As the nation limps into the final two years of the Obama experiment in the “style over substance” presidency, much is being made of the Obama “legacy”. While this means different things to different people, it basically reflects how presidential historians will judge the President’s achievements in the context of political events and challenges both domestic and world-wide. There will be the inevitable comparisons with previous presidents and “rankings” will be offered and revised over time.
Unfortunately, Obama himself seems to be attempting to govern at this late date in an effort to enhance his list of accomplishments and thus establish a positive legacy. It is unfortunate because the challenges facing the nation need strong leadership that makes hard choices with the best hope of long term success, not public relations victories for the short term. His “signature” policy, the Affordable Healthcare Act (ObamaCare), had it been popular, actually “affordable”, and easily accessible, would have been a major part of his legacy. However, it has none of these attributes, a fact that has created the possibility of more of a Carter-like than Reaganesque legacy.
Carter is most remembered for a period of prolonged stagflation and his weak response to both the capture and 444 day imprisonment of the American embassy staff in Iran, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Reagan has done somewhat better with his policies of strength towards the Soviet Union and its subsequent collapse.
With ObamaCare off the table as a candidate for part of a positive legacy, Obama has turned, almost with some desperation, towards “executive action” rather than the more difficult demands of leadership and negotiation with the new and recalcitrant Republican Congress.
These initiatives have a definite liberal orientation which Obama is apparently betting will have the best chance of being evaluated as historically important and positive by presidential historians who ar mostly college professors. This has some risks however as his use of an Executive Order to create a major change to immigration policy without the inconvenience of Congress being involved in passing the necessary legislation may ultimately be seen as an unconstitutional abuse of presidential power.
His veto of a bipartisan bill to allow the construction of the Canadian sponsored Keystone pipeline to deliver crude oil form Western Canada to refineries in Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast is an obvious pander to environmental extremists who oppose all fossil fuel development. While Obama may want to be remembered as the “environmental President”, this decision is also politically unpopular and largely symbolic since it will not have any impact on the production of oil in the regions in question. So a political position that is both unpopular and ineffective is highly problematic as a legacy factor.
Obama however is also stubbornly hanging on to the hope that the prolonged negotiations with the Iranian government to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapons capability will be the kind of breakthrough that will do the legacy trick.
It’s not going well. No one, officially or otherwise, including the UN’s nuclear watch dog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) believes the Iranian government’s claim that they are only pursuing research for medical and energy reasons. Iran’s vast uranium enrichment infrastructure, much of which is conveniently buried in “hardened” sites, is not necessary for either of these peaceful enterprises. Iran is engaging in nuclear weapons research and development and has been for over a decade.
The current negotiations with Iran are being conducted by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, (U.S., UK, France, Russia, China) and Germany, known as the P5+1. These attempts at a diplomatic solution to removing the threat during the Obama Administration’s two terms has followed the same track as the prior negotiations. The Iranians consider talks and then stall. Then they agree to talks but not to anything substantive and stall, all the while refusing to allow full inspections of their facilities by the IAEA.
Economic sanctions have been imposed by UN Security Council resolutions numerous times, as well as by individual nations including the U. S. Combined with the effects of the world recession which began in 2008, the Iranian economy suffered substantial negative effects. However, in January, 2014 the U.S. and the EU commenced a series of sanction relief measures pursuant to a prior agreement with Iran to suspend nuclear fuel enrichment processes and renew formal negotiations for a permanent solution to the enrichment question. This had the short term desired effect of bringing Iran back to the negotiating table. But the sanctions imposing states made substantial concessions just to get the Iranians to negotiate without requiring anything substantive with respect to the enrichment process or enhanced inspections.
Now a so called “framework” for specific agreements is supposedly “close” to being approved, although the time frame keeps getting set back. Obama has threatened to “walk away” if the Iranians don’t agree to the proposed terms, a far cry from his earlier stance that Iran would not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon, and his oft repeated, but not recent, statement that “all options are on the table”. This is diplomatic jargon which implies the threat of the use of military action as a last resort. However, Obama has not inspired much confidence with “red line” threats in the past, as his blunders over the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons on its own civilian populace demonstrated, and it is doubtful that the Iranian leadership takes it seriously.
