peppered with terms like “halt,” “roll back,” and “dismantle,” the document left the impression that the Iranians had agreed to destroy their nuclear program.
The Iranian foreign minister, however, refused to play along. He protested—loudly and publicly. “The White House version both underplays the [American] concessions and overplays Iranian commitments,” Javad Zarif correctly told a television interviewer. “The White House tries to portray it as basically a dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program. That is the word they use time and again.” He defied the interviewer to “find a . . . single word that even closely resembles dismantling or could be defined as dismantling in the entire text.”
President Rouhani went even further. In an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, he emphasized not just that Iran had refused to destroy centrifuges within the terms of the JPOA, but that it would never destroy them “under any circumstances.” Currently Iran has approximately 9,000 centrifuges installed and spinning, and roughly 10,000 more installed but inactive. Until Rouhani made his statement, the Obama administration had led journalists to believe that the final agreement would force the Iranians to dismantle some 15,000 centrifuges.Rouhani disabused the world of those expectations.
“This strikes me as a train wreck,” a distraught Zakaria exclaimed after the interview. “This strikes me as potentially a huge obstacle because the Iranian conception of what the deal is going to look like and the American conception now look like they are miles apart.” Not long thereafter, as if to confirm the point, Ali Khamenei called for an outcome that will permit the development of an industrial-sized nuclear program over the next decade.
Khamenei’s hard line no doubt came as a surprise to Obama. When the president first approved the JPOA, he failed to recognize a key fact: his twin goals of liberating Iran from its international isolation and stripping the Islamic Republic of its nuclear capabilities were completely at odds with each other. From Obama’s perspective, he was offering Khamenei an irresistible deal: a strategic accommodation with the United States. Iran analysts had led the president to believe that Khamenei was desperate for just such an accommodation, and to achieve that prize he was searching only for a “face-saving” nuclear program—one that would give him a symbolic enrichment capability, nothing more. What soon became clear, however, was that Khamenei was betting that Obama would accommodate Iran even if it insisted on, and aggressively pursued, an industrial-scale program.
In theory, Khamenei’s intransigence could have handed Obama an opportunity. He could admit the “train wreck”—namely, that Round Two of his Iran engagement had followed the disastrous pattern set by Round One—and begin working with Congress and our despairing allies to regain lost leverage. This he obviously declined to do. Instead, he has chosen to keep the negotiating process alive by retreating further. Rather than leaving the table, he has paid Iran to keep negotiating—paid literally, in the form of sanctions relief, which provides Iran with $700,000,000 per month in revenue; and figuratively, with further concessions on the nuclear front.
Over the last year, Obama has reportedly allowed Iran to retain, in one form or another, its facilities at Natanz, Fordow, and Arak—sites that Iran built in flagrant violation of the NPT to which it is a signatory. This is the same Obama who declared at the outset of negotiations that the Iranians “don’t need to have an underground, fortified facility like Fordow in order to have a peaceful nuclear program. They certainly don’t need a heavy-water reactor at Arak in order to have a peaceful nuclear program. . . . And so the question ultimately is going to be, are they prepared to roll back some of the advancements that they’ve made.” The answer to his question, by now, is clear: the Iranians will not roll back anything.
The president believes that globalization and economic integration will induce Tehran to forgo its nuclear ambitions. Meanwhile Iran’s rulers are growing stronger, bolder, and ever closer to nuclear breakout capacity.
For a majority in Congress, and for all of America’s allies in the Middle East, this fact is obvious, and it leads to an equally obvious conclusion: the only way to salvage the West’s position in the nuclear negotiations is to regain the leverage that the president’s deferential approach has ceded to Iran. With this thought in mind, a large group of Senators is currently supporting legislation that will make the re-imposition of sanctions mandatory and immediate if the Iranians fail to make a deal by the time the current term of the JPOA lapses.
In an effort to bolster that initiative, Speaker of the House John Boehner invited Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington to address Congress on Iran. Netanyahu accepted the invitation without first consulting the White House, which reacted in a storm of indignation, describing the move as an egregious break in protocol and an insult to the president. Instead of trying to paper over the disagreement, Obama has done everything in his power to advertise it. In making his personal rift with Netanyahu the subject of intense public debate, the White House means to direct attention away from the strategic rift between them—and from the fact that the entire Israeli elite, regardless of political orientation, as well as much of the U.S. Congress, regards the president’s conciliatory approach to Iran as profoundly misguided.
Meanwhile, the president is depicting his congressional critics as irresponsible warmongers. He would have us believe that there are only two options: his undeclared détente with Iran and yet another war in the Middle East. This is a false choice. It ignores the one policy that every president since Jimmy Carter has pursued till now: vigorous containment on all fronts, not just in the nuclear arena. Obama, however, is intent on obscuring this option, and for a simple reason: an honest debate about it would force him to come clean with the American people and admit the depth of his commitment to the strategy whose grim results are multiplying by the day.
As a matter of ideology as much as strategy, Obama believes that integrating Iran into the international diplomatic and economic system is a much more effective method of moderating its aggressive behavior than applying more pressure. Contrary to logic, and to all the accumulated evidence before and since the November 2013 interim agreement, he appears also to believe that his method is working. In his March 2014 interview, he argued that his approach was actually strengthening reformers and reformist trends in Tehran: “[I]f as a consequence of a deal on their nuclear program,” he said, “those voices and trends inside of Iran are strengthened, and their economy becomes more integrated into the international community, and there’s more travel and greater openness, even if that takes a decade or 15 years or 20 years, then that’s very much an outcome we should desire.”
Perhaps the president is correct. Perhaps globalization will remove the roughness from the Islamic Republic just as ocean waves polish the jagged edges of shells. If so, however, it will happen on much the same, oceanic schedule. In the meantime, the seasoned thugs in Tehran whom the president has appointed as his strategic partners in a new world order grow stronger and bolder: ever closer to nuclear breakout capacity, ever more confident in their hegemonic objectives. On condition that they forgo their nuclear ambitions, the president has offered them “a path to break through [their] isolation” and become “a very successful regional power.” They, for their part, at minuscule and temporary inconvenience to themselves, have not only reaped the economic and diplomatic rewards pursuant to participation in the JPOA but also fully preserved those nuclear ambitions and the means of achieving them. Having bested the most powerful country on earth in their drive for success on their terms, they have good reason to be confident.
What the President Thinks He’s Doing
The ideological roots of his disastrous Iran strategy.
Feb. 9 2015
About the author
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he maintains a blog, Pressure Points. He is the author of, most recently, Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
President Obama’s foreign policy cannot be understood or defended as an effort to advance American national interests as they are normally understood. By any usual definition—strengthening of allies, defeat of enemies, military advances, nuclear nonproliferation—his administration’s policies have been disastrous. That leads logically to the question: “Well, what does the president think he’s doing?”
In “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy,” Michael Doran has tried to answer this question, and has offered a superb analysis. No one has more persuasively explained the connections between that strategy’s various parts, such as the president’s inaction in Syria and his hostility toward Israel, and the primary Obama goal of a rapprochement with Iran. Doran is especially effective in analyzing policy toward the Assad regime: “Obama has treated Syria as an Iranian sphere of interest all along,” and in his August 2014 letter to Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei took “pains to reassure Khamenei regarding the fate of Assad, [the latter’s] closest ally. American military operations inside Syria . . . would target neither the Syrian dictator nor his forces.”
If I have one disagreement with Doran, it is over the origins of Obama’s approach to foreign policy. According to Doran, Obama “believed he had been elected to reverse the legacy of his predecessor, George W. Bush,” and “Obama’s mission was to guide America out of Bushland.” What was the origin of these beliefs and this mission? In arguing that “Obama does have a relatively concrete vision,” Doran points out that on joining the Senate in 2006, “he absorbed a set of ideas that had incubated on Capitol Hill during the previous three years—ideas that had received widespread attention thanks to the final report of the Iraq Study Group.”
In fact, Obama came to Washington with his beliefs about American foreign policy and our role in the world already well set in his mind, and needed no guidance from the Iraq Study Group. We were given some insight into those basic beliefs early in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. While in Iowa in 2007, as Politico reported at the time, he visited Adair County,
making a stop in the hometown of one of the saints of the American left, one-time vice president and Progressive-party presidential candidate Henry Wallace. “We’ve got some progressives here in Adair. I’m feeling really good now,” Obama said. . . . “That’s quite a lineage there. . . . It’s a blessing.”
This, about the man whom FDR dumped from the 1944 ticket for his espousal of leftist causes, the man who ran against Truman and the Democratic party in 1948, and who argued that peace with the Soviet Union only required more American understanding and outreach in place of militarism and cold-war hostility.
Given all we know, I would argue that Obama’s mission is to guide America not only out of Bushland (as Doran puts it) but out of Rooseveltland, Kennedyland, and Clintonland—and indeed to reverse most of the foreign-policy legacy of his own party, with the exception of that of Wallace and its 1972 candidate for the presidency, George McGovern. The ideas espoused by Obama “incubated” decades ago, and were most likely adopted back at Columbia University or in the Chicago kitchen of his friends of Weathermen fame, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn.
Doran refers several times to Obama’s “strategic vision.” I would prefer the term “ideology.” The enduring hold of that ideology is visible not only in his Iran policy but also, most recently, with respect to Cuba. There, too, he has reversed decades of American foreign policy, and has done so, as in the case of Iran, without seeking any deep concessions from the Castro regime.
In concluding the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action with Iran, Doran notes, Obama accepted a “basic asymmetry,” trading permanent American concessions [in exchange] for Iranian gestures of temporary restraint.” Similarly, in Cuba, Obama’s recent deal—call it another “Joint Plan of Action”—abandons previous American demands for real political change on the island prior to any lifting of the embargo. And just as he has offered his regrets to Tehran for the (long exaggerated) American role in the 1953 overthrow of the Mossadegh government, so too has he expressed apologies—in this case, in a telephone call with Raul Castro—“for taking such a long time” to change U.S. policy. In both instances, Obama has acted not to advance American national interests but to make amends for U.S. policies and actions that he views as the immoral and retrograde detritus of the “cold-war mentality.”
Of course, Obama’s defenders acknowledge none of this. Instead, they invoke his putatively superior understanding of reality. As Doran paraphrases it, the president believes that, over time, “integrating Iran [and, I would add, Cuba] into the international diplomatic and economic system is a much more effective method of moderating its aggressive behavior than applying more pressure.” Obama and his supporters also assert that, in any event, the only alternative to his approach is war. Doran rightly dismisses both arguments. One need only look at the success of the Reagan administration in dealing with the Soviet Union to know that military power, strong alliances, and ideological clarity—what Doran refers to as “vigorous containment on all fronts”—do not lead to war. They lead to success.
Doran concludes his essay on a very pessimistic note: “Having bested the most powerful country on earth in their drive for success on their terms, [the Iranians] have good reason to be confident.” Allow me to conclude on a more optimistic note: they have reason to be confident for now, but current policy may not outlast Obama. It remains to be seen whether, after January 20, 2017, the American people and their leaders in Washington will really permit a nation of 70 million, with a third-rate military and a damaged economy, to dominate the Middle East and threaten all of our allies and interests there.
Voir de même:
The Obama Doctrine
An ideological aversion to American power is at the core of the president’s foreign policy.
Feb. 16 2015
About the author
Eric Edelman, a former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, is Hertog distinguished practitioner in residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Michael Doran’s long essay in Mosaic, “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy,” and Elliott Abrams’s response to it, “What the President Thinks He’s Doing,” command the attention of anyone seriously interested in the administration’s policies and plans for the Middle East. I agree with Abrams that Doran’s analysis is superb, and that “no one has more persuasively explained the connections” among the various parts of the Iran policy being pursued by the White House.
I’m also in broad agreement with Doran’s conclusion: namely, that “the only way to salvage the West’s position in the nuclear negotiations is to regain the leverage that the president’s deferential approach has ceded to Iran.” As I testified in late January before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, rather than actively seeking Iran’s partnership, the United States must be willing to compete with it:
On one level, this requires a change in tone. The administration must emphasize its readiness to exert more pressure on Iran instead of exerting pressure on Congress with talking points that come “straight out of Tehran,” according to a ranking member of the Senate. On another level, the United States must respond more robustly to Tehran’s ongoing efforts to shift the balance of power in the Middle East. Rather than asking its cooperation and blessing—especially in Iraq and Syria—the United States should undertake every possible effort to isolate Iran in its own backyard.
Concerning one point, the origins of Obama’s “secret” strategy, Abrams takes issue with Doran, suggesting that they can be found less in the work of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, whose report was issued in 2006, than in Obama’s overarching, “progressive” aversion to American power and its uses in the world, an ideological stance that connects many points of reference in the president’s life from Henry Wallace to George McGovern to Reverend Jeremiah Wright to Bill Ayres and Bernadine Dohrn. That both Doran and Abrams are correct, each in his own way, emerges from an examination of the White House’s larger global strategy. This, as it happens, is the subject of an excellent new study, The Obama Doctrine, by Colin Dueck, forthcoming from Oxford in May.
In Dueck’s judgment, Obama’s approach to the world is predicated first and foremost on his bedrock intention to be a “transformational” president. The transformation in question is largely domestic—hence his preoccupation with the Affordable Care Act, which remakes a rather large swath of the American economy. Abroad, and in aid of the main focus on his domestic agenda (“nation-building at home”), the president’s overwhelming objective has been to keep international affairs at bay. But when world events do inevitably impose themselves, Obama is no less confident of his unique ability to exert a transformational impact. “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now,” Doran quotes him as saying, an attitude fully in keeping with his expressed view that “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”
How, then, does the president mean to execute his global transformation? As Dueck sees it, the strategy is twofold: retrenchment, and accommodation. Retrenchment means liquidating some of what Obama construes to be overinvestments the U.S. has made around the world, particularly in the Middle East, while also reducing the strength of the U.S. military—since, in his view, our temptation to resort to military force has itself been responsible for many of the world’s ills. Accommodation, in turn, means reaching out and “engaging” America’s adversaries, thereby turning them, in the common phrase, from part of the problem into part of the solution.
Understanding this strategy of retrenchment and accommodation is a useful vehicle for explaining many apparently discrete episodes in Obama’s tenure, from the early “strategic reassurance” of China, to the “reset” of relations with Russia, and of course to the “open hand” approach to Tehran that Michael Doran dissects so well. It also clarifies the chronic neglect of allies, and it illuminates, as Abrams rightly underlines, the president’s chronic need—the political equivalent of Tourette syndrome—to express regret and apologize publicly for past exercises of American power in pursuit of our national interests.
As for the tactical implementation of the strategy in individual cases, that has been delegated to individuals like Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin Rhodes, who helped write the Iraq Study Group report. Doran, it seems to me, is correct to see that document as key to grasping the administration’s Iran policy, and to the coherent, step-by-step unfolding of that policy, though perhaps less so to understanding the larger strategy as a whole.
Is any of this a “secret,” as Doran suggests? When it comes to the ultimate sources of Obama’s views and his conduct in national-security affairs, the evidence has been hiding in plain sight since before he was elected. As Abrams points out in his response to Doran, and more extensively in a profound essay, “The Citizen of the World Presidency,” in Commentary (September 2013), those sources were implicit in the president’s personal history and in his various mentors and associates as he came to political maturity. Moreover, he and his acolytes have continued to articulate his ideas in public documents and, usually without attribution, in comments to the press. Doran’s essay itself is replete with such quotations from Obama and his staff.
In the case of Iran, the veil of secrecy has descended not over the conception or expression of Obama’s strategy but over his diplomacy, which Doran masterfully untangles. But that, in and of itself, does little to distinguish him from other presidents. Nor, in itself, is the outreach to Iran a new thing in our politics. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates used to say, every administration since Jimmy Carter’s has come a cropper in the vain search for Iranian moderates.
What distinguishes Obama is the ideological aversion to American power and the formulation of a strategy whose overriding impetus is to constrain that power. The scandal is not that the administration has kept this a secret but that a supine press and intellectual class have failed—“declined” may be the better (if much too polite) word—to explain it to the American people.
What They’re Saying about « Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy »
Michael Doran’s essay provoked a “firestorm in the policy world.” Here’s a roundup of arguments for and against his thesis.
Official White House photo, Pete Souza.
Feb. 19 2015
In the week-and-a-half since it’s been published, Michael Doran’s “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy” has provoked an extraordinary degree of public debate, from Washington, D.C. to Jerusalem to, perhaps, Tehran. In addition to the invited responses from, so far, Elliott Abrams and Eric Edelman, we’ve collected some of the more notable public comments for the benefit of readers who may have missed them. Clips from each and links are below.
Next week, Doran, per Mosaic custom, will have the last word. For those who can’t wait to hear more from him, he can be caught discussing his essay on radio. You can listen to him on the Hugh Hewitt Show here (along with an appearance by Lee Smith) or on Voice of Israel’s Yishai Fleisher Show here or in the player at the bottom of this post.
“Who to Believe on Iran: Obama or Netanyahu?” by David Horovitz, Times of Israel
“Either, as asserted in articles such as Michael Doran’s ‘Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy,’ the Obama administration is in the grip of a blinding ideological fog. . . . Or, as asserted by the prime minister’s critics, Benjamin Netanyahu is misrepresenting the dangers and those around him are mischaracterizing the terms being negotiated.”
“Why the White House Is Getting Lonelier on Iran” by Walter Russell Mead, The American Interest
As my colleague Michael Doran has recently pointed out in an article that contributed to the rising disquiet about the administration’s Iran strategy, the approach to Iran has been the centerpiece of the administration’s Middle East strategy from 2009 to the present day.
“This Is the Best Explanation of What Conservatives Don’t like about Obama’s Foreign Policy” by Zack Beauchamp, Vox
Though Doran’s argument “relies on a real degree of unevidenced speculation about what happened within closed-door administration meetings to guide these policies,” it’s “an essential window into the politically salient mainline conservative criticism of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy.”
“Why Obama Won’t Talk About Islamic Terrorism” by David Frum, The Atlantic
Michael Doran “reminds us of a revealing line from a profile of the Obama administration’s foreign policy decision making: ‘The thing we spent the most time on’ was also the thing ‘we talked least about in public.’ In that case, the ‘thing’ was the project to achieve détente with Iran. But other projects also signal their importance by going undiscussed, and near the top of that list is the Obama administration’s distinctive counter-terrorism policy.”
“A Return to the Middle Eastern Great Game” by Martin Indyk, Brookings
“Without [a nuclear] agreement, it is impossible to imagine cooperation with Iran on regional issues; with an agreement, collaboration on issues of common interest becomes possible, much as Obama is reported to have suggested in his November 2014 letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader and much as some conservative commentators mistakenly believe is already taking place.”
“Lack of Clarity,” by the editorial staff of the Jerusalem Post
“Doran and others may or may not be right. There is very little to go on. What we do know is that during negotiations with Iran, the P5+1, led by America, has shown a worrying willingness to accommodate the Iranians.”
