The Iran deal just shows how badly Obama has failed

If he had real foreign-policy achievements, no one would be getting excited about it

30 November 2013

9:00 AM

30 November 2013

9:00 AM

‘Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can!’ With these exuberant assurances, the young candidate, buoyed by an unexpectedly strong showing in the Iowa caucuses, vowed to carry on his crusade. One year later, in January 2009, the candidate became president and set out to make good on his promises.

That Barack Obama possessed the ability to heal the nation and repair the world seemed in many quarters all but self-evident. As he donned the mantle of the ‘most powerful man in the world’, the expectations that had lifted him into the Oval Office qualified as nothing short of messianic. A dark and depressing interval of American history, symbolised by place names such as Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, was ending. A new era of hope had begun. Nothing seemed beyond reach. So at least many Americans believed.

In surprising numbers, observers further afield shared these happy expectations. For a brief moment, Obama’s rising star cast its light well beyond America itself. He was, or appeared to be, everyone’s president. As if speaking for all humanity, the Nobel Committee ratified this proposition, awarding its annual peace prize on an anticipatory basis, the recently inaugurated president not actually having done anything to promote peace. Obamamania was sweeping the planet.

Well, going on six years later, the fever has long since broken. In beleaguered, war-torn Syria, polio may be making an unwelcome comeback. But the infection that was Obamamania is gone for good.

As for the President himself, the verdict is in: when it comes to repairing and healing, no, he can’t. In retrospect, it’s hard to fathom why so many people succumbed to the illusion that he could.

In Washington, members of the commentariat have now essentially written off the Obama presidency. The astonishingly inept roll-out of the administration’s signature healthcare reform programme has fostered the image of a chief executive who is disengaged, lackadaisical and not fully in command — perhaps more interested in basketball or golf than in governing.

The ongoing intelligence scandal reinforces this impression. Did Obama know that the NSA was eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other allied leaders or not? To answer that question in the affirmative is to raise serious questions about the president’s judgement. To answer in the negative is to suggest that someone other than the putative commander-in-chief is at the helm of the world’s most powerful national security establishment.

Then there are the disappointments on the international scene, above all in the Islamic world. Remember the hopes raised by Obama’s Cairo speech of June 2009? Entitled ‘A New Beginning’, the speech offered a wide-ranging vision of reconciliation between civilisations and peoples long at odds with one another. In practical terms, that vision has yielded little of note. However necessary and even commendable, Obama’s principal foreign policy achievements — withdrawing US troops from Iraq and ‘getting’ Osama bin Laden — have paid few strategic dividends. Indeed, Iraq shows signs of unravelling while al-Qa’eda has shown a remarkable capacity for opening up new franchises. With regard to the events that are actually shaping the future of the region — revolutions, coups and uprisings along with various unhelpful actions by the government of Israel — the President has been more bystander than architect. The deafening applause that greeted Obama’s brief phone call to Iran’s President Rohani and the subsequent deal to kinda, sorta curb that country’s nuclear programme offer one measure of the diminished expectations that are now the administration’s signature.  Look, they don’t always fumble!

Oh, and lest we forget: the prison at Guantánamo that Obama fervently vowed to close within a year remains open. Most of its detainees have still not been charged with any crime despite having spent up to 12 years behind bars and in solitary confinement.

Altogether, Obama’s record of achievement has to rate as modest. No wonder the cheers have turned to jeers. ‘When I hear a man applauded by the mob,’ H.L. Mencken observed, ‘I always feel a pang of pity for him. All he has to do to be hissed is to live long enough.’ Obama has lived long enough to make the journey from rock star to something between laughing stock and object of pity.

For their part, major American news outlets are moving on. Although Obama has not reached the midway point in his second term, attention has already turned to handicapping the 2016 presidential race. Reporters eagerly declare that New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former secretary of state/senator/first lady Hillary Clinton have the nominations of their respective parties all but locked up. The next contest to save America, thereby enabling America to save the world, is about to be joined.

