This week the Carnegie Middle East Center held a gala at the Phoenicia Hotel. The event was highlighted by a roundtable discussion that included Jessica Matthews, the president of the Carnegie Endowment. Matthews was asked several questions about Iran’s nuclear program, and her answers, in many regards, showed how wide a berth President Barack Obama has been given by those who can influence policy in Washington.
Matthews argued that something had definitely changed on Iran under the Obama administration. She noted that the international consensus had turned against the Islamic Republic, which “hated” being taken to the United Nations Security Council. At the same time, however, Matthews acknowledged that it was difficult to predict what the outcome of UN sanctions against Tehran might be.
As a National Security Council staffer during the 1970s who covered nuclear proliferation issues, Matthews is worth listening to. However, there was a clear subtext to her comments, namely that Obama had succeeded in pushing the political burden of Iran’s nuclear project onto the Iranians, whereas George W. Bush had failed to do so. Matthews’ colleague, Dmitri Trenin, director of Carnegie’s Moscow Center, echoed that thought by adding “the ball is in Iran’s court.”
But is it really? The ultimate test is how effective the United States will be in using international goodwill to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon. For now, the signs are not reassuring. Obama may be popular with policy mavens in the American capital (even as his appeal abroad appears to be waning), but all Matthews was really telling us is that the optics have changed, that Obama is easier to like than Bush. However, if Iran builds a bomb anyway, political burden or not, this alone will be the measure of its success.
It is remarkable how often Barack Obama has been judged positively on his intentions by the policy community, while Bush was judged (justifiably) on the basis of his actions. This isn’t sour grapes. One can debate Obama’s Middle East policy, but his effort to avoid a military confrontation with Iran is judicious. The administration’s efforts to suspend Israeli settlement building are overdue. And Obama’s desire to “engage” Iran and Syria is, in some ways, defensible. But ultimately, the only benchmark we should use to determine if the US president is doing things right is whether he achieves his political aims.
Yet Obama is at serious risk of letting his actions undermine his intentions. Attacking Iran is a bad idea, but the administration, through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, needn’t have so explicitly removed military action from the table recently. All this did was confirm that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is right when saying the US will fail in derailing Iran’s nuclear program – surely winning him key internal debates on the matter in Tehran.
Washington’s standoff with Israel is excellent news, but there has been a high price to pay. It put off the start of “proximity talks”, which the administration expended considerable political capital to initiate. The delay may prove fatal to Obama’s peace efforts if it drags on until the November congressional elections, where there is a distinct possibility that voters will turn against the president, in large part because of the discontent provoked by his health care plan.
As for engagement, we have seen the consequences of Obama’s opening to Syria in recent weeks. Damascus has never stopped arming Hezbollah, in violation of Security Council Resolution 1701. The latest reports are that the Syrians may have sent the party advanced anti-aircraft weaponry and even Scud-D missiles. The information was apparently serious enough to be brought up by John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently in Damascus.
Yet the administration did nothing more, persisting in its decision to return an ambassador, Robert Ford, to Syria. Kerry moved the approval through his committee, and now the full Senate is expected to vote on Ford’s nomination, though this may be held up by senators demanding more information before deciding. Don’t be surprised if Assad, like Ahmadinejad, concludes that America has jelly for knees.
And yet Obama still can do little wrong among the policy centers and foreign affairs journalists, the non-governmental organizations and Middle East studies departments, and the reason is that most remain devoured by antipathy for George W. Bush. It’s still very much about Bush in Washington, and about Obama as the anti-Bush. But Obama has proven less insightful than his predecessor about the benevolence of other states, and he is much more ambiguous about the uses of American power. That’s why he needs to be assessed on the grounds of his verifiable achievements, not according to relative intangibles, such as whether he has altered the international mood on Iran.
A few years ago had someone defended Bush in the same way that Obama is being defended today by many who should know better, he or she would, rightly, have been ridiculed. Power is what matters, and for the moment Obama is hemorrhaging power in the Middle East.