“Losing the Forest of Iran Policy for the Trees of a Nuclear Deal” by Michael Koplow, Ottomans and Zionists
“There has been tons of discussion over the past week about Mike Doran’s recent voluminous piece in Mosaic. . . . I have quibbles with some of his details and sub-arguments, but I find the overarching thesis convincing: that the White House’s ultimate goal is to turn Iran into an ally based on the view that the U.S. and Iran are natural partners with a set of common interests.”
“Obama’s Party Line: Radical Islam Denial” by Jamie Kirchick, The Daily Beast
“Downplaying global anti-Semitism fits in with the president’s broader Middle East strategy, which consists of distancing the United States from its traditional ally in the region, Israel, while opening its doors to historic enemy, Iran. The history and reasoning behind this policy is explained in a new, magisterial essay in the online magazine Mosaic by Hudson Institute scholar Michael Doran.”
“Worse than No Strategy” by Clifford D. May, Washington Times
“Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, has not just speculated about Mr. Obama’s ‘secret strategy.’ He has painstakingly combed through the record and produced a 9,000-word report persuasively establishing that Mr. Obama, since early in his presidency, has been in pursuit of a “comprehensive agreement” that would allow Iran to become what the president has called ‘a very successful regional power.’”
“Obama’s Quest for a Grand Bargain with Iran Seems Unwise” by Michael Barone, Washington Examiner
Doran makes “a powerful case” that “‘a grand bargain with Iran’ has been and remains the central goal of Obama’s foreign policy. . . . Just as George W. Bush thought Iraqis were yearning for American-style democracy and capitalism, so Obama seems to be assuming that Iran seeks to be an American-style power, prosperous and generous-minded.”
“Why Does Obama Crave a Grand Bargain with Iran?” by Paul Mirengoff, Powerline
“Important commentators have come around to the view that [I] have long expressed — that President Obama is in thrall to Iran and that the nuclear negotiations aren’t really about curbing Iran’s nuclear capacity, but rather about striking a grand bargain with the mullahs. Michael Doran’s excellent essay in Mosaic, which was one of our Power Line “picks,” is a good example of recent commentary to this effect.
“The ‘New York Times’ Violates My Protocol” by Liel Liebovitz, Tablet
As Doran shows “in his factually grounded analysis of Obama’s Iran policy, when it comes to negotiating with the Islamic Republic, the Obama Administration is committed to keeping everyone in the dark.”
“Nuclear Dreams: Iran Now Controls Four Arab Capitals, Plus Washington, D.C.” by Lee Smith, Tablet
As Michael Doran “meticulously lays out in his recently published tour-de-force ‘Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy,’ the U.S.-Iran partnership that is reshaping the Middle East has been in the making since Obama first came to office.”
“Imad Mughniyeh and Obama’s Covert War” by Max Boot, Commentary
“As Michael Doran argues in Mosaic, President Obama is carrying out a secret strategy to court Iran.”
“Relax, Iran Is Not Taking Over the Middle East” by Alireza Nader, The National Interest
“The conflicts in the Middle East are much more complex than ‘Iran on the march’ theories would have us believe. A diplomatic resolution of the nuclear issue can allow Washington more room to deal with Iran’s regional influence.”
The Reform Delusion
Bright people in Washington have long dreamed about the possibility of a reformed Iran. Barack Obama is just the latest.
Reuel Marc Gerecht
Feb. 23 2015
About the author
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former case officer in the CIA with responsibility for Iranian recruitments.
Barack Obama has been eager for an Iranian diplomatic breakthrough since the beginning of his presidency, and Michael Doran, in “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy,” has trenchantly laid out a chronology of the president’s aspirations. It’s hard, however, to find anything particularly secret about them.
A perdurable myth among much of the American left and American “realists” alike is that the United States and the Islamic Republic ought to be able to find a strategic modus vivendi. Remember the attempt by Bill Clinton and his secretary of state Madeleine Albright to engage Mohammad Khatami, the mild-mannered, sincerely cheerful “dialogue-of-civilizations” mullah who unexpectedly won the Iranian presidency in 1997. Arming his diplomacy with contrition, Clinton not only apologized for the CIA-supported 1953 coup against prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, he apologized for the West’s untoward actions against Persia for the last 150 years.
Recurringly optimistic, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman often writes about the logic behind improving Iranian-American relations. For his part, the indefatigable, gimlet-eyed traveler Robert Kaplan is another dogged believer that behind the mullahs’ anti-American religious rants lies a geostrategic reality that must, sooner and not later, bind the Americans and Iranians again in common cause. The informal Track II diplomacy, so-called, which for years has revolved around former American ambassadors Thomas Pickering and William Luers and the New York-based Asia Society, is a fascinating experiment by American “pragmatists” socializing with pleasant, usually powerless, and sometimes mendacious Iranians. As Doran points out, such “realist” sentiments, amplified by an acute desire to run away from Mesopotamia, were also behind the Iraq Study Group’s 2006 recommendations for a renewed American outreach to the Islamic Republic.
There was obviously nothing secret in President Obama treading this well-worn path. It would have been shocking if he, who is allergic to machtpolitik, American hegemony, and the antagonisms that have defined American foreign policy since World War II, did not try to solve the primary strategic enmity in the region.
True, there may be something secret in the mechanics of how the president has consistently sought to extend an olive branch. We don’t know, for instance, what he wrote in his letters to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. We don’t know whether he promised to back away from any aggressive action against Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic Republic’s principal Arab client, as a means to entice the Supreme Leader into a direct, more friendly dialogue with the United States. But it’s not necessary to posit that his do-nothing policy in Syria flowed more from Iranian calculations than from his overall determination to disengage the United States militarily from the region. There may be an overlap in the president’s mind, but odds are good that when he ran away from his own red line on Assad’s use of chemical weapons, he did so without much Persian daydreaming.
Doran assumes and accentuates calculations and ulterior motives behind Obama’s actions. Concerning the nuclear negotiations, he writes: “[B]y exaggerating the spirit of reform in Tehran, the White House was able to suggest that Iran, not America, had compromised.” I am not so sure. In Washington people are usually well-intentioned, and, when it comes to the Islamic Republic, often just dumb. An impressive number of bright people in Washington have repeatedly gone gaga over the possibility of reform in Iran since 1979.
There are many reasons for this behavior: an inability of Westerners to deal with—treat seriously—religion and religious regimes; lingering guilt over American support for the shah; the left’s tendency to side with Third Worlders; and the undeniable warmth, hospitality, and wit that Iranians often show to visiting Americans. The Western media regularly conflate the anger at theocratic rule displayed by young, college-educated Iranians with the real, though hardly pro-Western, dissent among some clerics and lay revolutionaries from the camp around Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the former major domo of political clerics and the formative force behind the nuclear-weapons program.
Moreover, this hopeful but errant analysis is often unintentionally reinforced by American right-wingers who draw caricatures of Iranian theocrats and Iran’s religious culture that strip the former of their Persian sensibilities and the latter of its rampant, oh-so-human hypocrisies. Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, isn’t a Persian-speaking Osama bin Laden, and when right-wingers suggest that he is, sensible people can get a little nervous.
It is entirely possible for President Obama and intelligent, dedicated, patriotic, senior Democratic officials to have sincerely believed that President Hassan Rouhani possibly signaled a new age in U.S.-Iran relations. If well-meaning and Persian-speaking academics can ignore the mountain of primary material about Ali Khamenei’s ferocious hatred of the United States and the West, or about Rouhani’s pivotal role in Iran’s nuclear-weapons quest and in the regime’s unrivaled use of terrorism and assassination abroad, then it’s easy for extremely busy government officials, who don’t have much time to read boring English translations of Iranian speeches, to ignore the historical record. Hope springs eternal in Washington, especially during Democratic administrations.
And let us be clear: Hassan Rouhani and his American-educated foreign minister, Mohammad-Javad Zarif, are talented, at least compared with former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s crowd. They know how to speak to Westerners without setting off civilizational alarm bells. Unlike Ahmadinejad, they don’t talk about their glowing visions of the Mahdi, or explicitly deny the Holocaust. In his interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Rouhani prevaricated about the Holocaust, but he did it in such a way (he said he would let “historians” decide the truth, as if they hadn’t done so already) that his naughtiness slid right by his host.
Above all else, the Washington foreign-policy establishment, both Democratic and Republican, fears military conflict with Tehran over its nuclear program. This omnipresent fear bends analysis. It encourages self-deception. President Obama’s fear of war is palpable and omnipresent—it’s not just a tactic that he regularly deploys to intimidate Democratic members of Congress who fear he is caving in the nuclear negotiations. Although parading one’s anxieties is a self-defeating approach to take with a revolutionary regime built on power politics, it is at least honest.
It’s a very good bet that in all the “secret” letters that Mr. Obama has sent the Supreme Leader, he’s been similarly open about his hopes and anxieties. Since 2009, Khamenei’s quotient for anti-American derision has grown. We don’t have to peer behind the curtain to see why.
Feb. 24 2015
About the author
Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He is finishing a book on President Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.
I’ve been stunned by the reception of “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy.” In this, the era of the 140-character tweet, I’d assumed that a 9,500-word article would have scant appeal beyond a professional audience. Yet, to date, it has attracted 220,000 unique visitors; journalists from several different countries have called to interview me; I’ve done my share of talk radio; and senior political figures, including presidential hopefuls, have expressed their appreciation.
What accounts for the essay’s reach? Timing is certainly one factor. The Iranian nuclear question is coming to a head—dramatically so. But above all I believe that, for many readers, the essay proved useful in solving the enigma of Barack Obama. In his foreign policy, the president has displayed a mix of initiative and passivity that has confounded efforts at categorization. The framework constructed in “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy” may have helped make sense of a bundle of apparent contradictions; at least I hope so.
In his response to my essay, ” What the President Thinks He’s Doing,” Elliott Abrams graciously accepts most of my analysis but differs with my locating the president’s worldview within the “realist” tradition of American foreign policy. Instead, Abrams sees him as a Henry Wallace radical. In his own response, “The Obama Doctrine,” Eric Edelman observes that Abrams’s view and mine are not mutually exclusive. True enough; it is also entirely possible that Obama finds the realist perspective attractive precisely because it provides him with a politically acceptable cover for his radical commitments. There’s no way of deciding the issue definitively.
Still, I’m not so persuaded as is Abrams that the radical commitments and associations in the president’s past provide the key to understanding his policy in the present. His attitudes, however ingrained, are idiosyncratic, at least in Washington; but in moving the United States substantially closer to the Islamic Republic, he has had the support of an influential segment of the nation’s foreign-policy elite. The list of those sharing the assumptions behind his administration’s Iran agenda is both distinguished and bipartisan, including as it does former National Security Advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, former Secretary of State James Baker, and former Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering—to name just four prominent individuals. If the president’s approach is to be countered, we must first discredit the arguments of these foreign-policy realists, none of whom has a foot in the Henry Wallace tradition.
Indeed, as Edelman points out, all of Obama’s predecessors in the White House since Jimmy Carter have, in one way or another, succumbed to an Iran delusion. This same point was also made by Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution in a February 19 debate with me over my Mosaic essay. Obama’s diplomacy, she argued, has followed a very well-worn path, and in pursuing it he has adopted the same carrot-and-stick approach, and the resort to back-channel diplomacy, typical of presidents before him.
These surface similarities are real enough, but to focus on them is to turn a blind eye to the ways in which Obama has broken with the past. He has entirely jettisoned the policy of containing Iranian expansionism; made massive and irreversible concessions on the nuclear issue; and, most important of all, placed reconciliation with Tehran at the top of his foreign-policy agenda. No other president has advanced such overtures to Tehran. If Obama’s break with the past is less than total, it has not been for want of effort on his part.
Suzanne Maloney also charged me with exaggerating the element of secrecy in Obama’s actions—and in “The Reform Delusion,” my respondent Reuel Marc Gerecht strongly agrees. Here, however, the facts speak for themselves. Obama was able to reach the November 2013 interim nuclear agreement with Iran only by working behind the back of both Congress and America’s major allies. When he finally made the deal public, he disingenuously claimed that it had “halted” the Iranian nuclear program. To that particular claim, the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” column awarded three (out of a possible four) “Pinocchios”: that is to say, it contained “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.”
Similarly deceptive has been Obama’s stated policy toward Iran’s client Syria. For years, the president has repeatedly insisted that he is working to remove Bashar Assad from power. Amid much fanfare, he has approved programs ostensibly designed to build up the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime. In practice, however, these programs have amounted to very little. Meanwhile, the president has privately assured the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, that the United States will do nothing to weaken Assad. What word if not “secret” better describes the deliberate pursuit of a private policy that nullifies publicly stated aims?
Gerecht also rejects my suggestion that Obama is operating on the basis of an actual strategic plan. In his view, the policy has been much more haphazard than that. On this point he is joined (somewhat incongruously, given their other differences) by Martin Indyk, the director of foreign policy at Brookings. In “A Return to the Middle Eastern Great Game,” Indyk contends that Obama has taken a holiday from any attempt at organizing a consistent American approach to the region. Citing my essay in order to dismiss it, Indyk paints a portrait of Obama as a law professor who treats the issues of Syria, Iraq, and Iran’s nuclear program as separate cases, devising policy toward each without reference to the others. The president, he writes, refuses “to connect the dots.”
As it happens, in “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy” I produced many examples of Obama doing nothing but connecting the dots, and additional evidence to that effect continues to accumulate. For example, a recent Wall Street Journal report quotes senior American officials fearful that any effort to build up the opposition to Assad in Syria would provoke retaliation by Iran to take American lives in Iraq. “You cross a red line in Syria, you start to infringe on what Iran sees as its long-term interest, and those [Tehran-controlled] Shiite militias [in Iraq] could turn in the other direction,” one official says. It is precisely such reasoning that, I argued in my essay, has led Obama to coordinate with Iran behind the scenes.
Indyk emphatically rejects the notion of any such linkage. Indeed, should we fail to reach an agreement with Tehran on its nuclear program, he writes, “it is impossible to imagine cooperation with Iran on regional issues.” Yet no sooner does he assert this than he contradicts it by providing a fresh example of Iranian-American coordination: “Iran’s tacit cooperation with the United States to remove Nouri al-Maliki from power in Baghdad,” Indyk informs us, “proved critical to the viability of America’s strategy against ISIS in Iraq.”
But let’s suppose for a moment that I did exaggerate the extent to which Obama has recognized an Iranian sphere of interest in Syria. What’s striking to me is that Indyk’s analysis still concedes the most important point of all—namely, that Obama’s policies have indeed facilitated the rise of Iran across the Middle East. In the chaos that now engulfs the region, he writes grimly, the United States stands at a crossroads. It must choose immediately between two distinct and opposite strategies: conceding Iran’s dominance and building a condominium with it, or supporting America’s traditional allies against it. In Indyk’s telling, Obama’s mistake lies in his refusal to choose. But why are we standing in front of such a choice if not because we have, willy-nilly, empowered the revolutionary regime in Tehran to its position of dominance?
It seems, then, that on the central issue, Martin Indyk and I are in complete agreement: whether or not on the basis of a strategic plan, the president has placed the United States on a disastrously wrong track. And Indyk and I are again in agreement on what must be done, for, as he convincingly shows, by far the sensible and necessary option is to support America’s traditional allies in a great effort to begin undoing the damage and restoring regional order.
I would like to believe that Indyk’s urgency is a symptom of a growing awareness of the challenge before us in other influential quarters as well. If “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy” has helped foster that awareness, it has performed its primary duty.
Nuclear Dreams: Iran Now Controls Four Arab Capitals, Plus Washington, D.C.
What the burning of a Jordanian pilot reveals about Obama’s flawed Middle East game
February 5, 2015
The point of burning alive Jordanian pilot First Lt. Muath al-Kasasbeh was to outrage onlookers, including his family—but especially the members of his large tribe, the Bararsheh, in southern Jordan. The Jordanian tribes form the core of support for the Hashemite kingdom against the Palestinian West Bankers, who may constitute the country’s majority. The East Bankers are also the bulwarks of Jordan’s internal and external security, with both the armed forces and security services made up almost exclusively of tribal members.
To be sure, Kasasbeh’s clansmen are going to be very angry with the Islamic State for killing him in such a gruesome manner. What IS seems to betting on is that Kasasbeh’s death was so gruesome, and so evocative of the hellfire that awaits false believers, that the dead pilot’s tribe, a pillar of the Hashemite monarchy, is likely going to be shocked into wondering whether King Abdullah has pulled them into the wrong war, on behalf of a frivolous and potentially treacherous ally—the United States.
Right now, the Obama Administration sees the Islamic State as a major threat to U.S. national security—and to the political fortunes of President Barack Obama and the rest of the Democratic Party. An episode like the Charlie Hebdo/Hyper Cacher attack played out on the streets of Chicago, say, or New York, would be a catastrophe for the administration, which is why it has enlisted allies like Jordan in its campaign against the deranged jihadists of the fertile crescent.
However, it’s worth understanding how the Hashemites and their loyal tribal subjects understand the new threat. From their perspective, the Islamic State is only one part of a larger regional movement, a Sunni rebellion trying to beat back the Iranian security apparatus that now represses them mercilessly throughout the Levant while controlling four historic Arab capitals—Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sana’a. The wider Sunni rebellion against Persian domination comprises not only lunatic foreign fighters (Chechens, Saudis, Swedes, etc.) but also former elements of Saddam Hussein’s regime as well as—and this is the central fact of the Sunni rebellion—Sunni Arab tribes. In other words, Jordan’s Arab tribes have been enlisted to fight Arab tribes who are fighting against Iran and its allies—who are coordinating their anti-Sunni campaign with the United States.
Jordan’s tribes are hardly alone at this moment in their torment and confusion. The United States has alienated its former Sunni tribal allies in Anbar province and throughout Iraq by conducting air strikes on behalf of sectarian Shiite militias loyal to Iran, which murder Sunni tribesmen with seeming impunity whether they are associated with IS or not. Saudi Arabia is aghast at U.S. support for Iran’s role in Yemen, where the Shia Houtha tribesmen backed by Iran now control the country. Israel nearly got into a shooting war last week because of Hezbollah’s ongoing attempt to implant itself on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, where the Iranian-backed sectarian Lebanese Shia militia operates under cover of U.S. airstrikes and implicit political backing that support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian client. While Egypt fights a war against IS and al-Qaida-backed tribes in Sinai, the White House shuns the country’s leader Gen. al-Sisi in favor of meeting in Washington with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, who have sworn to overthrow his regime.
That’s a lot of turmoil for America to be stirring up for its erstwhile allies, at a moment where our larger national goal is supposedly a clean exit from the region. So, why is the White House turning the Middle East upside down? Obama is willing to throw away a U.S. framework built by American statesmen, soldiers, businessmen, and educators over the last century because he sees a really big prize out there for the taking—an agreement with Iran over its nuclear weapons program that will be the linchpin of a new Middle Eastern order, in which Iran will play a major stabilizing role.
The Dream: An agreement with Iran over its nuclear weapons program will be the linchpin of a new Middle Eastern order, in which Iran will play a major stabilizing role.