Apart from its transient entertainment value, such journalistic speculation can be safely ignored — reporters might as well be trafficking in stock tips. Only in one sense does the here-comes-the-next-election hoopla matter: growing preoccupation with a contest three years in the future suggests that the very propensity that once elevated Obama to the status of demigod is now beginning to reassert itself. Obama himself may have turned out to be something of a dud, but the cult of presidential personality that has dominated American politics for decades now still persists. And that’s a problem.

In the United States, presidential elections serve as an as excuse to avoid serious thought. Since at least the election of John F. Kennedy, now more than half a century ago, winning the presidency has been a theatrical exercise. Image has mattered more than substance. The whole point of the exercise is to transform the party’s candidate into a character. The side that enjoys greater success in doing so — its character embodying, however briefly, the concerns and aspirations of enough voters to capture a majority in the electoral college — wins. Depicting the opposing party’s candidate as an unworthy and even villainous character also helps.

The inevitable result is to create inflated expectations of the victor as someone able to divine and redirect the very course of history. Each of the last three presidents — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, along with Obama himself — apparently persuaded himself that providence (in Bush’s case, God) had summoned him to do just that. Clinton fancied that he could employ the wonders of globalisation to Americanise the world. Launching his ‘Global War on Terrorism’ after 9/11, Bush vowed to expunge evil itself.

Yet steering history turns out to be a daunting enterprise. Regardless of whose hand is on the tiller, powerful undercurrents evade human control. The beginning of wisdom lies in understanding that the ‘most powerful man in the world’ is really not all that powerful. History’s determinants — beginning with the weight of the past itself — mock the absurd pretensions of presidents, their handlers and their acolytes.

So whether the issue falls in the realm of culture and religion (reconciling Islam with modernity) or of statecraft (reconciling Iranian security interests with those of Israel) or of political economy (reconciling America’s appetite for consumption with its depleted wallet), looking to the president to ‘fix the problem’ is to indulge in a vast delusion, inevitably leading to disappointment. Worse, it amounts to a collective abdication of responsibility on the part of citizens, who by now ought to know better. Americans, along with the rest of the world, would do well to ratchet down expectations of what any president is likely to accomplish. Doing so constitutes a necessary first step toward returning American politics to a more realistic plane, one where posturing takes a back seat to solving problems that can be solved and steering clear of those that can’t. Rather than promising world peace, for example, settle for balancing the budget.

Americans who don’t care for the trajectory their country has followed in recent years shouldn’t blame Obama. They should blame themselves. Those fancying that a President Christie or a second President Clinton will do any better obviously haven’t been paying attention and richly deserve what awaits them. After all, there was only one Messiah and even His attempts to heal and repair met with considerably less than complete success.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University.

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Show comments
  • Procivic

    Even as JFK was being sworn-in a modest observer of the American political scene said that in normal times a president can move one, perhaps two degrees to the left or right of the spectrum. Anything more is wishful thinking.

  • Newcombe

    Very good article.

  • Newcombe

    Despite the fact that nearly all US media is basically Obama sycophants, working as they are his private propaganda machine – giving him pass at every scandal, he has failed.

    • François Hollande is an Obama sycophant… millions protested gay marriage, but Hollande’s French government did it anyway…

      Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power from the sewers of Paris.

      Marine LePen faced prosecution for criticizing Islam (in France of all places) in context with existing French laws.

      And, in true Vichy fashion, they raised the white flag with Iran just like Monsieur Kerry.

      If anyone is anti-woman, it is the gay leftist L’Internationale… and they infest the education bureaucracy like AIDS…

  • Epimenides

    If Obama had any dignity he would never have accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. He had only been in office a short time and done nothing.
    Meanwhile, he had set up a company called the Chicago Climate Exchange with crony Democrat, Al Gore. Money was procured from the Joyce Foundation, a charitable outfit that had Obama as a trustee. In 2010 six months before it went bust they sold it.
    No enquiry. He made about $18m and Gore $100m.

