Obama, 1 year in: flaws aren’t failure – but there are new risks in policy towards Iran

President Barack Obama has handed himself his sharpest challenge yet: a year of showing his unclenched fist to Iran has produced nothing and now he is toughening up his stance with a missile shield for the US naval forces in the Gulf. What will this do to his presidency? There was so much hope and much of that energy remains, even if it is not being so effectively tapped, but in confronting Iran, might Obama seriously lose his way?

The Year One report card: “could do better”

Commentary leading up to and out of Obama’s first State of the Union address has been pretty predictable. His first year’s presidential performance has been flawed. Discounting the extremes – unmoveable Obama-lovers and -haters – the argument is basically about where he sits on the spectrum of flawed-ness and the judgement generally reveals more about the would-be judge than the President.

Nick Cohen probably won a special prize in the build-em-up-and-knock-em-down school of journalism by declaring that Obama’s first year in office shows him to be the most reactionary US president since Nixon. It’s the kind of stuff that the blogosphere loves and perhaps encourages. Shame to see a normally thoughtful commentator fall for it. But while it is fair to say that it it is not good enough for Obama simply to be better than Bush, it seems odd to forget the destructive and poisonous effect on international peace and politics of Obama’s incompetent, proudly know-nothing predecessor.

Of course, Obama has emerged from his first year in office as a flawed president. Guantanamo remains open, two wars continue, and though recession is over the burden on ordinary people of its costs and the recovery is great and growing. Moreover, Obama did not finalise health reform nor come to the Copenhagen climate conference with anything worth anything – and he didn’t leave with anything either.

From the political centre leftwards, a lot of argument back and forth about Obama swings on the issue of how much of this is his responsibility. From the centre rightwards, the emphasis tends to fall on what he’s done or doing and whether it is proper or will work. Actually, I think the right’s preferred terms of argument are the better place to start, despite the huge amounts of dust that right-wing American politics characteristically throws up in the air about issues such as climate change and health.

We don’t have to concern ourselves with the political debate within the USA. It would take up too much time and energy. Well, OK, but just a little. The USA has a health system that is more expensive than any other and lets several tens of thousands of Americans die each year of ailments that are easily curable and – this is the truly weird bit – the right has somehow gained traction with the apparently lunatic argument that trying to change the system is unpatriotic.

Explaining how that sort of argument can persuade many people who are in other ways intelligent is a task for another time. And for somebody else. 

I’ll content myself with noting that that all political cultures have their oddities and the country of which I am a citizen has more than many others.

Flawed compared to what? Or whom?

But cutting through that dusty, artificial fog, where the right is right in its emphasis on the actions of the president is that government has to deal with the world as it is. Romantics of both right and left often appear to find that unfair; strangely, the world they want to change should somehow already have adapted to the change-goals and principles behind them. It’s politics as if politics doesn’t matter. I think politics does matter, so how the administration goes about getting its programme implemented is to me the key thing.

So let’s build on Nick Cohen’s prize-winning hyperbole by asking, which president since Nixon would you rather have facing the challenges of two wars and a recession plus climate change, the Middle East, the further unfolding of long-term changes in the global balance of power, and numerous other issues? 

  • It wouldn’t be the younger George Bush: enough said on that topic. 
  • Nor I think would it be Clinton with his compulsion to triangulate all policy positions, so that international policies always came off second best against what worked in Washington in the short term.
  • The older George Bush is often credited retrospectively with being a steady pair of hands, but he let a recession happen without noticing it arriving and in foreign policy was criticised at the time for instinctive passivity. He sent mixed messages to Saddam at a critical moment but he did know how to put an international coalition together, he knew when to stop a war, and perhaps his conservative caution fitted the bill as the world changed around him.
  • Reagan benefitted from the economic cycle, which swung neatly up in time for his re-election, and from the extraordinary good fortune that Mikhail Gorbachev became the USSR’s leader, since the latter’s peace diplomacy cast a warm after-glow on the administration’s later years. Reagan also allowed Contra-gate to flourish, introduced the let-it-rip approach to the economy that exploded in the world’s face at the end of 2008, and actively supported Saddam (remember Rumsfeld’s mission of support and supply).
  • Carter was a thoughtful and principled president who has been widely judged as ineffective because he was able to do nothing about rising oil prices or revolutionary fervour that soared in Iran and challenged US policy just as the post-Vietnam national hangover hit. His failure to rise to these challenges crippled his re-election effort.
  • Ford lacked credibility in the wake of Nixon’s impeachment.
  • Nixon himself – the man who opened relations with China and got the US out of full scale combat in Vietnam – does not look so bad in retrospect but, like all the other presidents including both carter and Clinton, he saw the world in a top-down US-centric perspective. His was an approach that would have been far less toxic than the younger Bush’s but less subtle than is required now.