The Iran deal that Obama has in mind is going to be so awesomely epic and world-changing that it will easily be worth all the chaos the region is now undergoing—from broken alliances and promises, to the high and rising death toll, massive population transfers, the destruction of ancient cities, and the trauma of an entire generation for whom beheadings and human barbeques have become a normal part of life. The United States is on its way out of the Middle East, which is why we need a reliable regional partner like Iran, with the muscle to make its dictates stick. Yes, the dominant partner in that arrangement will obviously be Iran—especially once the Iranians are free of the sanctions that have crippled their oil industry, and can control the oil resources of their client state in Iraq, as well as provide security in the once-and-future Persian Gulf. But Obama would always have the photographs of his triumphant visit to Tehran to remember his role in crafting a new world order from the tribal mayhem of a region in which Americans once fought and died.
But, wait a minute. It seems like it was just yesterday that the government of the United States, its armed forces and clandestine service, had an entirely different set of goals in mind—namely, defending American troops and our allies in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf, and Israel from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Indeed, of late the American intelligence community has been reminding us of our recent past through leaks to the Washington Post and Newsweek saying that not all that long ago, in 2008, the agency teamed with the Mossad to kill Hezbollah’s head of operations, Imad Mughniyeh, in Damascus. The point seems to be that, if the U.S. intelligence community now shares intelligence with Hezbollah and leaks the details of Israeli strikes on Hezbollah convoys, we were once proud to collaborate with our Israeli allies to kill Hezbollah terrorists.
Why does the U.S. intelligence community care about this ancient history? Mughniyeh didn’t just plot the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, among other spectacular terrorist attacks targeting Americans, he also directed the campaign against U.S.-led coalition troops in Iraq waged by Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
Today, however, Shiite militias like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, and Badr Corps get indirect air support from U.S. warplanes. Before the White House launched its campaign against ISIS in Syria, it told Iran it wasn’t going to attack its ally Bashar al-Assad there—even though Obama called for the Syrian dictator to step down in August 2011. By going after ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Syrian rebel units, the White House freed up Assad to use his forces elsewhere.
As former George W. Bush White House aide Michael Doran meticulously lays out in his recently published tour-de-force “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy,” the U.S.-Iran partnership that is reshaping the Middle East has been in the making since Obama first came to office. The most salient point then about the current P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran isn’t the nuclear issue, but the fact that they create a channel to allow both sides to keep talking—which means that all sorts of subjects are going to come up, from Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon to Yemen and maybe even other thorny issues, like Argentina and the Nisman investigation into Iran’s alleged role in the bombing of the Israeli embassy in 1992 and Jewish Community Center in 1994. U.S. response to everything in the region is now tied to the fate of the Iranian nuclear program, which in turn is simply the linchpin of Obama’s larger vision of a partnership between Washington and Tehran.
Obama may dream of a U.S.-Iran partnership and going skiing in the mountains above Tehran. But what does Obama’s grand vision look like these days from the Iranian side? From Iran’s perspective, then, it controls not only four Arab capitals, but it also holds Washington captive. If Obama pushes back, the Iranians walk away from the table, confounding the U.S. president’s dreams of achieving a historic reconciliation—and maybe worse, leaving him vulnerable to Republican majorities in the House and Senate ready to pounce on an epochal diplomatic failure.
But why does Obama’s vision have to fail? First of all, it’s not clear how Iran can accept any permanent agreement with the White House about the nuclear program, or anything else, for that matter. From Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps’ perspective, a deal might empower President Hassan Rouhani at their expense. From Rouhani’s perspective, a deal might make him, a so-called moderate, superfluous as someone who’s already played his role. Most important, there is the point of view of Khamenei, which partakes of the historic rationale of the Islamic Republic. Its founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini promised one thing—not to raise the standard of living or educate women, nor even to hasten the return of the Mahdi, but rather that the life of a genuine Muslim rested on the pillar of resistance against the godless, the arrogant West, especially America. Signing an accord with the Great Satan would undermine the fundamental legitimacy of the regime.
Obama wants a deal with Iran so much in large part because he doesn’t think the United States should be the world’s policeman—and he’s right. Our oil and natural gas industry won’t make us energy independent but it makes us less dependent and we simply don’t need that high a profile in a part of the world that has seldom returned our love. So, why keep shedding blood and spending money—as well as domestic political capital—in the Middle East?
The answer is not that we need to look out for the world’s interests, but that we need to continue protecting our own. A nuclear weapon in the hands of an expansionist regime doesn’t get the United States out of the Middle East. It puts Iran on our doorstep, by turning the clerical regime into an aggressive global nuclear-armed power. There can’t be much question by now about what Iran has in mind for the Middle East, or for other countries that it enlists in its schemes, like Argentina. What Iran wants makes the world a more dangerous place for Americans. The question is not whether there’s a deal to be had with Iran, but if it’s too late to crash the comprehensive agreement the White House has already struck with our new regional partner—whose sickening consequences are plain to see.
Lee Smith is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He is also the author of the recently published The Consequences of Syria.
VIDÉO. Barack Obama répond au Huffington Post: Israël, Palestine, Netanyahu, nucléaire iranien
INTERNATIONAL – « Il faut tout d’abord que les Iraniens démontrent clairement qu’ils ne fabriquent pas de bombes nucléaires, et qu’ils nous laissent toute latitude pour nous en assurer ». Dans un entretien vendredi 20 mars avec Sam Stein pour The Huffington Post, Barack Obama réitère son objectif d’obtenir un accord sur le dossier du nucléaire iranien « dans les semaines à venir ».
« Il n’y aura pas d’accord tant que tout n’aura pas été résolu », a aussi indiqué le président américain, réfutant les rumeurs selon lesquelles une première ébauche de l’accord circule parmi les cercles autorisés. Les grandes puissances et Téhéran reprendront mercredi 25 mars leurs négociations, après une semaine de tractations marathon qui n’ont pas permis de sceller d’accord avant l’échéance du 31 mars.
« Je dois avouer que les Iraniens n’ont pas fait jusqu’ici les compromis que j’estime indispensables pour parvenir à cet accord. Mais ils se sont montrés ouverts, ce qui laisse la porte ouverte à la recherche d’une solution (…). Je vais devoir démontrer au peuple américain, mais aussi aux Israéliens et au reste du monde, que nous avons mis en place des mécanismes qui empêcheront l’Iran d’accéder à la bombe atomique », a aussi dit Barack Obama au Huffington Post.
Le président Obama a promis qu’il ferait tout, y compris militairement, pour empêcher Téhéran d’obtenir la bombe. Mais depuis 2013, il mise sur la diplomatie et a fait d’un rapprochement avec la puissance chiite une priorité. Ce qui met en rage Israël et le Congrès américain.
« Il est évident que beaucoup d’Israéliens se méfient, à juste titre, de leur voisin iranien, a aussi commenté le président américain. L’Iran a tenu des propos ignobles et antisémites, et menacé Israël d’annihilation. C’est précisément pour cela que j’ai dit, avant même de devenir président, que l’Iran ne devait pas disposer de l’arme nucléaire ».
Autres sujets de politique étrangère évoqués durant l’entretien, la victoire de Benjamin Netanyahu aux élections législatives anticipées du mardi 17 mars et la création d’un Etat palestinien. « Disons que nous lui faisons confiance quand il dit que cela n’arrivera pas tant qu’il sera Premier ministre. C’est pourquoi nous devons explorer d’autres options afin d’empêcher que la région ne sombre dans le chaos », a dit Barack Obama au Huffington Post.
« J’ai eu l’occasion de parler hier (jeudi 19 mars, ndlr) à M. Netanyahu. Je l’ai félicité pour sa victoire, et je lui ai réaffirmé mon attachement à une solution à deux États qui est, de notre point de vue, la seule garantie sur le long terme de la sécurité d’Israël, en tant qu’État juif et démocratique, a indiqué Barack Obama. Je lui ai également rappelé qu’après ses récentes déclarations, il serait difficile de croire qu’Israël est sérieusement attaché à la poursuite des négociations ». Benjamin Netanyahu a à nouveau rejeté durant les derniers jours de sa campagne la solution à deux États.
« Cependant, nous continuerons d’insister sur le fait que, du point de vue des États-Unis, le statu quo est intenable, a poursuivi le président américain. Nous sommes attachés à la sécurité d’Israël, mais il n’est pas possible de poursuivre cette voie éternellement, avec l’implantation de nouvelles colonies. C’est un facteur d’instabilité dans la région ».
Le président américain a aussi critiqué les propos de Benjamin Netanyahu qui avait dénoncé le « danger » d’un vote massif des Arabes israéliens aux élections législatives. « Nous avons rappelé que ce genre de discours était contraire aux traditions d’Israël. Bien que ce pays soit fondé sur une terre historiquement juive, et sur le besoin de créer une nation juive, la démocratie israélienne repose sur la notion que tous ses citoyens sont égaux en droits. C’est ce qui fait la grandeur de cette démocratie. Si cela venait à changer, je pense que cela donnerait des arguments à ceux qui ne veulent pas d’un Etat juif, et que cela affaiblirait la démocratie israélienne », a commenté Barack Obama.
Interview traduite par Bamiyan Shiff pour Fast for Word
Voir par ailleurs:
The Bungling of the Iraq Exit
November/December 2014 Issue
In a speech at Fort Bragg on December 14, 2011, President Barack Obama declared that the U.S. military would soon depart Iraq, ending one of the longest wars in American history. The United States, Obama said, would leave behind “a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” Four days later, the last U.S. military unit crossed from Iraq into Kuwait, and American armed forces transferred all their responsibilities to either the central government of Iraq, U.S. Central Command, or the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, completing the most complex handoff from military to civilian authorities in U.S. history.
The next day, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — who since 2006 had sought to enhance his personal interests and those of Shiite religious parties at the expense of Iraq’s Kurds and Sunni Arabs — secured an arrest warrant for Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, accusing him of supporting terrorism. A crisis erupted when Hashimi’s Sunni-dominated political bloc boycotted the national unity government that Obama had so recently touted as inclusive and responsive to the Iraqi people.
That same week, 17 explosions rocked Baghdad, killing at least 65 people and wounding more than 200; al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) later claimed responsibility. With Iranian encouragement, Maliki’s government began to systematically target Sunni elites on the basis of trumped-up charges of terrorism or alleged affiliation with the outlawed Baath Party. Sectarian violence soon erupted, and by May 2013, it had reached levels not seen since the waning days of the civil war that engulfed Iraq in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Meanwhile, Maliki firmed up his grip on the Iraqi intelligence and security forces, replacing competent Sunni and Kurdish officers whom he mistrusted with Shiites personally loyal to him. He refused to appoint permanent ministers for defense, the interior, and Iraq’s National Security Council, instead controlling those ministries himself through an extraconstitutional organization called the Office of the Commander in Chief. In April 2012, the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani warned that Iraq was moving back toward dictatorship — the one thing, he said, that might lead him to seek Kurdish independence.
Obama had declared an end to the war in Iraq, but the Iraqis hadn’t gotten the memo. By mid-2013, the country appeared to be coming apart at the seams — and the worst was yet to come. By the summer of 2014, Maliki’s misrule had hollowed out the country’s security forces and deeply alienated Iraq’s Sunnis, which made it much easier for the Sunni jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, or the Islamic State), the successor to AQI, to cross the border from its strongholds in war-torn Syria and capture a number of major Iraqi cities. ISIS has wantonly slaughtered religious minorities, Shiites, and any Sunnis who have stood in its way; imposed its brutal version of Islamic law on those unlucky enough to live in the swath of territory the group now holds; and released gruesome videos of militants murdering American and other Western hostages.
By any measure, the course of post-American Iraq has been tragic. But the tragedy is deepened by the fact that almost everything that has happened since 2011 was foreseeable — and, in fact, was foreseen by U.S. military planners and commanders, who years earlier cautioned against the complete withdrawal of the nearly 50,000 U.S. troops that still remained in Iraq in 2011. As a senior civilian adviser to the U.S. military in Iraq from 2006 through the end of 2011, I witnessed Obama and senior members of his national security team fail to reach an agreement with the government of Iraq that would have allowed a residual U.S. force to remain there temporarily, and also fail to establish a strategy for how to leave Iraq in a manner that would secure the gains made there during those years. Iraq, its neighbors, the United States, and the rest of the world are now paying the price of those failures.
Whatever lessons can be learned from that mistake won’t be of much help in Obama’s current effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. But those lessons might be applied directly to the question of how to wind down the United States’ even longer-running post-9/11 war, that in Afghanistan. There, Obama still has the chance to avoid making some of the same mistakes and miscalculations that have come back to haunt him in Iraq and that, if current policies remain unchanged, the United States is poised to commit all over again. To do so, Obama will have to summon the political courage to recognize his earlier errors and try not to repeat them. His administration must undertake a complete reassessment of the NATO mission in Afghanistan and the plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country by the end of 2016, long before most experts believe the Afghan government has any chance of maintaining security and stability on its own. At the moment, the final acts of the U.S. war in Afghanistan are following a script remarkably similar to the one that played out in Iraq; Obama must do all he can to arrive at a different ending this time around.
TELL ME HOW THIS ENDS
Making the decision to go to war requires a profound sense of caution and a tremendous amount of planning. Wars often change countries’ internal political and social dynamics and affect both regional and international security. The way a war is fought shapes the postwar security environment. And long before the fighting begins, leaders must consider how it might conclude. As then Major General David Petraeus famously put it in March 2003, as U.S. forces battled their way to Baghdad: “Tell me how this ends.”
It soon became clear that the Bush administration and the U.S. military had failed to properly consider that question. Within 42 days of the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq, American forces had achieved all their combat objectives. But the Pentagon had done very little planning for postconflict stability and support operations, and U.S. forces were unprepared for the lawlessness that followed the collapse of the Iraqi government. Washington’s decisions to pursue a policy of de-Baathification, disband the Iraqi army, and back Shiite politicians with little interest in national reconciliation soon fed a ferocious Sunni insurgency.
Meanwhile, the determination of extremist Shiite militias to exact vengeance for decades of repression at the hands of Sunnis — along with the emergence of a brutal new Sunni jihadist group, AQI — led to extraordinary levels of bloodshed. By 2006, Iraq had descended into a full-blown sectarian civil war. Bush was left with two bad options: withdraw U.S. forces and allow the civil war to rage, or adopt a new strategy to restore basic security in Iraq, committing whatever resources it would take to get the job done.
Bush opted to double down, embracing a counterinsurgency strategy and a temporary “surge” of 30,000 additional U.S. forces. The additional U.S. troops, diplomats, and funding, along with a number of other factors — including the so-called Sunni Awakening, which saw Sunni tribes turn on AQI — pulled Iraq back from the brink of disintegration. By December 2008, the new U.S. strategy had yielded enough security to make political stability seem like a real possibility. Iraq was still a dangerous and dysfunctional place, but by the time Bush left office, he could credibly claim that the new approach had reversed Iraq’s slide into chaos and created the conditions necessary for the country’s survival and potential political, social, and economic development.
Still, two major obstacles stood in the way of a more definitive success. First was the sectarian divide. Maliki had failed to take any serious actions leading toward genuine Shiite-Sunni reconciliation. Instead, he used the success of the surge to solidify his power in Baghdad, all the while enjoying Washington’s firm support. But he mostly ignored American pleas to govern in a less divisive manner and find ways to bring the Sunni minority into the political process. Maliki had also failed to bridge the Arab-Kurdish divide and instead sought to weaken the Kurdistan Regional Government and its security forces. Finally, Maliki allowed Iran to use Iraqi territory to arm, train, and equip hard-line Iraqi Shiite militias. All of this set the stage for the rapid advance of ISIS this past summer and the potential disintegration of the country.
Second, the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement and an associated security agreement between Iraq and the United States — which allowed U.S. forces to stay in Iraq beyond the end of that year, when the un resolution that sanctioned their presence would expire — set a timetable for the eventual withdrawal of all U.S. troops, but it failed to conclude with a permanent status-of-forces agreement to govern U.S. military activities. The temporary security agreement stipulated that the United States would withdraw its forces from all population centers by the end of 2009 and from the entire country by the end of 2011. To secure those terms, Washington had to drop its insistence that U.S. forces enjoy complete immunity from Iraqi law. Instead, in somewhat ambiguous terms, the agreement gave Iraqi authorities legal jurisdiction over cases in which U.S. service members were accused of committing serious, premeditated felonies while off duty and away from U.S. facilities.
In his memoir, Duty, published earlier this year, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates revealed that Pentagon lawyers strongly opposed the compromise. But Gates explains that he believed it was worth the risk if it meant that U.S. forces could stay in Iraq past 2008. Commanders in the field were also comfortable with the compromise; after all, since members of the U.S. armed forces are on duty 24 hours a day and are not permitted to leave their bases unless on a mission, there was little chance that an American marine or soldier would ever wind up in the hands of Iraqi authorities.
According to Gates, both Washington and Baghdad believed the 2008 agreement represented an interim step that would be modified before the 2011 withdrawal deadline in ways that would allow some U.S. troops to remain in Iraq to advise and assist their Iraqi counterparts. But in the years that followed, uncertainty about the Obama administration’s willingness to leave a residual force in Iraq, the turbulent Iraqi political system, and the sensitive issue of legal immunity for U.S. service members created serious stumbling blocks to developing a longer-term arrangement.
WE CAN’T GO ON, WE’LL GO ON
Just over a month after taking office in 2009, Obama delivered a major speech at Camp Lejeune reaffirming his campaign pledge to end the U.S. war in Iraq and laying out a timetable for withdrawal consistent with Bush’s agreement to pull all U.S. forces out of Iraq by the end of 2011. At the same time, however, Pentagon officials were telling U.S. military leaders in Iraq that the president remained open to the idea of keeping troops there beyond 2011 for noncombat missions if doing so were necessary to secure the gains made in recent years. As a result, the military had to plan to strictly abide by Bush’s 2008 agreement (and thus also fulfill Obama’s campaign promise to end the U.S. war) while quietly developing other options just in case the president chose to modify his policy and renegotiate the agreement.
By late 2009, General Raymond Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, concluded that the goals of U.S. policy in Iraq could not be achieved by the end of 2011. He shared this assessment with officials at U.S. Central Command and the Pentagon and with the staff of the National Security Council. He and his staff also provided candid reports and briefings, classified and unclassified, to members of Congress. Despite the efforts of Odierno and others, however, a large gap had opened up between the strategic goals articulated by the Obama administration and the resources and time the White House was willing to commit to achieving them.
Domestic politics in Iraq also complicated the picture: parliamentary elections were set to take place in March 2010, and the Obama administration decided to postpone discussions with Iraqi officials about keeping any U.S. forces in the country until after a new government had taken shape. But the elections did not prove to be the clarifying moment the administration had hoped for: instead, they devolved into a divisive legal and political battle that took nine months to resolve. Finally, in November 2010, Iraq’s parliament appointed Maliki to a second term as prime minister. But the political fight had fostered animosity and a lack of trust throughout the Iraqi political system, aggravating deep sectarian divisions within the parliament. Soon after forming a government, Maliki broke many of the promises he had made to secure his election. The result was political paralysis, a condition that would later undermine the prospects of resolving the question of a post-2011 U.S. presence in Iraq.
