Originally published under the title, "Obama's Legacy-Making Agreement"
U.S. President Barack Obama's choice of American University, where John F. Kennedy gave a famous 1963 speech calling for peace and nuclear disarmament, to deliver his most impassioned defence of the recently signed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) earlier this month was no accident. In seeking to convince Congress and the American people that the JCPOA adequately defuses the Iranian nuclear threat, the White House and its supporters have been routinely referring to the agreement as the cornerstone of his foreign policy legacy.
This messaging is partly intended as a signal of resolve to fence-sitting Democrats, who might think twice about opposing the signature foreign policy initiative of a president from their own party. But there is a deeper message implicit in the endless repetition of this talking point — that Obama wouldn't be foolish enough to double down on the JCPOA if what the critics are saying about it is true. "Look, 20 years from now, I'm still going to be around, God willing," the president told The Atlantic in May. "If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it's my name on this."
This argument, which National Review opinion editor Patrick Brennan paraphrases as, "Settle on a deal that would ruin my foreign policy legacy? But I want to have a good legacy!" is not without logic. Obama's a smart guy, with the entire U.S. intelligence apparatus at his disposal. If he's willing to bet his own farm on the JCPOA, it can't be that bad, can it?
Legacy-making and the defence of U.S. national interests are two different things.
Unfortunately, yes. If smarts, knowledge and the desire to be judged favourably by history guaranteed foreign policy success, presidents would seldom make mistakes. Obama says he has "never been more certain about a policy decision than this one," but he also thought overthrowing Qaddafi would be a hoot and look how that turned out. Clearly he's not omniscient.
But the larger problem with the my-name-on-it argument is that legacy-making and the defence of U.S. national interests are two different things. Good policy decisions don't always highlight White House leadership in ways that can fill a wing of a presidential library. Whatever the merits of Obama's handling of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, presidential historians don't rave about preventing a bad situation from getting worse.
Moreover, a favourable legacy doesn't always require the clear-cut advancement of U.S. national interests in the here and now. Legacy-making concerns how one's actions will be perceived by future generations who have little sense of the context and details. Whereas elected officials ordinarily strive to be responsive to the interests and preferences of constituents, a legacy-seeking president seeks vindication in the political hereafter.
Good policy doesn't always highlight White House leadership in ways that can fill a wing of a presidential library.
This is a slippery slope for a progressive like Obama, who surely assumes that future generations will be more sympathetic to his worldview than his contemporaries. He may therefore reason that a charitable judgment can best be ensured by staying true to himself, as it were, even if it entails serious security risks, all the more so because his administration has deviated from these presumed future norms in other areas (e.g., drone strikes).
This may have given Obama reason to prefer a deeply flawed agreement that embodies his worldview over walking away from the table with nothing at all. Failed negotiations — or a continued succession of interim agreements that hands the ball to his successor — don't interest Steven Spielberg. At a time when prospects of an unvarnished domestic policy triumph have dimmed, and after his ambitious effort to jump-start Israeli-Palestinian talks went nowhere, the Iran negotiations were his last chance to do something big.
Whatever his reasons, Obama's approach has been to extract as many concessions from Iran as possible before he leaves office, but not leave the table without an agreement. Unfortunately, the Iranians correctly ascertained that he could not afford to take no for an answer, and that standing firm on unreasonable demands would bring American flexibility. The end result is that an "international effort, buttressed by six UN resolutions, to deny Iran the capability to develop a military nuclear option," former secretary of state Henry Kissinger explained in congressional testimony early this year, soon became "an essentially bilateral negotiation over the scope of that capability," with the scope of capability acceptable to the administration widening dramatically as the negotiations wore on.
Congress and the American people should give the Obama administration a fair hearing and evaluate the JCPOA on its merits, but pay no attention to the president's expressions of boundless confidence in the agreement. It's a good bet even he never imagined he'd have to settle for such a crappy deal.
Gary C. Gambill is a research fellow at the Middle East Forum.