Against this line-up, I think Obama has a chance of being the best president for the challenges of today. No he is not perfect, no he has not wholly transformed the world or even US politics. And it’s not only the Republicans he hasn’t persuaded; he’s missed out with a lot of Democrats as well. He’s also burdened by the way the American political system makes it hard simply to get an administration in place; at last count he still had over 170 officials whose appointments had not been confirmed

But he has repeatedly revealed his understanding that globalisation is changing the way world problems are formed, have an impact and must be addressed. He also seems to have a pragmatic recognition of the constraints on US power. And he tries to drive policy forward on the basis of enunciated principles and not just on a perception of US national interest; in today’s world, that’s what’s needed though experience is showing how tough it is to work in that way. Above all, so far, he has n’t made things worse.

Actually, for an American President, he’s not so bad.

But now Iran

I wonder now, however, about the apparent ratcheting up – real if modest – of the confrontation with Iran over that country’s nuclear enrichment as missile defences are deployed for the naval deployments in the Gulf: I wonder if this could be the issue that negatively defines the Obama administration. This is not like the recession and the wars he inherited, or the inaction on climate change, or the sclerotic health system. This is not a new issue but it has one that has been handled by political pressure backed by now more militant and now more accommodating rhetoric. Shifting to actual military confrontation would be an altogether new step: it would be Obama’s own chosen confrontation.

And whether it would lead to stand-off or war is not wholly in his power to decide.

Iran’s refusal to cooperate fully with the IAEA or accept UN Security Council resolutions creates a real problem. It is far from certain that Iran has plans – or even ambitions – to develop nuclear weapons but it is not out of the question either. Compared to enriching uranium for use in nuclear energy, the way to enrich uranium to weapons grade is, broadly speaking, to keep the process going for longer. Nuclear inspections that essentially check what technology is in use and keep a running inventory of nuclear material, allow the IAEA and UN to know what is going on. Iran’s refusal to comply is in itself suspicious though proves nothing.

So there’s a major issue in Iran possibly aiming to get nuclear weapons. It has big and unsettling ramifications in the region and more widely. It needs to be understood not only in the light of Iran’s relations with the West, nor simply in the added light of its relations with Israel (which is already nuclear-armed) but also in the light of Iran’s relations with Arab states and the increasingly difficult politics of relations within the world of Islam between Sunni and Shi’a political groups.

There’s a timing problem here because China has forcefully expressed its irritation with the Obama administration over arms sales to Taiwan, announcing sanctions on US companies involved as well as cancelling a visit by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates that was being discussed for some time this year. The problem is that China is notoriously sceptical about sanctions against Iran and its support is vital if the UN Security Council is going to back up previously agreed resolutions.

Israel rears its ehad

But there are two deeper problems that are nothing to do with China or timing. The first of these is that US policy appears to be being worked out carefully with Israel. The US and Israel agreed an informal deadline for Iran to come up with some constructive response to the IAEA and UN by the end of 2009; now it hasn’t, the US appears to be making its move. But if Obama’s policy is to get into bed with Israel over Iran, that is going to have an impact on everything else the US is trying to do in the region. Forget the 4 June speech in Cairo. Forget new relations with the Islamic world. Arab states may want to see Iran held back but cosying up to Israel is not part of a game plan they can be seen to go along with. So some of their envoys may give quiet hints and nods but the public discourse will be very different.

And in any case, if the idea is that by following Israel’s preferences over Iran, Obama will get concessions over West Bank settlements, my bet would be to forget it. The furious public reaction in the Arab world to a close alignment of US and Israeli policy will do damage to any and all possibilities of Arab state pressure on Hamas. Israel knows this and will concede nothing on settlements because it won’t have to.

The requirements of stability in Iran 

The second problem has to do with Iran, the nature of the regime and the way it gains legitimacy, and the impact a new US policy will have upon it. Like many other governments, ruling circles in the Middle East need and arrange to achieve stability. There are two main ways they can get it. Broadly speaking, there is the stability of stasis and the stability of constant forward motion. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are two examples of very different modes of static stability. Iran and Saddam’s Iraq are two equally different examples of stability through forward motion. With Iran, you get the impression that if they stop moving forward and taking on new challenges they will topple over. It is from that forward movement that they derive the legitimacy and support they need to remain in power. That is how a government remains a revolutionary government over thirty years after the revolution, during which time it has signally failed to revolutionise anything.

Part of what that means is that stability within Iran requires a constant process of renewing risks, even maximising them. And at this point, American pressure offers a new challenge with welcome new risks. It lets the Iranian government and religious authorities continue to be revolutionary. In turn, that means that once set on the course of confrontation it is not in the Iranian government’s interest (nor perhaps in its power) to stop for fear of the consequences. They can slow down. They can stretch it out. They can indefinitely delay things coming finally to a head. But stopping is not an option.

Which means that if the confrontation goes so far that it has to stop or else there will be a disaster, there is only one side able to do that.

But that, of course, would mean backing down. At which point, the American president would be in a corner of his own making in which he can only turn towards disaster or towards political failure – and pay the price in either case.

I am predicting nothing. Apart from anything else, enough information has come out for it to be clear that a whole lot more has not been allowed out into the public realm. All I will say is I only hope that we are not witnessing the first steps of Obama feeding the beast that will joyously turn and bite him.

So far, see above, he is certainly not so bad – but the Iran policy contains risks that I am not sure the Obama administration has identified, understood or figured out how to manage.

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