IF YOU LEAVE ME NOW
In September 2010, as the squabbling continued in Baghdad, I helped a group of U.S. military planners conduct an internal assessment of the political, economic, and security situation in the country. Their report painted a fairly grim picture of a country that had emerged from chaos in 2008 only to find itself extremely vulnerable to many enduring threats and pressures. The assessment noted that most Iraqi leaders continued to pursue their agendas through politics and had resisted a return to violence. But the divisive 2010 elections and Maliki’s marginalization of his political opponents and abuse of power raised serious concerns about whether Maliki would place sectarian interests aside and lead an inclusive government. The report warned that in the absence of sectarian reconciliation, Sunni-controlled portions of Iraq and Syria could emerge as a safe haven for terrorists and serve as a breeding ground for a revived Sunni insurgency.
Iraq had made substantial economic progress, but public expectations continued to outpace the central government’s ability to deliver essential services and foster economic stability and growth. The Iraqi economy remained overly dependent on oil revenue, the report said, and Baghdad was planning future spending based on unrealistic projections of future growth. Although the oil industry was a major source of funding for the government, and thus financed public-sector employment, it directly employed only two percent of the Iraqi work force, leaving somewhere between 45 and 60 percent of the work force either underemployed or unemployed. The lack of employment created a major source of social discontent and unrest, especially among young men of military age.
The analysis deemed Iraq’s security environment to be stable but fragile, a judgment that was broadly shared by both military and civilian leaders in the Pentagon. Although AQI had been all but defeated in Iraq, by the end of 2009, it had established a safe haven in Syria and was beginning to rebuild and rebrand itself. (It is important to note that the military planners, although deeply concerned about AQI, did not anticipate the group’s transformation into the jihadist army known today as ISIS — a change that took place between 2012 and 2014 as a result, in part, of the Syrian civil war.)
Meanwhile, Shiite militias — armed, trained, and equipped by Iran — enjoyed strong ties to Iraqi Shiite political parties and constituted a shadow government of sorts that “could one day pose an existential threat to the government of Iraq,” the assessment stated. U.S. military planners also worried about the potential for violence between Arabs and Kurds in the disputed territory that the Kurds consider their historic homeland and where they enjoy a great deal of autonomy; a struggle for control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk would be the most likely trigger for a conflict.
Even after years of assistance and training from U.S. advisers, the Iraqi government and security forces were hardly prepared to face such threats. Between 2005 and 2011, the U.S. military provided quarterly reports to Congress warning that the Iraqi military suffered from significant shortfalls that would hinder its ability to defend the country against external threats. The Iraqi security forces were plagued by weak intelligence collection, analysis, and sharing; an inability to sustain combat operations; poor maintenance of equipment and weapons; the lack of a well-developed training program, or even a culture of training; poor command and control of its forces; a lack of sufficient intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets; and a very limited ability to conduct counterterrorism operations without direct support from U.S. Special Forces. The Iraqi air force was even worse off. It had no ability to provide lethal support to Iraqi ground forces in combat; it couldn’t do much besides transport forces from one air base to another.
All this evidence led U.S. military planners in Iraq to one clear conclusion: if U.S. forces completely withdrew by the end of 2011, it would be very difficult for the Iraqis to maintain the fragile gains made since 2007. Strategic failure had been delayed but was “still possible,” the 2010 internal assessment concluded. In the absence of U.S. forces and concerted political pressure from Washington, the central government in Baghdad would become ever more corrupt, sectarian, and acquiescent to Tehran, setting the stage for a revival of the Sunni insurgency, a resurgence of AQI, and the end of the relative stability that the United States had worked so hard to foster.
If that sounds familiar, that is because it is an accurate description of the current situation in Iraq. Put bluntly, U.S. military planners anticipated with eerie accuracy the dreadful state of affairs that exists there today.
A MODERATE RISK
According to numerous reports, including accounts published by former Obama administration officials, U.S. military planners believed that to prevent the disaster they feared would engulf Iraq if the central government had to stand on its own after 2011, a significant number of American forces — around 24,000 — would have to remain in Iraq past 2011. The proposed plan called for the military to reassess the situation sometime between 2014 and 2016 to determine whether a continuing presence was necessary to achieve the goals approved by both Bush and Obama. The planners judged that this course presented a “moderate risk” of harm to U.S. forces and of mission failure — a level of uncertainty they deemed acceptable given the importance of the objectives.
The planners were requesting a continued investment in a place that most Americans, including political elites across the ideological spectrum, hoped would never again consume much of Washington’s time, energy, or money. But the planners believed that the wide range of challenges facing Iraq — and the terrible nature of the worst-case scenario — justified the expense.
For Iraq to sustain the progress made in the security sector, they argued, U.S. forces would need to continue to advise, train, and assist all elements of Iraq’s security forces. The planners also argued that the United States needed to keep its forces in Iraq to demonstrate Washington’s commitment to Baghdad; to help counter what the 2010 assessment described as “Iran’s malign influence”; and to have a moderating effect on Maliki’s sectarian inclinations.
The U.S. military would also need to help Iraq maintain control of its airspace until it was capable of doing so on its own. Since 2003, the United States had protected Iraqi airspace, and the planners believed that U.S. forces should continue to do so with an F-16 squadron stationed at Al Asad Air Base, in Anbar Province. Although U.S. planners considered the Iraqi Special Operations Forces to be high performing by regional standards, they concluded that their counterterrorism missions still required U.S. assistance in intelligence and aviation support, especially for night operations.
U.S. military planners also believed that American forces would have to remain on the border of the Kurdish region to help prevent conflict between the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish forces known as the Pesh Merga. The planners further noted that al Qaeda militants often traveled through the corridor that runs between the city of Mosul, in northern Iraq, and Diyala Province, in the country’s east. To secure the area, the military planners recommended that U.S. forces continue to work alongside Iraqi and Kurdish forces to jointly man 22 checkpoints along that route.
RUNNING THE NUMBERS
In January 2011, Gates met with James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq; Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and General Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. As Gates recounts in his memoir, Austin argued that he would need at least 20,000 troops to remain in Iraq after 2011 for a transitional period that would last between three and five years. Anticipating resistance from the White House to the idea of such a large residual force, Gates directed Austin to prepare options below 20,000 troops. And indeed, in April, Obama directed Austin to develop a plan that would result in a residual force of just 8,000 to 10,000 troops and to identify the missions that a force of that size could realistically accomplish.
In early June, Obama participated in a secure videoconference with Maliki — his first conversation with the Iraqi prime minister in over a year. According to an administration official, Obama conveyed the U.S. desire to maintain a partnership with Iraq but did not discuss any specific force numbers. Meanwhile, Maliki was discussing with other Iraqi leaders the idea of allowing 8,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops to remain in Iraq, according to remarks made in August 2011 by Samir Sumaidaie, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States at the time, in an interview with Foreign Policy. Most of those leaders understood that Iraq was not yet ready for the U.S. military to totally disengage, but they were determined to avoid any infringement, real or perceived, on the country’s sovereignty. A recurring theme in the discussions between Maliki and U.S. negotiators was the Iraqis’ desire for their American “guests” to be subject to Iraqi law — the same issue that had dogged negotiations between Maliki and Bush in 2008.
In August, according to Jeffrey, Obama informed him that he was free to start negotiations with the Iraqis to keep 5,000 U.S. service members in Iraq: 3,500 combat troops who would be stationed on yearlong tours of duty and 1,500 special operations forces who would rotate in and out every four months. This residual force would include support personnel for half a squadron of F-16s that would be stationed at Al Asad Air Base. Obama rejected the military’s call for a large-scale presence to continue training the Iraqi army and to secure the Arab-Kurdish border area near Kirkuk. Obama believed that the number of troops he proposed would allow the United States to continue collecting intelligence, cooperating with the Iraqis on counterterrorism, training elements of the Iraqi army, and periodically monitoring the checkpoints established three years earlier in the Kurdish border region.
But Obama also made it clear that his plan would require the Iraqi parliament to formally request that the U.S. military stay in Iraq and to agree to a status-of-forces agreement that would grant legal immunity to all U.S. troops remaining in Iraq beyond 2011. In early September, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns visited Iraq to press Maliki on both those issues. According to a former administration official familiar with what happened during the meeting, Maliki told Burns that although he could likely persuade Iraq’s parliament to request a residual force, anyone who believed that the parliament would approve a status-of-forces agreement that included complete immunity did not understand Iraqi politics. Instead, Maliki proposed signing an executive memorandum granting immunity without the need to gain parliamentary approval. White House lawyers rejected that offer, arguing that for any such agreement to be legally binding, it would have to be formally ratified by the Iraqi parliament.
In early October, as Maliki had predicted, the parliament approved the request for an extended U.S. military presence but declined to grant legal immunity to U.S. military personnel. Later that month, Obama told Maliki that all U.S. troops would leave Iraq by the end of 2011, in fulfillment of the terms of the agreement signed by the Bush administration in 2008.
A number of commentators have concluded that the Obama administration was negotiating in bad faith, making an offer that it knew would be politically toxic in Iraq. Had Obama wanted to maintain a residual force in Iraq, he could have accepted Maliki’s compromise proposal. This compromise would have incurred some risk, since Iraqi law clearly required parliamentary approval. However, in the nearly three years since Bush had agreed to a similar compromise, no U.S. service member or civilian official stationed in Iraq had been charged with violating an Iraqi law. It is also worth pointing out that the U.S. military personnel stationed in Iraq today count on a promise of immunity backed only by a diplomatic note signed by the Iraqi foreign minister — an assurance even less solid than the one Maliki offered (and Obama rejected) in 2011.
DEGRADE AND DESTROY
After Obama announced his decision, U.S. commanders in Iraq conducted what they called a “war termination assessment,” to measure the degree to which the military had achieved its objectives. According to military planners who worked on the assessment, the large majority of those goals could best be described as incomplete, and some of them would take many years — even a generation — to achieve. The Iraqi military, for example, was still three to five years away from being able to independently sustain the gains made during the past four years.
Many of the goals remained unfulfilled thanks to Iraq’s internal divisions and the poor performance of Iraqi leaders; others were stymied by neighboring countries such as Iran. But the military planners’ scorecard made one thing perfectly clear: by 2011, enough information was available to conclude that absent a significant U.S. military presence, within a few years, the situation in Iraq was likely to deteriorate — perhaps irreversibly.
Of course, at that point, few foresaw the significant negative effect that the Syrian civil war would soon have on the security situation in Iraq. However, had a residual U.S. force stayed in Iraq after 2011, the United States would have had far greater insight into the growing threat posed by ISIS and could have helped the Iraqis stop the group from taking so much territory. Instead, ISIS’ march across northern Iraq took Washington almost completely by surprise.
Iraq now presents Obama with no good options — as it did Bush before him. Obama’s plan is for the United States to lead an international coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. The U.S. military will provide intelligence, a limited number of U.S. advisers, and air support to ground forces that will come from other countries. This plan is unlikely to succeed, not least because it creates few incentives for the other partners in the coalition to accept the costs and risks that the United States is unwilling to take on itself. Unless the United States decides to take more direct action, including the deployment of some U.S. combat troops and special operations forces, the rebooted “coalition of the willing” in Iraq will likely prove to be little more than a coalition of the uncommitted.
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the administration still has a chance to avoid a repeat of its Iraq experience. Unfortunately, it is not clear whether the appropriate lessons have yet been learned.
For example, there is a growing mismatch between the United States’ objectives in Afghanistan and the resources and time that Washington has given its military forces and diplomats to achieve them. The stated goal of the NATO mission is “to create the conditions whereby the Government of Afghanistan is able to exercise its authority throughout the country, including the development of professional and capable Afghan National Security Forces.” But little evidence exists to suggest that NATO will be able to achieve that goal by the end of 2016, when all U.S. and NATO forces are scheduled to depart. In fact, a congressionally mandated independent assessment of the Afghan security forces completed in January 2014 by the Center for Naval Analyses identified the same types of capability gaps that existed in the Iraqi security forces in 2011. Most credible estimates suggest that those gaps cannot be filled until at least 2018.
After the planned departure of NATO and U.S. forces in 2016, the security situation in Afghanistan will likely deteriorate and could ultimately pose an existential threat to the government in Kabul. Unless something changes, the disaster that has unfolded in Iraq in recent months is on track to repeat itself — and in a few years, Washington might face yet another wrenching decision about whether to reengage militarily in a combat zone that Americans thought they had left behind for good.
Before heading down that route, the Obama administration should conduct a comprehensive strategic assessment that includes a detailed analysis of how the Afghan security environment will likely develop between 2014 and 2018. Meanwhile, the Pentagon should weigh which of Washington’s objectives in Afghanistan have been achieved and measure the risks of withdrawing U.S. forces before the remaining objectives have been met, developing a new strategy for Afghanistan and the region to mitigate the costs and risks. The United States should lead the same type of strategic review within NATO to determine the extent to which it is necessary and feasible to maintain a NATO training mission in the country beyond 2016.
If Obama decides to stick with his current plan to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, his administration must develop a clearer strategy for how to maintain the gains made there without U.S. and NATO forces on the ground. At the moment, it is unclear how the United States or its allies intend to help the Afghan government maintain security on its own. The plan to withdraw completely seems blind to the transformational — and almost certainly negative — impact that the exit of U.S. and NATO forces and capabilities will have on Afghanistan’s internal political and security dynamics.
Even without pursuing a major strategic overhaul, the administration should at the very least take the crucial step of creating a so-called transitional embassy in Kabul. After U.S. forces withdraw, the U.S. embassy should house a “dual-hatted” chief of security assistance: a military officer who would manage the State Department’s role in facilitating arms sales to Afghanistan and also advise, train, and assist Afghan security forces. (In 2011, U.S. military officials recommended creating such a position within the U.S. embassy in Baghdad in the wake of the American withdrawal, but that idea was rejected by the State Department and the White House.) Creating this position would allow some U.S. military infrastructure to remain in place, not only to aid Afghan security forces but also to allow for a more rapid redeployment of U.S. forces should the transition go badly.
In critical respects, Afghanistan today looks quite a lot like Iraq did in 2011. The United States prepares to withdraw its forces while a weak, divided, corrupt central government sputters and flails. Meanwhile, an extremist insurgent group grows stronger in safe havens across the border in a fractious, unstable state. Just substitute Kabul for Baghdad, the Taliban for ISIS, and Pakistan for Syria, and the pictures line up quite well. And without a dramatic shift in strategy and policy, a few years after U.S. and NATO forces leave Afghanistan, the country will look quite a lot like Iraq does today. The Obama administration must act swiftly, or else it risks losing a second war by once again departing before the job is done.
Alors qu’Obama le courtise, Khamenei répond par « mort à l’Amérique »
Deux jours seulement après que président américain Barack Obama ait exhorté le peuple iranien à profiter d’une « occasion unique » pour résoudre la question nucléaire, une foule iranienne a scandé samedi « mort à l’Amérique », avec le « guide suprême » tout à fait d’accord avec ce slogan.
Selon Reuters, l’ayatollah Ali Khamenei a fait un discours dans le nord de l’Iran, où il a accusé les Etats-Unis d’utiliser la pression économique et l’intimidation pour essayer de tourner ses compatriotes contre le régime islamique.
Khamenei, qui a le dernier mot sur toutes les questions de l’état iranien, a rappelé dans son discours que Téhéran ne pliera pas face aux pressions pour céder aux exigences des pays occidentaux sur son nucléaire.
Khamenei a dénoncé les sanctions et ce qu’il décrit comme les puissances occidentales « arrogantes », les blâmant ainsi que les acteurs régionaux pour la réduction de moitié du prix du pétrole depuis juin dernier, ce qui a encore plus mis sous pression l’économie iranienne.
A ce moment, selon Reuters, un homme dans le public a crié « mort à l’Amérique », ce à quoi le dictateur islamiste a répondu : « bien entendu, mort à l’Amérique, parce que l’Amérique est la source d’origine de cette pression. Ils insistent à mettre la pression sur l’économie de nos chères personnes. Quel est leur objectif ? Leur objectif est de monter les gens contre le système. »
Khamenei a contesté le message fait par Obama aux Iraniens, dans lequel le président a déclaré que les pourparlers nucléaires représentaient la meilleure occasion depuis des décennies de poursuivre une relation différente entre les deux pays.
Il a rejeté l’affirmation d’Obama qu’il y avait des gens en Iran qui se tenaient contre une solution diplomatique à la question nucléaire.
« C’est un mensonge. Il n’y a pas une personne en Iran qui ne veuille pas une solution à la question nucléaire, résolution par des négociations. Ce que le peuple iranien ne veut pas c’est l’imposition et l’intimidation de l’Amérique, » a-t-il dit, selon Reuters.
« L’autre partie dit ‘allons négocier et vous acceptez tous les détails de ce que nous disons’… Ni nos dirigeants, ni notre équipe de négociation, ni le peuple d’Iran qui est derrière eux ne vont accepter cela, » a ajouté Khamenei.
« Mort à l’Amérique » est souvent chanté par les foules lors des rassemblements en Iran. En fait, le slogan est scandé depuis plus de trois décennies à tous les événements publics, y compris la prière du vendredi.
Alors qu’il y a eu des appels à s’abstenir de ces chants, au vu des tentatives de l’Iran de convaincre le monde qu’il est devenu plus modéré, les chefs religieux de l’Iran ont rejeté ces appels, affirmant que le slogan « reflète la doctrine islamique de la résistance à l’impérialisme, et symbolise également la force de l’Iran. »
Les Gardiens de la Révolution ont récemment dit clairement que les Etats-Unis « sont toujours le grand Satan et l’ennemi numéro un de la révolution (islamique), et la république islamique et la nation iranienne… ne permettront jamais que la dignité et l’indépendance de la patrie islamique soient menacées et lésées par la volonté des ennemis. »
Israeli officials say US anger aims to distract from Iran deal
Jerusalem downplays Obama’s dismay with the apparent Netanyahu rejection of 2-state solution, says Washington knows the Palestinians, not Israel, sank peace talks
The Times of Israel
March 22, 2015
The US administration’s comments calling into question Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution are intended to divert the public’s attention from the prospective nuclear deal with Iran, senior officials in Jerusalem said Sunday.
Ties between Jerusalem and Washington appeared to hit a new low over the last week, with US officials speaking of supporting Palestinian overtures at the UN after Netanyahu appealed for right-wing support ahead of election day by saying he would not allow a Palestinian state.
But sources in Jerusalem indicated that Sunday that they believed the US was using the issue to distract from a controversial deal being hammered out with Iran over its nuclear program, which Netanyahu has lobbied against.
“In my eyes, [the US administration’s comments on the two-state solution] are less related to the Palestinian issue but are much more connected to the Iranian issue,” Dore Gold, a former ambassador to the United Nations and close Netanyahu adviser, told Army Radio Sunday. “We’re having a substantial disagreement with Washington over the agreement they’re about to sign in the coming days and weeks.”
Over the weekend, US President Barack Obama issued thinly veiled threats of allowing the passage of a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for the creation of a Palestinian side.