But the quest for an Iranian component in this awkward legacy pursuit still dominates the process. Unfortunately the proposed agreement that the Iranians are considering is flawed in several respects and has become a domestic political football.
The problems with the proposed agreement are the provisions that allow Iran to keep their vast enrichment infrastructure, even though they would agree to deactivate it. Inspections are included but details are lacking and Iran has a history of non-compliance with previous inspections agreements. Also, the entire agreement has a “sunset” clause that would make it inoperative in ten years. This may seem like a long time to Obama whose term of office ends in less than two years, but to the Israelis it represents a clicking clock similar to that of the of “Doomsday Clock” maintained by the “Bulletin of Atomic Scientists which measures the proximity of global nuclear catastrophe.
Iran’s development of long range ballistic missiles, the delivery system for nuclear weapons, has been ignored and there are also no political requirements with respect to Iran’s support of international terrorism or their overt hostility to Israel.
Sensing political opposition to the agreement and in line with his announced strategy of ignoring the Constitutional role of Congress in the creation of public policy, Obama has determined to make any agreement a matter of Executive fiat. The President has much authority in the conduct of foreign policy but it is not exclusive. The President’s treaty making authority is shared by the Senate which must approve by a two thirds majority and as a matter of political reality, significant agreements with foreign nations involving U.S. security interests need to have popular support as best defined by the people’s representatives in both houses of Congress. That is why Obama has asked the Congress for a joint authorization for the use of force against the terrorist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Obama could agree to the Iran proposal as a form of executive agreement and he has broad powers to impose and remove economic sanctions but he needs a similar Congressional Resolution of approval at least to put an end to what would be a continuing and debilitating political controversy.
The Iranian negotiations and proposed agreement have serious opposition in the Republican controlled Congress and the issue was dramatically elevated by the recent address to the Congress by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel at the invitation of Speaker of the House John Boehner.
The Speaker did not seek President Obama’s approval prior to the invitation, which Obama condemned as a breach of protocol and a sign of disrespect. In a fit of petulance Obama refused to meet with the Prime Minister on his trip to Washington and the Administration’s supporters asked the Democrats in the Congress to boycott the speech. This affront to the head of state of America’s only democratic ally in the Middle East is both personal and unprecedented. Cooperation with Israel is essential in many areas of U.S. interests in the region and a failed personal relationship between the leaders over “protocol” is inexcusable.
The Prime Minister is not concerned with Obama’s “legacy” and has stated that “No deal is better than a bad deal” when it comes to Israel’s survival.
Netanyahu, who is not a party to the negotiations with Iran, made the point that Israel has the most at stake in the international effort to deny Iran a nuclear weapons capability. He correctly pointed out that while the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 nations which are conducting the negotiations have national security concerns with respect to nuclear weapons proliferation and regional instability in the Middle East, Israel’s concerns are the very survival of the Jewish state which Iran has vowed to “wipe from the map”. Unfortunately, Obama has demonstrated a marked disdain for the positions of the Israeli government with respect to its security policies involving the conflict with the Palestinian Authority, the terrorist government in Gaza and the on -going nuclear issues with Iran.
Another complicating factor has been the unusual act of 47 Republican Senators in writing a letter to the Iranian government making it clear that any agreement signed by the President without the approval of the Congress would last only as long as the President remained in office. The implication was that a Republican President who might succeed Obama in 2017 would be free, and likely, to revoke U.S. participation and any obligations there in.
This was an unfortunate and virtually unprecedented intrusion into the diplomatic process which is the proper domain of the Executive branch. The letter, if it was to be written, should have been addressed to President Obama as a reminder of the importance of gaining Congressional input and approval for what has become a matter of vital U.S. security interests.
It remains to be seen what the final agreement will look like, or if there is a final agreement. Unfortunately, it appears that Obama and the other P+5 negotiators are more interested in getting an agreement than in getting an agreement that addresses all the major issues in an effective and permanent way.
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