He said his government would have to “evaluate” again its stance on Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts in light of Netanyahu’s pre-election rejection of Palestinian statehood.
Although Netanyahu later backtracked in interviews with four American television networks, reiterating a commitment in principle to a “sustainable, peaceful two-state solution,” Obama said in an interview published Saturday that his administration is now operating under the assumption that Netanyahu does not envision the creation of a Palestinian state.
In Jerusalem, the president’s comments were interpreted as an American ploy to place the Palestinian issue on the agenda to draw interest away from a prospective agreement between six world powers — led by the US — and Iran over the latter’s rogue nuclear program. Netanyahu is openly critical of the deal, arguing that it would pave the way toward a nuclear-armed Iran.
The Americans know that the Palestinian Authority was the key obstacle to a peace agreement during last year’s negotiations, Gold argued. Therefore, he suggested, Obama’s comments on the peace process and on Netanyahu’s ostensible repudiation of the two-state solution could be seen as motivated by a desire to distract from the Iran deal, he suggested.
The US is a serious country that doesn’t play political games, Gold said. “But we need to understand that there are tensions [with Israel] on these two issues. Regarding the Palestinian issue — the prime minister himself clarified his positions. But the tensions persist, in my view, in light of our disagreement about key aspects of the Iranian nuclear issue.”
Another senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office told The Times of Israel on Sunday that Netanyahu gave interviews to four American television station in order to clarify his position on the Palestinian statehood. “The prime minister reiterated that there’s no change to his commitment to the principle of two states for two peoples,” the senior official said. “We thought that would be enough to put that issue aside.”
The fact that Obama nevertheless opted to focus on the Palestinian issue indicates that he wants to deflect Israeli criticism on the prospective Iran deal, the senior official added.
He did not comment on whether or how the prime minister intends to satisfy the president’s demand for clarification on Jerusalem’s stance toward Palestinian statehood.
In his interview with The Huffington Post, Obama promised to maintain cooperation with the Israeli government on military and intelligence operations, but would not say whether the US would continue to block Palestinian efforts to secure statehood via the United Nations. He said he had told the Likud leader when they spoke on Thursday that it would be difficult to find a way to restart peace talks when people are seriously doubting that negotiations are possible.
“We take him at his word when he said that [the creation of a Palestinian state] wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership,” Obama said, “and so that’s why we’ve got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don’t see a chaotic situation in the region.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.
Annals of the Presidency
Going the Distance
On and off the road with Barack Obama.
The New Yorker
January 27, 2014
Obama’s Presidency is on the clock. Hard as it has been to pass legislation, the coming year is a marker, the final interval before the fight for succession becomes politically all-consuming. Obama’s Presidency is on the clock. Hard as it has been to pass legislation, the coming year is a marker, the final interval before the fight for succession becomes politically all-consuming. Credit Photographs by Pari Dukovic
On the Sunday afternoon before Thanksgiving, Barack Obama sat in the office cabin of Air Force One wearing a look of heavy-lidded annoyance. The Affordable Care Act, his signature domestic achievement and, for all its limitations, the most ambitious social legislation since the Great Society, half a century ago, was in jeopardy. His approval rating was down to forty per cent—lower than George W. Bush’s in December of 2005, when Bush admitted that the decision to invade Iraq had been based on intelligence that “turned out to be wrong.” Also, Obama said thickly, “I’ve got a fat lip.”
That morning, while playing basketball at F.B.I. headquarters, Obama went up for a rebound and came down empty-handed; he got, instead, the sort of humbling reserved for middle-aged men who stubbornly refuse the transition to the elliptical machine and Gentle Healing Yoga. This had happened before. In 2010, after taking a self-described “shellacking” in the midterm elections, Obama caught an elbow in the mouth while playing ball at Fort McNair. He wound up with a dozen stitches. The culprit then was one Reynaldo Decerega, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. Decerega wasn’t invited to play again, though Obama sent him a photograph inscribed “For Rey, the only guy that ever hit the President and didn’t get arrested. Barack.”
This time, the injury was slighter and no assailant was named—“I think it was the ball,” Obama said—but the President needed little assistance in divining the metaphor in this latest insult to his person. The pundits were declaring 2013 the worst year of his Presidency. The Republicans had been sniping at Obamacare since its passage, nearly four years earlier, and HealthCare.gov, a Web site that was undertested and overmatched, was a gift to them. There were other beribboned boxes under the tree: Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency; the failure to get anything passed on gun control or immigration reform; the unseemly waffling over whether the Egyptian coup was a coup; the solidifying wisdom in Washington that the President was “disengaged,” allergic to the forensic and seductive arts of political persuasion. The congressional Republicans quashed nearly all legislation as a matter of principle and shut down the government for sixteen days, before relenting out of sheer tactical confusion and embarrassment—and yet it was the President’s miseries that dominated the year-end summations.
Obama worried his lip with his tongue and the tip of his index finger. He sighed, slumping in his chair. The night before, Iran had agreed to freeze its nuclear program for six months. A final pact, if one could be arrived at, would end the prospect of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and the hell that could follow: terror attacks, proxy battles, regional war—take your pick. An agreement could even help normalize relations between the United States and Iran for the first time since the Islamic Revolution, in 1979. Obama put the odds of a final accord at less than even, but, still, how was this not good news?
The answer had arrived with breakfast. The Saudis, the Israelis, and the Republican leadership made their opposition known on the Sunday-morning shows and through diplomatic channels. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, called the agreement a “historic mistake.” Even a putative ally like New York Senator Chuck Schumer could go on “Meet the Press” and, fearing no retribution from the White House, hint that he might help bollix up the deal. Obama hadn’t tuned in. “I don’t watch Sunday-morning shows,” he said. “That’s been a well-established rule.” Instead, he went out to play ball.
Usually, Obama spends Sundays with his family. Now he was headed for a three-day fund-raising trip to Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, rattling the cup in one preposterous mansion after another. The prospect was dispiriting. Obama had already run his last race, and the chances that the Democratic Party will win back the House of Representatives in the 2014 midterm elections are slight. The Democrats could, in fact, lose the Senate.
For an important trip abroad, Air Force One is crowded with advisers, military aides, Secret Service people, support staff, the press pool. This trip was smaller, and I was along for the ride, sitting in a guest cabin with a couple of aides and a staffer who was tasked with keeping watch over a dark suit bag with a tag reading “The President.”
Obama spent his flight time in the private quarters in the nose of the plane, in his office compartment, or in a conference room. At one point on the trip from Andrews Air Force Base to Seattle, I was invited up front for a conversation. Obama was sitting at his desk watching the Miami Dolphins–Carolina Panthers game. Slender as a switch, he wore a white shirt and dark slacks; a flight jacket was slung over his high-backed leather chair. As we talked, mainly about the Middle East, his eyes wandered to the game. Reports of multiple concussions and retired players with early-onset dementia had been in the news all year, and so, before I left, I asked if he didn’t feel at all ambivalent about following the sport. He didn’t.
“I would not let my son play pro football,” he conceded. “But, I mean, you wrote a lot about boxing, right? We’re sort of in the same realm.”
The Miami defense was taking on a Keystone Kops quality, and Obama, who had lost hope on a Bears contest, was starting to lose interest in the Dolphins. “At this point, there’s a little bit of caveat emptor,” he went on. “These guys, they know what they’re doing. They know what they’re buying into. It is no longer a secret. It’s sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?”
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Obama chewed furtively on a piece of Nicorette. His carriage and the cadence of his conversation are usually so measured that I was thrown by the lingering habit, the trace of indiscipline. “I’m not a purist,” he said.
I—ON THE CLOCK
When Obama leaves the White House, on January 20, 2017, he will write a memoir. “Now, that’s a slam dunk,” the former Obama adviser David Axelrod told me. Andrew Wylie, a leading literary agent, said he thought that publishers would pay between seventeen and twenty million dollars for the book—the most ever for a work of nonfiction—and around twelve million for Michelle Obama’s memoirs. (The First Lady has already started work on hers.) Obama’s best friend, Marty Nesbitt, a Chicago businessman, told me that, important as the memoir might be to Obama’s legacy and to his finances, “I don’t see him locked up in a room writing all the time. His capacity to crank stuff out is amazing. When he was writing his second book, he would say, ‘I’m gonna get up at seven and write this chapter—and at nine we’ll play golf.’ I would think no, it’s going to be a lot later, but he would knock on my door at nine and say, ‘Let’s go.’ ” Nesbitt thinks that Obama will work on issues such as human rights, education, and “health and wellness.” “He was a local community organizer when he was young,” he said. “At the back end of his career, I see him as an international and national community organizer.”
Yet no post-Presidential project—even one as worthy as Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs or Jimmy Carter’s efforts to eradicate the Guinea worm in Africa—can overshadow what can be accomplished in the White House with the stroke of a pen or a phone call. And, after a miserable year, Obama’s Presidency is on the clock. Hard as it has been to pass legislation since the Republicans took the House, in 2010, the coming year is a marker, the final interval before the fight for succession becomes politically all-consuming.
“The conventional wisdom is that a President’s second term is a matter of minimizing the damage and playing defense rather than playing offense,” Obama said in one of our conversations on the trip and at the White House. “But, as I’ve reminded my team, the day after I was inaugurated for a second term, we’re in charge of the largest organization on earth, and our capacity to do some good, both domestically and around the world, is unsurpassed, even if nobody is paying attention.”
In 2007, at the start of Obama’s Presidential campaign, the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and her husband, Richard Goodwin, who worked in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, visited him in his Senate office. “I have no desire to be one of those Presidents who are just on the list—you see their pictures lined up on the wall,” Obama told them. “I really want to be a President who makes a difference.” As she put it to me then, “There was the sense that he wanted to be big. He didn’t want to be Millard Fillmore or Franklin Pierce.”
The question is whether Obama will satisfy the standard he set for himself. His biggest early disappointment as President was being forced to recognize that his romantic vision of a post-partisan era, in which there are no red states or blue states, only the United States, was, in practical terms, a fantasy. It was a difficult fantasy to relinquish. The spirit of national conciliation was more than the rhetorical pixie dust of Obama’s 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, in Boston, which had brought him to delirious national attention. It was also an elemental component of his self-conception, his sense that he was uniquely suited to transcend ideology and the grubby battles of the day. Obama is defensive about this now. “My speech in Boston was an aspirational speech,” he said. “It was not a description of our politics. It was a description of what I saw in the American people.”
The structures of American division came into high relief once he was in office. The debate over the proper scale and scope of the federal government dates to the Founders, but it has intensified since the Reagan revolution. Both Bill Clinton and Obama have spent as much time defending progressive advances—from Social Security and Medicare to voting rights and abortion rights—as they have trying to extend them. The Republican Party is living through the late-mannerist phase of that revolution, fuelled less by ideas than by resentments. The moderate Republican tradition is all but gone, and the reactionaries who claim Reagan’s banner display none of his ideological finesse. Rejection is all. Obama can never be opposed vehemently enough.
The dream of bipartisan coöperation glimmered again after Obama won reëlection against Mitt Romney with fifty-one per cent of the popular vote. The President talked of the election breaking the “fever” in Washington. “We didn’t expect the floodgates would open and Boehner would be Tip O’Neill to our Reagan,” Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to the President, said. But reëlection, he thought, had “liberated” Obama. The second Inaugural Address was the most liberal since the nineteen-sixties. Obama pledged to take ambitious action on climate change, immigration, gun control, voting rights, infrastructure, tax reform. He warned of a nation at “perpetual war.” He celebrated the Seneca Falls Convention, the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, and the Stonewall riots as events in a narrative of righteous struggle. He pledged “collective action” on economic fairness, and declared that the legacy of Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid does “not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” Pfeiffer said, “His point was that Congress won’t set the limits of what I will do. I won’t trim my vision. And, even if I can’t get it done, I will set the stage so it does get done” in the years ahead. Then came 2013, annus horribilis.
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Obama’s election was one of the great markers in the black freedom struggle. In the electoral realm, ironically, the country may be more racially divided than it has been in a generation. Obama lost among white voters in 2012 by a margin greater than any victor in American history. The popular opposition to the Administration comes largely from older whites who feel threatened, underemployed, overlooked, and disdained in a globalized economy and in an increasingly diverse country. Obama’s drop in the polls in 2013 was especially grave among white voters. “There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President,” Obama said. “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.” The latter group has been less in evidence of late.
“There is a historic connection between some of the arguments that we have politically and the history of race in our country, and sometimes it’s hard to disentangle those issues,” he went on. “You can be somebody who, for very legitimate reasons, worries about the power of the federal government—that it’s distant, that it’s bureaucratic, that it’s not accountable—and as a consequence you think that more power should reside in the hands of state governments. But what’s also true, obviously, is that philosophy is wrapped up in the history of states’ rights in the context of the civil-rights movement and the Civil War and Calhoun. There’s a pretty long history there. And so I think it’s important for progressives not to dismiss out of hand arguments against my Presidency or the Democratic Party or Bill Clinton or anybody just because there’s some overlap between those criticisms and the criticisms that traditionally were directed against those who were trying to bring about greater equality for African-Americans. The flip side is I think it’s important for conservatives to recognize and answer some of the problems that are posed by that history, so that they understand if I am concerned about leaving it up to states to expand Medicaid that it may not simply be because I am this power-hungry guy in Washington who wants to crush states’ rights but, rather, because we are one country and I think it is going to be important for the entire country to make sure that poor folks in Mississippi and not just Massachusetts are healthy.”
Obama’s advisers are convinced that if the Republicans don’t find a way to attract non-white voters, particularly Hispanics and Asians, they may lose the White House for two or three more election cycles. And yet Obama still makes every effort to maintain his careful, balancing tone, as if the unifying moment were still out there somewhere in the middle distance. “There were times in our history where Democrats didn’t seem to be paying enough attention to the concerns of middle-class folks or working-class folks, black or white,” he said. “And this was one of the great gifts of Bill Clinton to the Party—to say, you know what, it’s entirely legitimate for folks to be concerned about getting mugged, and you can’t just talk about police abuse. How about folks not feeling safe outside their homes? It’s all fine and good for you to want to do something about poverty, but if the only mechanism you have is raising taxes on folks who are already feeling strapped, then maybe you need to widen your lens a little bit. And I think that the Democratic Party is better for it. But that was a process. And I am confident that the Republicans will go through that same process.”
For the moment, though, the opposition party is content to define itself, precisely, by its opposition. As Obama, a fan of the “Godfather” movies, has put it, “It turns out Marlon Brando had it easy, because, when it comes to Congress, there is no such thing as an offer they can’t refuse.”
II—THE LONG VIEW
At dusk, Air Force One touched down at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Obama and his adviser Valerie Jarrett stood for a moment on the tarmac gazing at Mt. Rainier, the snow a candied pink. Then Obama nodded. Moment over. They got in the car and headed for town. Obama’s limousine, a Cadillac said to weigh as much as fifteen thousand pounds, is known as the Beast. It is armored with ceramic, titanium, aluminum, and steel to withstand bomb blasts, and it is sealed in case of biochemical attack. The doors are as heavy as those on a Boeing 757. The tires are gigantic “run-flats,” reinforced with Kevlar. A supply of blood matching the President’s type is kept in the trunk.
The Beast ascended the driveway of Jon Shirley, in the Seattle suburb of Medina, on Lake Washington. (Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates live in town, too.) Shirley earned his pile during the early days of high tech, first at Tandy and then, in the eighties, at Microsoft, where he served as president. Shirley’s lawn is littered with gargantuan modern sculptures. A Claes Oldenburg safety pin loomed in the dark. The Beast pulled up to Shirley’s front door.
One of the enduring mysteries of the Obama years is that so many members of the hyper-deluxe economy—corporate C.E.O.s and Wall Street bankers—have abandoned him. The Dow is more than twice what it was when Obama took office, in 2009; corporate profits are higher than they have been since the end of the Second World War; the financial crisis of 2008-09 vaporized more than nine trillion dollars in real-estate value, and no major purveyor of bogus mortgages or dodgy derivatives went to jail. Obama bruised some feelings once or twice with remarks about “fat-cat bankers” and “reckless behavior and unchecked excess,” but, in general, he dares not offend. In 2011, at an annual dinner he holds at the White House with American historians, he asked the group to help him find a language in which he could address the problem of growing inequality without being accused of class warfare.
Inside Shirley’s house, blue-chip works of modern art—paintings, sculpture, installations—were on every wall, in every corner: Katz, Kline, Klein, Pollock, Zhang Huan, Richter, Arp, Rothko, Close, Calder. The house measures more than twenty-seven thousand square feet. There are only two bedrooms. In the library, the President went through a familiar fund-raiser routine: a pre-event private “clutch,” where he shakes hands, makes small talk, and poses for pictures with an inner group—the host, the governor, the chosen.
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Down the hall, in a room scaled like an airplane hangar, about seventy guests, having paid sixteen thousand dollars each to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee kitty, ate dinner and waited. Near some very artistic furniture, I stood with Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s most intimate consigliere. To admirers, Jarrett is known as “the third Obama”; to wary aides, who envy her long history with the Obamas and her easy access to the living quarters of the White House, she is the Night Stalker. Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs, David Plouffe, and many others in the Administration have clashed with her. They are gone. She remains—a constant presence, at meetings, at meals, in the Beast. While we were waiting for Obama to speak to the group, I asked Jarrett whether the health-care rollout had been the worst political fiasco Obama had confronted so far.
“I really don’t think so,” she said. Like all Obama advisers, she was convinced that the problems would get “fixed”—just as Social Security was fixed after a balky start, in 1937—and the memory of the botched rollout would recede. That was the hope and that was the spin. And then she said something that I’ve come to think of as the Administration’s mantra: “The President always takes the long view.”
That appeal to patience and historical reckoning, an appeal that risks a maddening high-mindedness, is something that everyone around Obama trots out to combat the hysterias of any given moment. “He has learned through those vicissitudes that every day is Election Day in Washington and everyone is writing history in ten-minute intervals,” Axelrod told me. “But the truth is that history is written over a long period of time—and he will be judged in the long term.”
Obama stepped up to a platform and went to work. First ingratiation, then gratitude, then answers. He expressed awe at the sight of Mt. Rainier. Being in Seattle, he said, made him “feel the spirit of my mom,” the late Ann Dunham, who went to high school nearby, on Mercer Island. He praised his host’s hospitality. (“The only problem when I come to Jon’s house is I want to just kind of roam around and check stuff out, and instead I’ve got to talk.”) Then came a version of the long-game riff: “One thing that I always try to emphasize is that, if you look at American history, there have been frequent occasions in which it looked like we had insoluble problems—either economic, political, security—and, as long as there were those who stayed steady and clear-eyed and persistent, eventually we came up with an answer.”
As Obama ticked off a list of first-term achievements—the economic rescue, the forty-four straight months of job growth, a reduction in carbon emissions, a spike in clean-energy technology—he seemed efficient but contained, running at three-quarters speed, like an athlete playing a midseason road game of modest consequence; he was performing just hard enough to leave a decent impression, get paid, and avoid injury. Even in front of West Coast liberals, he is always careful to disavow liberalism—the word, anyway. “I’m not a particularly ideological person,” Obama told Jon Shirley and his guests. “There’s things, some values I feel passionately about.” He said that these included making sure that everybody is “being treated with dignity or respect regardless of what they look like or what their last name is or who they love,” providing a strong defense, and “leaving a planet that is as spectacular as the one we inherited from our parents and our grandparents.” He continued, “So there are values I’m passionate about, but I’m pretty pragmatic when it comes to how we get there.”
Obama said he’d take some questions—in “boy, girl, boy, girl” order. He tried to rally the Democrats and expressed dismay with the opposition. (“There are reasonable conservatives and there are those who just want to burn down the house.”) He played both sides of the environment issues, rehearsing the arguments for and against the Keystone pipeline and sympathizing with the desire of China and India to lift millions out of poverty—but if they consume energy the way the United States has “we’ll be four feet under water.” This is the archetypal Obama habit of mind and politics, the calm, professorial immersion in complexity played out in front of ardent supporters who crave a rallying cry. It’s what compelled him to declare himself a non-pacifist as he was accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, in Oslo, and praise Ronald Reagan in a Democratic primary debate.
And that was the end of the performance. A few minutes later, the motorcade was snaking through the streets of suburban Seattle—kids in pajamas holding signs and sparklers, the occasional protester, Obama secured in the back seat of the Beast. He could hear nothing. The windows of his car are five inches thick.
The next morning, a Monday, I woke early and turned on CNN. Senator Lindsey Graham, who is facing a primary challenge from four Tea Party candidates in South Carolina, was saying with utter confidence that Iran had hoodwinked the Administration in Geneva. Next came a poll showing that the majority of the country now believed that the President was neither truthful nor honest. The announcer added with a smile that GQ had put Obama at No. 17 on its “least influential” list—right up there with Pope Benedict XVI in his retirement, the cicadas that never showed up last summer, and Manti Te’o’s fake dead girlfriend.
In the hotel lobby, I met Jeff Tiller, who works for the White House press operation. In college, he became interested in politics and later joined Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign. From there, he volunteered at the White House, which led to a string of staff jobs, and eventually he was doing advance work all over the world for the White House. The aides on the plane were like Tiller—committed members of a cheerful, overworked microculture who could barely conceal their pleasure in Presidential propinquity. I’m twenty-seven and this is my thirty-second time on Air Force One. “I pinch myself sometimes,” Tiller said. Dan Pfeiffer, who has been with Obama since 2007, was so overworked last year that he suffered a series of mini-strokes. “But no worries,” he told me. “I’m good!”
“The things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable,” Obama says. “But you can move things forward. And sometimes the things that start small may turn out to be fairly significant.”“The things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable,” Obama says. “But you can move things forward. And sometimes the things that start small may turn out to be fairly significant.”
We arrived in San Francisco, and the motorcade raced along, free of traffic and red lights, from the airport to a community center in Chinatown named after Betty Ong, a flight attendant who perished when American Airlines Flight 11 was hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center. Obama was to give a speech on immigration. Out the window, you could see people waving, people hoisting their babies as if to witness history, people holding signs protesting one issue or another—the Keystone pipeline, especially—and, everywhere, the iPhone clickers, the Samsung snappers.
The Beast pulled under a makeshift security tent. Obama gets to events like these through underground hallways, industrial kitchens, holding rooms—all of which have been checked for bombs. At the Ong Center, he met with his hosts and their children. (“I think I have some Presidential M&M’s for you!”) People get goggle-eyed when it’s their turn for a picture. Obama tries to put them at ease: “C’mon in here! Let’s do this!” Sometimes there is teasing of the mildest sort: “Chuck Taylor All-Stars! Old style, baby!” A woman told the President that she was six months pregnant. She didn’t look it. “Whoa! Don’t tell that to Michelle. She’ll be all . . .” The woman said she was having a girl. Obama was delighted: “Daughters! You can’t beat ’em!” He pulled her in for the photo. From long experience, Obama has learned what works for him in pictures: a broad, toothy smile. A millisecond after the flash, the sash releases, the smile drops, a curtain falling.
A little later, Betty Ong’s mother and siblings arrived. Obama drew them into a huddle. I heard him saying that Betty was a hero, though “obviously, the heartache never goes away.” Obama really is skilled at this kind of thing, the kibbitzing and the expressions of sympathy, the hugging and the eulogizing and the celebrating, the sheer animal activity of human politics—but he suffers an anxiety of comparison. Bill Clinton was, and is, the master, a hyper-extrovert whose freakish memory for names and faces, and whose indomitable will to enfold and charm everyone in his path, remains unmatched. Obama can be a dynamic speaker before large audiences and charming in very small groups, but, like a normal human being and unlike the near-pathological personalities who have so often held the office, he is depleted by the act of schmoozing a group of a hundred as if it were an intimate gathering. At fund-raisers, he would rather eat privately with a couple of aides before going out to perform. According to the Wall Street Journal, when Jeffrey Katzenberg threw a multi-million-dollar fund-raiser in Los Angeles two years ago, he told the President’s staff that he expected Obama to stop at each of the fourteen tables and talk for a while. No one would have had to ask Clinton. Obama’s staffers were alarmed. When you talk about this with people in Obamaland, they let on that Clinton borders on the obsessive—as if the appetite for connection were related to what got him in such deep trouble.
“Obama is a genuinely respectful person, but he doesn’t try to seduce everyone,” Axelrod said. “It’s never going to be who he’ll be.” Obama doesn’t love fund-raising, he went on, “and, if you don’t love it in the first place, you’re not likely to grow fonder of it over time.”
Obama has other talents that serve him well in public. Like a seasoned standup comedian, he has learned that a well-timed heckler can be his ally. It allows him to dramatize his open-mindedness, even his own philosophical ambivalences about a particularly difficult political or moral question. Last May, at the National Defense University, where he was giving a speech on counter-terrorism, a woman named Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of the group Code Pink, interrupted him, loudly and at length, to talk about drone strikes and about closing the American prison at Guantánamo Bay. While some in the audience tried to drown her out with applause, and security people proceeded to drag her away, Obama asserted Benjamin’s right to “free speech,” and declared, “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to.”
At the Ong Center, an undocumented immigrant from South Korea named Ju Hong was in the crowd lined up behind the President. Toward the end of Obama’s speech, Ju Hong, a Berkeley graduate, broke in, demanding that the President use his executive powers to stop deportations.
Obama wheeled around. “If, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so, but we’re also a nation of laws,” he said, making his case to a wash of applause.
At the next event, a fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee at a music venue, the SFJAZZ Center, Obama met the host’s family (“Hold on, we got some White House M&M’s”) and then made his way to the backstage holding area. You could hear the murmur of security communications: “Renegade with greeters”—Renegade being Obama’s Secret Service handle.
Obama worked with more enthusiasm than at the midday event. He did the polite handshake; the full pull-in; the hug and double backslap; the slap-shake; the solicitous arm-around-the-older woman. (“And you stand here. . . . Perfect!”)
The clutch over, the crowd cleared away, Obama turned to his aides and said, “How many we got out there?”
“Five hundred. Five-fifty.”
“Five-fifty?” Obama said, walking toward the wings of the stage. “What are we talking about? Politics? Can’t we talk about something else? Sports?”
The aides were, as ever, staring down at their iPhones, scrolling, tapping, mentally occupying a psychic space somewhere between where they were and the unspooling news cycle back in Washington.
“We’re off the cuff,” Pfeiffer said. No prepared speech.
“Off the cuff? Sounds good. Let’s go do it.”
Obama walked toward the stage and, as he was announced, he mouthed the words: “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.”
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Then it happened again: another heckler broke into Obama’s speech. A man in the balcony repeatedly shouted out, “Executive order!,” demanding that the President bypass Congress with more unilateral actions. Obama listened with odd indulgence. Finally, he said, “I’m going to actually pause on this issue, because a lot of people have been saying this lately on every problem, which is just, ‘Sign an executive order and we can pretty much do anything and basically nullify Congress.’ ”
Many in the crowd applauded their approval. Yes! Nullify it! Although Obama has infuriated the right with relatively modest executive orders on gun control and some stronger ones on climate change, he has issued the fewest of any modern President, except George H. W. Bush.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Obama said. “Before everybody starts clapping, that’s not how it works. We’ve got this Constitution, we’ve got this whole thing about separation of powers. So there is no shortcut to politics, and there’s no shortcut to democracy.” The applause was hardly ecstatic. Everyone knew what he meant. The promises in the second inaugural could be a long time coming.
IV—THE WELCOME TABLE
For every flight aboard Air Force One, there is a new name card at each seat; a catalogue of the Presidential Entertainment Library, with its hiply curated choices of movies and music; baskets of fruit and candy; a menu. Obama is generally a spare eater; the Air Force One menu seems designed for William Howard Taft. Breakfast one morning was “pumpkin spiced French toast drizzled with caramel syrup and a dollop of fresh whipped cream. Served with scrambled eggs and maple sausage links.” Plus juice, coffee, and, on the side, a “creamy vanilla yogurt layered with blackberries and cinnamon graham crackers.”
The most curious character on the plane was Marvin Nicholson, a tall, rangy man in his early forties who works as the President’s trip director and ubiquitous factotum. He is six feet eight. Nicholson is the guy who is always around, who carries the bag and the jacket, who squeezes Purell onto the Presidential palms after a rope line or a clutch; he is the one who has the pens, the briefing books, the Nicorette, the Sharpies, the Advil, the throat lozenges, the iPad, the iPod, the protein bars, the bottle of Black Forest Berry Honest Tea. He and the President toss a football around, they shoot baskets, they shoot the shit. In his twenties, Nicholson was living in Boston and working as a bartender and as a clerk in a windsurfing-equipment shop, where he met John Kerry. He moved to Nantucket and worked as a caddie. He carried the Senator’s clubs and Kerry invited him to come to D.C. Since taking the job with Obama, in 2009, Nicholson has played golf with the President well over a hundred times. The Speaker of the House has played with him once.
A fact like this can seem to chime with the sort of complaints you hear all the time about Obama, particularly along the Acela Corridor. He is said to be a reluctant politician: aloof, insular, diffident, arrogant, inert, unwilling to jolly his allies along the fairway and take a 9-iron to his enemies. He doesn’t know anyone in Congress. No one in the House or in the Senate, no one in foreign capitals fears him. He gives a great speech, but he doesn’t understand power. He is a poor executive. Doesn’t it seem as if he hates the job? And so on. This is the knowing talk on Wall Street, on K Street, on Capitol Hill, in green rooms—the “Morning Joe” consensus.
There are other ways to assess the political skills of a President who won two terms, as only seventeen of forty-four Presidents have, and did so as a black man, with an African father and a peculiar name, one consonant away from that of the world’s most notorious terrorist. From the start, however, the political operatives who opposed him did what they are paid to do—they drew a cartoon of him. “Even if you never met him, you know this guy,” Karl Rove said, in 2008. “He’s the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a Martini and a cigarette, that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by.” The less malign version is of a President who is bafflingly serene, as committed to his duties as a husband and father—six-thirty family dinner upstairs in the private residence is considered “sacrosanct,” aides say—as he is to his duties as Cajoler-in-Chief.
Still, Obama’s reluctance to break bread on a regular basis with his congressional allies is real, and a source of tribal mystification in Washington. “Politics was a strange career choice for Obama,” David Frum, a conservative columnist, told me. “Most politicians are not the kind of people you would choose to have as friends. Or they are the kind who, like John Edwards, seem to be one thing but then turn out to have a monster in the attic; the friendship is contingent on something you can’t see. Obama is exactly like all my friends. He would rather read a book than spend time with people he doesn’t know or like.” Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia who was elected to the Senate three years ago, said recently that Obama’s distance from members of Congress has hurt his ability to pass legislation. “When you don’t build those personal relationships,” Manchin told CNN, “it’s pretty easy for a person to say, ‘Well, let me think about it.’ ”
Harry Truman once called the White House “the great white jail,” but few Presidents seem to have felt as oppressed by Washington as Obama does. At one stop on the West Coast trip, Marta Kauffman, a Democratic bundler who was one of the creators of “Friends,” said that she asked him what had surprised him most when he first became President. “The bubble,” Obama said. He said he hoped that one day he might be able to take a walk in the park, drop by a bookstore, chat with people in a coffee shop. “After all this is done,” he said, “how can I find that again?”
“Have you considered a wig?” she asked.
“Maybe fake dreads,” her son added.
The President smiled. “I never thought of that,” he said.
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Obama’s circle of intimates is limited; it has been since his days at Columbia and Harvard Law. In 2008, Obama called on John Podesta, who had worked extensively for Bill Clinton, to run his transition process. When Clinton took office, there was a huge list of people who needed to be taken care of with jobs; the “friends of Bill” is a wide network. After Podesta talked to Obama and realized how few favors had to be distributed, he told a colleague, “He travels light.”
Obama’s favorite company is a small ensemble of Chicago friends—Valerie Jarrett, Marty Nesbitt and his wife, Anita Blanchard, an obstetrician, and Eric and Cheryl Whitaker, prominent doctors on the South Side. During the first Presidential campaign, the Obamas took a vow of “no new friends.”
“There have been times where I’ve been constrained by the fact that I had two young daughters who I wanted to spend time with—and that I wasn’t in a position to work the social scene in Washington,” Obama told me. But, as Malia and Sasha have grown older, the Obamas have taken to hosting occasional off-the-record dinners in the residence upstairs at the White House. The guests ordinarily include a friendly political figure, a business leader, a journalist. Obama drinks a Martini or two (Rove was right about that), and he and the First Lady are welcoming, funny, and warm. The dinners start at six. At around ten-thirty at one dinner last spring, the guests assumed the evening was winding down. But when Obama was asked whether they should leave, he laughed and said, “Hey, don’t go! I’m a night owl! Have another drink.” The party went on past 1 A.M.
At the dinners with historians, Obama sometimes asks his guests to talk about their latest work. On one occasion, Doris Kearns Goodwin talked about what became “The Bully Pulpit,” which is a study, in part, of the way that Theodore Roosevelt deployed his relentlessly gregarious personality and his close relations with crusading journalists to political advantage. The portrait of T.R. muscling obstreperous foes on the issue of inequality—particularly the laissez-faire dinosaurs in his own party, the G.O.P.—couldn’t fail to summon a contrasting portrait.
The biographer Robert Caro has also been a guest. Caro’s ongoing volumes about Lyndon Johnson portray a President who used everything from the promise of appointment to bald-faced political threats to win passage of the legislative agenda that had languished under John Kennedy, including Medicare, a tax cut, and a civil-rights bill. Publicly, Johnson said of Kennedy, “I had to take the dead man’s program and turn it into a martyr’s cause.” Privately, he disdained Kennedy’s inability to get his program through Congress, cracking, according to Caro, that Kennedy’s men knew less about politics on the Hill “than an old maid does about fucking.” Senator Richard Russell, Jr., of Georgia, admitted that he and his Dixiecrat colleagues in the Senate could resist Kennedy “but not Lyndon”: “That man will twist your arm off at the shoulder and beat your head in with it.”
Obama delivers no such beatings. Last April, when, in the wake of the mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, eighty-three per cent of Americans declared themselves in favor of background checks for gun purchases, the Times ran a prominent article making the case that the Senate failed to follow the President’s lead at least partly because of his passivity as a tactical politician. It described how Mark Begich, a Democratic senator from Alaska, had asked for, and received, a crucial favor from the White House, but then, four weeks later, when Begich voted against the bill on background checks, he paid no price. No one shut down any highway lanes in Anchorage; no Presidential fury was felt in Juneau or the Brooks Range. The historian Robert Dallek, another guest at the President’s table, told the Times that Obama was “inclined to believe that sweet reason is what you need to use with people in high office.”
Yet Obama and his aides regard all such talk of breaking bread and breaking legs as wishful fantasy. They maintain that they could invite every Republican in Congress to play golf until the end of time, could deliver punishments with ruthless regularity—and never cut the Gordian knot of contemporary Washington. They have a point. An Alaska Democrat like Begich would never last in office had he voted with Obama. L.B.J., elected in a landslide victory in 1964, drew on whopping majorities in both houses of Congress. He could exploit ideological diversity within the parties and the lax regulations on earmarks and pork-barrel spending. “When he lost that historic majority, and the glow of that landslide victory faded, he had the same problems with Congress that most Presidents at one point or another have,” Obama told me. “I say that not to suggest that I’m a master wheeler-dealer but, rather, to suggest that there are some structural institutional realities to our political system that don’t have much to do with schmoozing.”
Dallek said, “Johnson could sit with Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader, kneecap to kneecap, drinking bourbon and branch water, and Dirksen would mention that there was a fine young man in his state who would be a fine judge, and the deal would be cut. Nowadays, the media would know in an instant and rightly yell ‘Corruption!’ ”
Caro finds the L.B.J.-B.H.O. comparison ludicrous. “Johnson was unique,” he said. “We have never had anyone like him, as a legislative genius. I’m working on his Presidency now. Wait till you see what he does to get Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act through. But is Obama a poor practitioner of power? I have a different opinion. No matter what the problems with the rollout of Obamacare, it’s a major advance in the history of social justice to provide access to health care for thirty-one million people.”
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At the most recent dinner he attended at the White House, Caro had the distinct impression that Obama was cool to him, annoyed, perhaps, at the notion appearing in the press that his latest Johnson volume was an implicit rebuke to him. “As we were leaving, I said to Obama, ‘You know, my book wasn’t an unspoken attack on you, it’s a book about Lyndon Johnson,’ ” Caro recalled. L.B.J. was, after all, also the President who made the catastrophic decision to deepen America’s involvement in the quagmire of Vietnam. “Obama seems interested in winding down our foreign wars,” Caro said approvingly.
When Obama does ask Republicans to a social occasion, he is sometimes rebuffed. In the fall of 2012, he organized a screening at the White House of Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln.” Spielberg, the cast, and the Democratic leadership found the time to come. Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and three other Republicans declined their invitations, pleading the press of congressional business. In the current climate, a Republican, especially one facing challenges at home from the right, risks more than he gains by socializing or doing business with Obama. Boehner may be prepared to compromise on certain issues, but it looks better for him if he is seen to be making a deal with Harry Reid, in the Senate, than with Barack Obama. Obama’s people say that the President’s attitude is, Fine, so long as we get there. Help me to help you.
When I asked Obama if he had read or seen anything that fully captured the experience of being in his office, he laughed, as if to say, You just have no idea. “The truth is, in popular culture the President is usually a side character and a lot of times is pretty dull,” he said. “If it’s a paranoid conspiracy-theory movie, then there’s an evil aide who is carrying something out. If it’s a good President, then he is all-wise and all-knowing”—like the characters played by Martin Sheen in “The West Wing,” and Michael Douglas in “The American President.” Obama says that he is neither. “I’ll tell you that watching ‘Lincoln’ was interesting, in part because you watched what obviously was a fictionalized account of the President I most admire, and there was such a gap between him and me that it made you want to be better.” He spoke about envying Lincoln’s “capacity to speak to and move the country without simplifying, and at the most fundamental of levels.” But what struck him most, he said, was precisely what his critics think he most avoids—“the messiness of getting something done.”
He went on, “The real politics resonated with me, because I have yet to see something that we’ve done, or any President has done, that was really important and good, that did not involve some mess and some strong-arming and some shading of how it was initially talked about to a particular member of the legislature who you needed a vote from. Because, if you’re doing big, hard things, then there is going to be some hair on it—there’s going to be some aspects of it that aren’t clean and neat and immediately elicit applause from everybody. And so the nature of not only politics but, I think, social change of any sort is that it doesn’t move in a straight line, and that those who are most successful typically are tacking like a sailor toward a particular direction but have to take into account winds and currents and occasionally the lack of any wind, so that you’re just sitting there for a while, and sometimes you’re being blown all over the place.”
The politician sensitive to winds and currents was visible in Obama’s coy talk of his “evolving” position on gay marriage. Obama conceded in one of our later conversations only that it’s “fair to say that I may have come to that realization slightly before I actually made the announcement” favoring gay marriage, in May of 2012. “But this was not a situation where I kind of did a wink and a nod and a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn.” The turn may not have been a sudden one-eighty; to say that your views are “evolving,” though, is to say there is a position that you consider to be more advanced than the one you officially hold. And he held the “evolved” position in 1996, when, as a candidate for the Illinois state senate, he filled out a questionnaire from Outlines, a local gay and lesbian newspaper, saying, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages.”
When I asked Obama about another area of shifting public opinion—the legalization of marijuana—he seemed even less eager to evolve with any dispatch and get in front of the issue. “As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”
Is it less dangerous? I asked.
Obama leaned back and let a moment go by. That’s one of his moves. When he is interviewed, particularly for print, he has the habit of slowing himself down, and the result is a spool of cautious lucidity. He speaks in paragraphs and with moments of revision. Sometimes he will stop in the middle of a sentence and say, “Scratch that,” or, “I think the grammar was all screwed up in that sentence, so let me start again.”
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Less dangerous, he said, “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer. It’s not something I encourage, and I’ve told my daughters I think it’s a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy.” What clearly does trouble him is the radically disproportionate arrests and incarcerations for marijuana among minorities. “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” he said. “And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.” But, he said, “we should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.” Accordingly, he said of the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington that “it’s important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.”
As is his habit, he nimbly argued the other side. “Having said all that, those who argue that legalizing marijuana is a panacea and it solves all these social problems I think are probably overstating the case. There is a lot of hair on that policy. And the experiment that’s going to be taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be, I think, a challenge.” He noted the slippery-slope arguments that might arise. “I also think that, when it comes to harder drugs, the harm done to the user is profound and the social costs are profound. And you do start getting into some difficult line-drawing issues. If marijuana is fully legalized and at some point folks say, Well, we can come up with a negotiated dose of cocaine that we can show is not any more harmful than vodka, are we open to that? If somebody says, We’ve got a finely calibrated dose of meth, it isn’t going to kill you or rot your teeth, are we O.K. with that?”
By Monday night, Obama was in Los Angeles, headed for Beverly Park, a gated community of private-equity barons, Saudi princes, and movie people. It was a night of fund-raisers—the first hosted by Magic Johnson, who led the Lakers to five N.B.A. championships, in the eighties. In the Beast, on the way to Johnson’s house, Obama told me, “Magic has become a good friend. I always tease him—I think he supported Hillary the first time around, in ’08.”
“He campaigned for her in Iowa!” Josh Earnest, a press spokesman, said, still sounding chagrined.
“Yeah, but we have developed a great relationship,” Obama said. “I wasn’t a Lakers fan. I was a Philadelphia 76ers fan, because I loved Doctor J.”—Julius Erving—“and then became a Jordan fan, because I moved to Chicago. But, in my mind, at least, what has made Magic heroic was not simply the joy of his playing.” Obama said that the way Johnson handled his H.I.V. diagnosis changed “how the culture thought about that—which, actually, I think, ultimately had an impact about how the culture thought about the gay community.” He also talked about Johnson’s business success as something that was “deeply admired” among African-Americans—“the notion that here’s somebody who would leverage fame and fortune in sports into a pretty remarkable business career.”
“Do you not see that often enough, by your lights?” I asked.
“I don’t,” Obama said.
The Obamas are able to speak to people of color in a way that none of their predecessors could. And the President is quick to bring into the public realm the fact that, for all his personal cool, he is a foursquare family man. He has plenty of hip-hop on his iPod, but he also worries about the moments of misogyny. Once, I mentioned to him that I knew that while Malia Obama, an aspiring filmmaker, was a fan of “Girls,” he and Michelle Obama were, at first, wary of the show.
“I’m at the very young end of the Baby Boom generation, which meant that I did not come of age in the sixties—took for granted certain freedoms, certain attitudes about gender, sexuality, equality for women, but didn’t feel as if I was having to rebel against something,” Obama said. “Precisely because I didn’t have a father in the home and moved around a lot as a kid and had a wonderfully loving mom and grandparents, but not a lot of structure growing up, I emerged on the other side of that with an appreciation for family and marriage and structure for the kids. I’m sure that’s part of why Michelle and her family held such appeal to me in the first place, because she did grow up with that kind of structure. And now, as parents, I don’t think we’re being particularly conservative—we’re actually not prudes. . . . But, as parents, what we have seen, both in our own family and among our friends, is that kids with structure have an easier time of it.”
He talked about a visit that he made last year to Hyde Park Academy, a public high school on Chicago’s South Side, where he met with a group of about twenty boys in a program called Becoming a Man. “They’re in this program because they’re fundamentally good kids who could tip in the wrong direction if they didn’t get some guidance and some structure,” Obama recalled. “We went around the room and started telling each other stories. And one of the young men asked me about me growing up, and I explained, You know what? I’m just like you guys. I didn’t have a dad. There were times where I was angry and wasn’t sure why I was angry. I engaged in a bunch of anti-social behavior. I did drugs. I got drunk. Didn’t take school seriously. The only difference between me and you is that I was in a more forgiving environment, and if I made a mistake I wasn’t going to get shot. And, even if I didn’t apply myself in school, I was at a good enough school that just through osmosis I’d have the opportunity to go to college.
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“And, as I’m speaking, the kid next to me looks over and he says, ‘Are you talking about you?’ And there was a benefit for them hearing that, because when I then said, You guys have to take yourselves more seriously, or you need to have a backup plan in case you don’t end up being LeBron or Jay Z . . . they might listen. Now, that’s not a liberal or a conservative thing. There have been times where some thoughtful and sometimes not so thoughtful African-American commentators have gotten on both Michelle and me, suggesting that we are not addressing enough sort of institutional barriers and racism, and we’re engaging in sort of up-by-the-bootstraps, Booker T. Washington messages that let the larger society off the hook.” Obama thought that this reaction was sometimes knee-jerk. “I always tell people to go read some of Dr. King’s writings about the African-American community. For that matter, read Malcolm X. . . . There’s no contradiction to say that there are issues of personal responsibility that have to be addressed, while still acknowledging that some of the specific pathologies in the African-American community are a direct result of our history.”
The higher we went up into Beverly Hills, the grander the houses were. This was where the big donors lived. But Obama’s thoughts have been down in the city. The drama of racial inequality, in his mind, has come to presage a larger, transracial form of economic disparity, a deepening of the class divide. Indeed, if there is a theme for the remaining days of his term, it is inequality. In 2011, he went to Osawatomie, Kansas, the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 New Nationalism speech—a signal moment in the history of Progressivism—and declared inequality the “defining issue of our time.” He repeated the message at length, late last year, in Anacostia, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., this time noting that the gap between the rich and the poor in America now resembled that in Argentina and Jamaica, rather than that in France, Germany, or Canada. American C.E.O.s once made, on average, thirty times as much as workers; now they make about two hundred and seventy times as much. The wealthy hire lobbyists; they try to secure their interests with campaign donations. Even as Obama travels for campaign alms and is as entangled in the funding system at least as much as any other politician, he insists that his commitment is to the middle class and the disadvantaged. Last summer, he received a letter from a single mother struggling to support herself and her daughter on a minimal income. She was drowning: “I need help. I can’t imagine being out in the streets with my daughter and if I don’t get some type of relief soon, I’m afraid that’s what may happen.” “Copy to Senior Advisers,” Obama wrote at the bottom of the letter. “This is the person we are working for.”
In one of our conversations, I asked him what he felt he must get done before leaving office. He was silent for a while and then broke into a pained grin. “You mean, now that the Web site is working?” Yes, after that. “It’s hard to anticipate events over the next three years,” he said. “If you had asked F.D.R. what he had to accomplish in 1937, he would have told you, ‘I’ve got to stabilize the economy and reduce the deficit.’ Turned out there were a few more things on his plate.” He went on, “I think we are fortunate at the moment that we do not face a crisis of the scale and scope that Lincoln or F.D.R. faced. So I think it’s unrealistic to suggest that I can narrow my focus the way those two Presidents did. But I can tell you that I will measure myself at the end of my Presidency in large part by whether I began the process of rebuilding the middle class and the ladders into the middle class, and reversing the trend toward economic bifurcation in this society.”
Obama met last summer with Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist who became famous for a book he wrote on social atomization, “Bowling Alone.” For the past several years, Putnam and some colleagues have been working on a book about the growing opportunity gap between rich and poor kids. Putnam, who led a Kennedy School seminar on civic engagement that Obama was in, sent the President a memo about his findings. More and more, Putnam found, the crucial issue is class, and he believes that a black President might have an easier time explaining this trend to the American people and setting an agenda to combat it. Other prominent politicians—including Hillary Clinton, Paul Ryan, and Jeb Bush—have also consulted Putnam. Putnam told me that, even if legislation combatting the widening class divide eludes Obama, “I am hoping he can be John the Baptist on this.” And Obama, for his part, seems eager to take on that evangelizing role.
“You have an economy,” Obama told me, “that is ruthlessly squeezing workers and imposing efficiencies that make our flat-screen TVs really cheap but also puts enormous downward pressure on wages and salaries. That’s making it more and more difficult not only for African-Americans or Latinos to get a foothold into the middle class but for everybody—large majorities of people—to get a foothold in the middle class or to feel secure there. You’ve got folks like Bob Putnam, who’s doing some really interesting studies indicating the degree to which some of those ‘pathologies’ that used to be attributed to the African-American community in particular—single-parent households, and drug abuse, and men dropping out of the labor force, and an underground economy—you’re now starting to see in larger numbers in white working-class communities as well, which would tend to vindicate what I think a lot of us always felt.”
VI—A NEW EQUILIBRIUM
After the event at Magic Johnson’s place—the highlight was a tour of an immense basement trophy room, where Johnson had installed a gleaming hardwood basketball floor and piped in the sound of crowds cheering and announcers declaring the glories of the Lakers—the Beast made its way to the compound that the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers built. Haim Saban, who made his billions as a self-described “cartoon schlepper,” was born in Egypt, came of age in Israel, and started his show-business career as the bass player in the Lions of Judah. His politics are not ambiguous. “I am a one-issue guy,” he once said, “and my issue is Israel.” His closest political relationship is with Bill and Hillary Clinton, and he was crushed when she lost to Obama, in 2008. Saban publicly expressed doubts about whether Obama was sufficiently ardent about Israel, but he has come around.
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The main house on Saban’s property is less of an art museum than Jon Shirley’s, though it features a Warhol diptych of Golda Meir and Albert Einstein over the fireplace. The fund-raiser was held in back of the main house, under a tent. Addressing a hundred and twenty guests, and being peppered with questions about the Middle East, Obama trotted around all the usual bases—the hope for peace, the still strong alliance with Israel, the danger of “lone wolf” terror threats. But, while a man who funds the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution may have warmed to Obama, there is no question that, in certain professional foreign-policy circles, Obama is often regarded with mistrust. His Syria policy—with its dubious “red line” and threats to get rid of Bashar al-Assad; with John Kerry’s improvised press-conference gambit on chemical weapons—has inspired little confidence. Neither did the decision to accelerate troop levels in Afghanistan and, at the same time, schedule a withdrawal.
Obama came to power without foreign-policy experience; but he won the election, in part, by advocating a foreign-policy sensibility that was wary of American overreach. If George W. Bush’s foreign policy was largely a reaction to 9/11, Obama’s has been a reaction to the reaction. He withdrew American forces from Iraq. He went to Cairo in 2009, in an attempt to forge “a new beginning” between the United States and the Muslim world. American troops will come home from Afghanistan this year. As he promised in his first Presidential campaign—to the outraged protests of Hillary Clinton and John McCain alike—he has extended a hand to traditional enemies, from Iran to Cuba. And he has not hesitated in his public rhetoric to acknowledge, however subtly, the abuses, as well as the triumphs, of American power. He remembers going with his mother to live in Indonesia, in 1967—shortly after a military coup, engineered with American help, led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people. This event, and the fact that so few Americans know much about it, made a lasting impression on Obama. He is convinced that an essential component of diplomacy is the public recognition of historical facts—not only the taking of American hostages in Iran, in 1979, but also the American role in the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, in 1953.
The right’s response has been to accuse Obama of conducting a foreign policy of apology. Last year, Republican senators on the Foreign Affairs Committee, including Marco Rubio, of Florida, demanded to know if Samantha Power, Obama’s nominee for U.N. Ambassador and the author of “A Problem from Hell,” a historical indictment of American passivity in the face of various genocides around the world, would ever “apologize” for the United States. (In a depressing Kabuki drama, Power seemed forced to prove her patriotic bona fides by insisting repeatedly that the U.S. was “the greatest country on earth” and that, no, she would “never apologize” for it.) Obama’s conservative critics, both at home and abroad, paint him as a President out to diminish American power. Josef Joffe, the hawkish editor of Die Zeit, the highbrow German weekly, told me, “There is certainly consistency and coherence in his attempt to retract from the troubles of the world, to get the U.S. out of harm’s way, in order to do ‘a little nation-building at home,’ as he has so often put it. If you want to be harsh about it, he wants to turn the U.S. into a very large medium power, into an XXL France or Germany.”
Obama’s “long game” on foreign policy calls for traditional categories of American power and ideology to be reordered. Ben Rhodes, the deputy national-security adviser for strategic communications, told me that Washington was “trapped in very stale narratives.”
“In the foreign-policy establishment, to be an idealist you have to be for military intervention,” Rhodes went on. “In the Democratic Party, these debates were defined in the nineties, and the idealists lined up for military intervention. For the President, Iraq was the defining issue, and now Syria is viewed through that lens, as was Libya—to be an idealist, you have to be a military interventionist. We spent a trillion dollars in Iraq and had troops there for a decade, and you can’t say it wielded positive influence. Just the opposite. We can’t seem to get out of these boxes.”
Obama may resist the idealism of a previous generation of interventionists, but his realism, if that’s what it is, diverges from the realism of Henry Kissinger or Brent Scowcroft. “It comes from the idea that change is organic and change comes to countries in its own way, modernization comes in its own way, rather than through liberation narratives coming from the West,” Fareed Zakaria, a writer on foreign policy whom Obama reads and consults, says. Anne-Marie Slaughter, who worked at the State Department as Hillary Clinton’s director of policy planning, says, “Obama has a real understanding of the limits of our power. It’s not that the United States is in decline; it’s that sometimes the world has problems without the tools to fix them.” Members of Obama’s foreign-policy circle say that when he is criticized for his reaction to situations like Iran’s Green Revolution, in 2009, or the last days of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, in 2011, he complains that people imagine him to have a “joystick” that allows him to manipulate precise outcomes.
Obama told me that what he needs isn’t any new grand strategy—“I don’t really even need George Kennan right now”—but, rather, the right strategic partners. “There are currents in history and you have to figure out how to move them in one direction or another,” Rhodes said. “You can’t necessarily determine the final destination. . . . The President subscribes less to a great-man theory of history and more to a great-movement theory of history—that change happens when people force it or circumstances do.” (Later, Obama told me, “I’m not sure Ben is right about that. I believe in both.”)
The President may scorn the joystick fantasy, but he does believe that his words—at microphones from Cairo to Yangon—can encourage positive change abroad, even if only in the long run. In Israel last March, he told university students that “political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks.” Obama, who has pressed Netanyahu to muster the political will to take risks on his own, thinks he can help “create a space”—that is the term around the White House—for forward movement on the Palestinian issue, whether he is around to see the result or not.
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Administration officials are convinced that their efforts to toughen the sanctions on Iran caused tremendous economic pain and helped Hassan Rouhani win popular support in the Iranian Presidential elections last year. Although Rouhani is no liberal—he has revolutionary and religious credentials, which is why he was able to run—he was not Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s favored candidate. Khamenei is an opaque, cautious figure, Administration officials say, but he clearly acceded to Rouhani as he saw the political demands of the population shift.
The nuclear negotiations in Geneva, which were preceded by secret contacts with the Iranians in Oman and New York, were, from Obama’s side, based on a series of strategic calculations that, he acknowledges, may not work out. As the Administration sees it, an Iranian nuclear weapon would be a violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and a threat to the entire region; it could spark a nuclear arms race reaching Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. (Israel has had nukes since 1967.) But the White House is prepared to accept a civilian nuclear capacity in Iran, with strict oversight, while the Israelis and the Gulf states regard any Iranian nuclear technology at all as unacceptable. Obama has told Netanyahu and Republican senators that the absolutist benchmark is not achievable. Members of Obama’s team believe that the leaders of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states, who are now allied as never before, want the U.S. to be their proxy in a struggle not merely for de-nuclearization in Iran but for regime change—and that is not on the Administration’s agenda, except, perhaps, as a hope.
Republican and Democratic senators have expressed doubts about even the interim agreement with Iran, and have threatened to tighten sanctions still further. “Historically, there is hostility and suspicion toward Iran, not just among members of Congress but the American people,” Obama said, adding that “members of Congress are very attentive to what Israel says on its security issues.” He went on, “I don’t think a new sanctions bill will reach my desk during this period, but, if it did, I would veto it and expect it to be sustained.”
Ultimately, he envisages a new geopolitical equilibrium, one less turbulent than the current landscape of civil war, terror, and sectarian battle. “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” he told me. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.
“With respect to Israel, the interests of Israel in stability and security are actually very closely aligned with the interests of the Sunni states.” As Saudi and Israeli diplomats berate Obama in unison, his reaction is, essentially, Use that. “What’s preventing them from entering into even an informal alliance with at least normalized diplomatic relations is not that their interests are profoundly in conflict but the Palestinian issue, as well as a long history of anti-Semitism that’s developed over the course of decades there, and anti-Arab sentiment that’s increased inside of Israel based on seeing buses being blown up,” Obama said. “If you can start unwinding some of that, that creates a new equilibrium. And so I think each individual piece of the puzzle is meant to paint a picture in which conflicts and competition still exist in the region but that it is contained, it is expressed in ways that don’t exact such an enormous toll on the countries involved, and that allow us to work with functioning states to prevent extremists from emerging there.”
During Obama’s performance under Saban’s tent, there was no talk of a Sunni-Israeli alignment, or of any failures of vision on Netanyahu’s part. Obama did allow himself to be testy about the criticism he has received over his handling of the carnage in Syria. “You’ll recall that that was the previous end of my Presidency, until it turned out that we are actually getting all the chemical weapons. And no one reports on that anymore.”
VII—HAMMERS AND PLIERS
Obama’s lowest moments in the Middle East have involved his handling of Syria. Last summer, when I visited Za’atari, the biggest Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, one displaced person after another expressed anger and dismay at American inaction. In a later conversation, I asked Obama if he was haunted by Syria, and, though the mask of his equipoise rarely slips, an indignant expression crossed his face. “I am haunted by what’s happened,” he said. “I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking.
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“It’s not as if we didn’t discuss this extensively down in the Situation Room. It’s not as if we did not solicit—and continue to solicit—opinions from a wide range of folks. Very early in this process, I actually asked the C.I.A. to analyze examples of America financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well. And they couldn’t come up with much. We have looked at this from every angle. And the truth is that the challenge there has been, and continues to be, that you have an authoritarian, brutal government who is willing to do anything to hang on to power, and you have an opposition that is disorganized, ill-equipped, ill-trained, and is self-divided. All of that is on top of some of the sectarian divisions. . . . And, in that environment, our best chance of seeing a decent outcome at this point is to work the state actors who have invested so much in keeping Assad in power—mainly the Iranians and the Russians—as well as working with those who have been financing the opposition to make sure that they’re not creating the kind of extremist force that we saw emerge out of Afghanistan when we were financing the mujahideen.”
At the core of Obama’s thinking is that American military involvement cannot be the primary instrument to achieve the new equilibrium that the region so desperately needs. And yet thoughts of a pacific equilibrium are far from anyone’s mind in the real, existing Middle East. In the 2012 campaign, Obama spoke not only of killing Osama bin Laden; he also said that Al Qaeda had been “decimated.” I pointed out that the flag of Al Qaeda is now flying in Falluja, in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria; Al Qaeda has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too.
“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.
“Let’s just keep in mind, Falluja is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”
He went on, “You have a schism between Sunni and Shia throughout the region that is profound. Some of it is directed or abetted by states who are in contests for power there. You have failed states that are just dysfunctional, and various warlords and thugs and criminals are trying to gain leverage or a foothold so that they can control resources, populations, territory. . . . And failed states, conflict, refugees, displacement—all that stuff has an impact on our long-term security. But how we approach those problems and the resources that we direct toward those problems is not going to be exactly the same as how we think about a transnational network of operatives who want to blow up the World Trade Center. We have to be able to distinguish between these problems analytically, so that we’re not using a pliers where we need a hammer, or we’re not using a battalion when what we should be doing is partnering with the local government to train their police force more effectively, improve their intelligence capacities.”
This wasn’t realism or idealism; it was something closer to policy particularism (this thing is different from that thing; Syria is not Libya; Iran is not North Korea). Yet Obama’s regular deployment of drones has been criticized as a one-size-fits-all recourse, in which the prospect of destroying an individual enemy too easily trumps broader strategic and diplomatic considerations, to say nothing of moral ones. A few weeks before Obama left Washington to scour the West Coast for money, he invited to the White House Malala Yousafzai, the remarkable Pakistani teen-ager who campaigned for women’s education and was shot in the head by the Taliban. Yousafzai thanked Obama for the material support that the U.S. government provided for education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and among Syrian refugees, but she also told him that drone strikes were “fuelling terrorism” and resentment in her country.
“I think any President should be troubled by any war or any kinetic action that leads to death,” Obama told me when I brought up Yousafzai’s remarks. “The way I’ve thought about this issue is, I have a solemn duty and responsibility to keep the American people safe. That’s my most important obligation as President and Commander-in-Chief. And there are individuals and groups out there that are intent on killing Americans—killing American civilians, killing American children, blowing up American planes. That’s not speculation. It’s their explicit agenda.”
Obama said that, if terrorists can be captured and prosecuted, “that’s always my preference. If we can’t, I cannot stand by and do nothing. They operate in places where oftentimes we cannot reach them, or the countries are either unwilling or unable to capture them in partnership with us. And that then narrows my options: we can simply be on defense and try to harden our defense. But in this day and age that’s of limited—well, that’s insufficient. We can say to those countries, as my predecessor did, if you are harboring terrorists, we will hold you accountable—in which case, we could be fighting a lot of wars around the world. And, statistically, it is indisputable that the costs in terms of not only our men and women in uniform but also innocent civilians would be much higher. Or, where possible, we can take targeted strikes, understanding that anytime you take a military strike there are risks involved. What I’ve tried to do is to tighten the process so much and limit the risks of civilian casualties so much that we have the least fallout from those actions. But it’s not perfect.”
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It is far from that. In December, an American drone flying above Al Bayda province, in Yemen, fired on what U.S. intelligence believed was a column of Al Qaeda fighters. The “column” was in fact a wedding party; twelve people were killed, and fifteen were seriously injured. Some of the victims, if not all, were civilians. This was no aberration. In Yemen and Pakistan, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, American drones have killed between some four hundred and a thousand civilians—a civilian-to-combatant ratio that could be as high as one to three. Obama has never made it clear how the vast populations outraged and perhaps radicalized by such remote-control mayhem might figure into his calculations about American security.
“Look, you wrestle with it,” Obama said. “And those who have questioned our drone policy are doing exactly what should be done in a democracy—asking some tough questions. The only time I get frustrated is when folks act like it’s not complicated and there aren’t some real tough decisions, and are sanctimonious, as if somehow these aren’t complicated questions. Listen, as I have often said to my national-security team, I didn’t run for office so that I could go around blowing things up.”
Obama told me that in all three of his main initiatives in the region—with Iran, with Israel and the Palestinians, with Syria—the odds of completing final treaties are less than fifty-fifty. “On the other hand,” he said, “in all three circumstances we may be able to push the boulder partway up the hill and maybe stabilize it so it doesn’t roll back on us. And all three are connected. I do believe that the region is going through rapid change and inexorable change. Some of it is demographics; some of it is technology; some of it is economics. And the old order, the old equilibrium, is no longer tenable. The question then becomes, What’s next?”
VIII—AMONG THE ALIENS
On his last day in Los Angeles, Obama romanced Hollywood, taking a helicopter to visit the DreamWorks studio, in Glendale. Jeffrey Katzenberg, Obama’s host and the head of DreamWorks Animation, is one of the Democrats’ most successful fund-raisers. But it is never a good idea for the White House to admit to any quid pro quo. When one of the pool reporters asked why the President was going to Katzenberg’s studio and not, say, Universal, a travelling spokesman replied, “DreamWorks obviously is a thriving business and is creating lots of jobs in Southern California. And the fact of the matter is Mr. Katzenberg’s support for the President’s policies has no bearing on our decision to visit there.”
That’s pretty rich. Katzenberg has been a supporter from the start of Obama’s national career, raising millions of dollars for him and for the Party’s Super PACs. Nor has he been hurt by his political associations. Joe Biden helped pave the way with Xi Jinping and other officials so that DreamWorks and other Hollywood companies could build studios in China. (In an awkward postscript, the S.E.C. reportedly began investigating, in 2012, whether DreamWorks, Twentieth Century Fox, and the Walt Disney Company paid bribes to Chinese officials, in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.)
A flock of military helicopters brought the Obama party to Glendale, and, after a short ride to DreamWorks Animation, Katzenberg greeted the President and gave him a tour. They stopped in a basement recording studio to watch a voice-over session for a new animated picture called “Home,” starring the voice of Steve Martin. Greeting Martin, Obama recalled that the last time they saw each other must have been when Martin played banjo with his band at the White House.
Martin nodded. “I always say the fact that I played banjo at the White House was the biggest thrill of his life.”
Katzenberg explained that “Home” was the story of the Boov, an alien race that has taken over the planet. Martin is the voice of Captain Smek, the leader of the Boov.
“Where did we go?” Obama asked Tim Johnson, the director. “Do they feed us?”
“Mostly ice cream.”
Katzenberg said that, unlike dramatic films with live actors, nineteen out of twenty of DreamWorks’ animated pictures succeed.
“My kids have aged out,” Obama said. “They used to be my excuse to watch them all.”
Katzenberg led Obama to a conference room, where the heads of most of the major movie and television studios were waiting. There would be touchy questions about business—particularly about the “North versus South” civil war in progress between the high-tech libertarians in Silicon Valley and the “content producers” in Los Angeles. The war was over intellectual-property rights, and Obama showed little desire to get in the middle of these two constituencies. If anything, he knows that Silicon Valley is ascendant, younger, more able to mobilize active voters, and he was not about to offer the studio heads his unqualified muscle.
Finally, the subject switched to global matters. Alan Horn, the chairman of Walt Disney Studios, raised his hand. “First,” he said, “I do recommend that you and your family see ‘Frozen,’ which is coming to a theatre near you. ”
Then he asked about climate change.
On the flight back to Washington, Obama read and played spades with some aides to pass the time. (He and his former body man Reggie Love took a break to play spades at one point during the mission to kill Osama bin Laden.) After a while, one of the aides led me to the front cabin to talk with the President some more. The week before, Obama had given out the annual Presidential Medals of Freedom. One went to Benjamin C. Bradlee, the editor who built the Washington Post by joining the Times in publishing the Pentagon Papers, in 1971, and who stood behind Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they began publishing the Watergate exposés that led to the fall of the Nixon Presidency. I asked Obama how he could reconcile such an award with his Administration’s aggressive leak investigations, which have ensnared journalists and sources, and its hostility to Edward Snowden’s exposure of the N.S.A.’s blanket surveillance of American and foreign communications.
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After a long pause, Obama began to speak of how his first awareness of politics came when, as an eleven-year-old, he went on a cross-country bus trip with his mother and grandmother and, at the end of each day, watched the Watergate hearings on television. “I remember being fascinated by these figures and what was at stake, and the notion that even the President of the United States isn’t above the law,” he said. “And Sam Ervin with his eyebrows, and Inouye, this guy from Hawaii—it left a powerful impression on me. And so, as I got older, when I saw ‘All the President’s Men,’ that was the iconic vision of journalism telling truth to power, and making sure our democracy worked. And I still believe that. And so a lot of the tensions that have existed between my White House and the press are inherent in the institution. The press always wants more, and every White House, including ours, is trying to make sure that the things that we care most about are what’s being reported on, and that we’re not on any given day chasing after fifteen story lines.”
Then Obama insisted that what Snowden did was “not akin to Watergate or some scandal in which there were coverups involved.” The leaks, he said, had “put people at risk” but revealed nothing illegal. And though the leaks raised “legitimate policy questions” about N.S.A. operations, “the issue then is: Is the only way to do that by giving some twenty-nine-year-old free rein to basically dump a mountain of information, much of which is definitely legal, definitely necessary for national security, and should properly be classified?” In Obama’s view, “the benefit of the debate he generated was not worth the damage done, because there was another way of doing it.” Once again, it was the President as Professor-in-Chief, assessing all sides, and observing the tilt of the scales. (The day before his speech last week on reforming the N.S.A., he told me, “I do not have a yes/no answer on clemency for Edward Snowden. This is an active case, where charges have been brought.”)
The coverage of the leaks, Obama complained, paints “a picture of a rogue agency out there running around and breaking a whole bunch of laws and engaging in a ‘domestic spying program’ that isn’t accurate. But what that does is it synchs up with a public imagination that sees Big Brother looming everywhere.” The greater damage, in his view, was the way the leaks heightened suspicions among foreign leaders. Obama enjoyed a good relationship with Angela Merkel, but he admitted that it was undermined by reports alleging that the U.S. tapped her cell phone. This, he said, felt “like a breach of trust and I can’t argue with her being aggravated about that.”
But, he said, “there are European governments that we know spy on us, and there is a little bit of Claude Rains in ‘Casablanca’—shocked that gambling is going on.” He added, “Now, I will say that I automatically assume that there are a whole bunch of folks out there trying to spy on me, which is why I don’t have a phone. I do not send out anything on my BlackBerry that I don’t assume at some point will be on the front page of a newspaper, so it’s pretty boring reading for the most part.”
Obama admitted that the N.S.A. has had “too much leeway to do whatever it wanted or could.” But he didn’t feel “any ambivalence” about the decisions he has made. “I actually feel confident that the way the N.S.A. operates does not threaten the privacy and constitutional rights of Americans and that the laws that are in place are sound, and, because we’ve got three branches of government involved and a culture that has internalized that domestic spying is against the law, it actually works pretty well,” he said. “Over all, five years from now, when I’m a private citizen, I’m going to feel pretty confident that my government is not spying on me.”
Obama has three years left, but it’s not difficult to sense a politician with an acute sense of time, a politician devising ways to widen his legacy without the benefit of any support from Congress. The State of the Union speech next week will be a catalogue of things hoped for, a resumption of the second inaugural, with an added emphasis on the theme of inequality. But Obama knows that major legislation—with the possible exception of immigration—is unlikely. And so there is in him a certain degree of reduced ambition, a sense that even well before the commentariat starts calling him a lame duck he will spend much of his time setting an agenda that can be resolved only after he has retired to the life of a writer and post-President.
“One of the things that I’ve learned to appreciate more as President is you are essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history,” he later told me. “You don’t start with a clean slate, and the things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable. But you can move things forward. And sometimes the things that start small may turn out to be fairly significant. I suspect that Ronald Reagan, if you’d asked him, would not have considered the earned-income-tax-credit provision in tax reform to be at the top of his list of accomplishments. On the other hand, what the E.I.T.C. has done, starting with him, being added to by Clinton, being used by me during the Recovery Act, has probably kept more people out of poverty than a whole lot of other government programs that are currently in place.”
Johnson’s Great Society will be fifty years old in 2014, but no Republican wants a repeat of that scale of government ambition. Obama acknowledges this, saying, “The appetite for tax-and-transfer strategies, even among Democrats, much less among independents or Republicans, is probably somewhat limited, because people are seeing their incomes haven’t gone up, their wages haven’t gone up. It’s natural for them to think any new taxes may be going to somebody else, I’m not confident in terms of how it’s going to be spent, I’d much rather hang on to what I’ve got.” He will try to do things like set up partnerships with selected cities and citizens’ groups, sign some executive orders, but a “Marshall Plan for the inner city is not going to get through Congress anytime soon.”
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Indeed, Obama is quick to show a measure of sympathy with the Reagan-era conservative analysis of government. “This is where sometimes progressives get frustrated with me,” he said, “because I actually think there was a legitimate critique of the welfare state getting bloated, and relying too much on command and control, top-down government programs to address it back in the seventies. It’s also why it’s ironic when I’m accused of being this raging socialist who wants to amass more and more power for their own government. . . . But I do think that some of the anti-government rhetoric, anti-tax rhetoric, anti-spending rhetoric that began before Reagan but fully flowered with the Reagan Presidency accelerated trends that were already existing, or at least robbed us of some tools to deal with the downsides of globalization and technology, and that with just some modest modification we could grow this economy faster and benefit more people and provide more opportunity.
“After we did all that, there would still be poverty and there would still be some inequality and there would still be a lot of work to do for the forty-fifth through fiftieth Presidents,” he went on, “but I’d like to give voice to an impression I think a lot of Americans have, which is it’s harder to make it now if you are just the average citizen who’s willing to work hard and has good values, and wasn’t born with huge advantages or having enjoyed extraordinary luck—that the ground is less secure under your feet.”
In the White House, advisers are resigned by now to the idea that some liberal voters, dismayed by a range of issues—drones, the N.S.A., the half measures of health care and financial reform—have turned away from Obama and to newer figures like Elizabeth Warren or Bill de Blasio. “Well, look, we live in a very fast-moving culture,” Obama said. “And, by definition, the President of the United States is overexposed, and it is natural, after six, seven years of me being on the national stage, that people start wanting to see . . .”
“Yes,” he said. “ ‘Is there somebody else out there who can give me that spark of inspiration or excitement?’ I don’t spend too much time worrying about that. I think the things that are exciting people are the same things that excite me and excited me back then. I might have given fresh voice to them, but the values are essentially the same.”
X—WHAT TIME ALLOWS
Obama came home from Los Angeles in a dark, freezing downpour. The weather was too rotten even for Marine One. He hustled down the steps of Air Force One and ducked into his car.
A few weeks later, I was able to see him for a last conversation in the Oval Office. The Obamas had just had a long vacation in Hawaii—sun, golf, family, and not much else. The President was sitting behind his desk—the Resolute desk, a gift from Queen Victoria to Rutherford B. Hayes—and he was reading from a folder marked “Secret.” He closed it, walked across the room, and settled into an armchair near the fireplace. “I got some rest,” he said. “But time to get to work.”
Obama has every right to claim a long list of victories since he took office: ending two wars; an economic rescue, no matter how imperfect; strong Supreme Court nominations; a lack of major scandal; essential support for an epochal advance in the civil rights of gays and lesbians; more progressive executive orders on climate change, gun control, and the end of torture; and, yes, health-care reform. But, no matter what one’s politics, and however one weighs the arguments of his critics, both partisan and principled, one has to wonder about any President’s capacity to make these decisions amid a thousand uncertainties, so many of which are matters of life and death, survival and extinction.
“I have strengths and I have weaknesses, like every President, like every person,” Obama said. “I do think one of my strengths is temperament. I am comfortable with complexity, and I think I’m pretty good at keeping my moral compass while recognizing that I am a product of original sin. And every morning and every night I’m taking measure of my actions against the options and possibilities available to me, understanding that there are going to be mistakes that I make and my team makes and that America makes; understanding that there are going to be limits to the good we can do and the bad that we can prevent, and that there’s going to be tragedy out there and, by occupying this office, I am part of that tragedy occasionally, but that if I am doing my very best and basing my decisions on the core values and ideals that I was brought up with and that I think are pretty consistent with those of most Americans, that at the end of the day things will be better rather than worse.”
The cheering crowds and hecklers from the West Coast trip seemed far away now. In the preternaturally quiet office, you could hear, between every long pause that Obama took, the ticking of a grandfather clock just to his left.
“I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past,” he said. “But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have.” The long view again. “But I think our decisions matter,” he went on. “And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”
A little while later, as we were leaving the Oval Office and walking under the colonnade, Obama said, “I just wanted to add one thing to that business about the great-man theory of history. The President of the United States cannot remake our society, and that’s probably a good thing.” He paused yet again, always self-editing. “Not ‘probably,’ ” he said. “It’s definitely a good thing.” ♦
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U.S. walks fine, awkward line when addressing Iranian airstrikes in Iraq
The Washington Post
December 3, 2014
Iranian fighter jets are now said to be bombing the Islamic State militant group in Iraq. It’s an escalation in Tehran’s presence there — and a development that has forced U.S. officials to walk a fine line while addressing it.
The latest example came Wednesday, when Secretary of State John F. Kerry was asked if he was aware of any Iranian airstrikes in Iraq, and whether he thought they were helpful in the fight against the militants. He declined to confirm whether any occurred and said Tehran and Washington are not coordinating military actions, a standing talking point for U.S. offici