    • section9

      I would say, “That’s Racist!!!”, but I’ll allow some American Obama loyalist or a Guardian reader to come by and do the honors.
      Well said, sir.

    • I agree. I thought of that — he should have refused the prize, or “handed it off” to Jimmy Carter or Nelson Mandela or something. It was pretty bogus to accept a prize for which he’d done nothing — anticipatory has to be the very best adjective imaginable for this strange event. Overall this is an extremely well-written and accurate, if somewhat depressing, article.

  • chan chan

    Obama hasn’t failed in any meaningful way as far as I can tell. He said what he was going to do before he was elected. And then he did it/is doing it. What could be clearer than that? I don’t know how anyone can be surprised about anything that’s happened during his presidency thus far.

    • William Ruting

      I guess I don’t agree…just a couple of things, although there are many more:
      – He promised that any discussions on health care would be open to the American people – they weren’t.
      – He promised the “most transparent Presidency, ever” – it isn’t.
      – He promised to close Gitmo – he hasn’t.
      – He promised to end spying on U. S. citizens – it has increased.
      – He promised to restore the economy – he hasn’t
      – He promised to bring people closer together – he has created a greater gulf.

      Some us saw his lack of experience and involvement in Chicago style politics for what they were – and still are.

    • God Mann

      So, blind man of ignorant faith, where is your reply to William Ruting below? None? Didn’t think so.

      • chan chan

        You’ve both misunderstood what I’m saying. Barry’s cod-marxist, alinskyite ideology was as plain as day before he was elected. Everything he has done is commensurate with that. No surprises.

        I keep reading that he’s incompetent, but he isn’t. Everything he has done has been planned, so he’s succeeding in a big way. You think Obamacsre iscan accident? Barry, jarret, axelrod, powers, sunstein and all the rest of them are doing what they said they’d do -“fundamentally transform America”.

        • Grunt

          I feel Chan meant he would fundamental transform the nation by rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies.

        • Blackstorme

          I knew what you meant. And you’re correct. The only thing that’s (mildly) surprising is that he gets away with it. But then again, not really, given the current media culture.

          • chan chan

            He gets away with it because the media are largely in the tank for him, no matter what.

  • wcrisler

    So, surprise, surprise, Chauncey can’t walk on water. Now. Oh, but it’s just because of that nasty, intractable, implacable foe — history! Why, now we also know that even a genius like Chauncey can’t deal with that! It’s all so clear now, right? So, I guess we should now set our sights on someone who takes a more pragmatic approach to history. Someone wiser, more seasoned. Someone who looks at history and says, “What difference does it make?” Meet our next Chauncey: Hillary.

    • God Mann

      You’re blaming history? Evidently, you’re not a flaming liberal. If you were, you’d be blaming Bush, the GOP, Joe the plumber, inept web site mangers, etc., etc., etc….

  • Stan Mould

    Tony Blair all over again … You can fool most of the people some of the time …

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      … all people some of the time …

      • Stan Mould

        Whatever. You know what I mean

  • Arup_2

    When Obamamania was sweeping the planet, Obama said that he would extend his hand to the Iranians. He was opposed by his Democratic opponent. However, support came from a (strangely) a Republican primary opponent who espoused the same cause and was more vocal in saying that the historical US position was wrong.

    One of the greatest liberal positions is the ability to understand what went wrong and correct it. In this case, understanding the 1953 coup and later blackmarking the regime even though it helped us in freeing Kabul from the Talibans.

    Thank you President Obama in correcting a Great Wrong and working towards a path to make friends with the Iranian People. Please do the Right Thing despite what the Conservatives Babble. Please remember they cannot think outside the sand-boxes but you can!

    • Ridcully

      One of the greatest liberal positions is the ability to understand what went wrong and correct it.”
      Well that would explain why socialism is now such an unalloyed success.

  • God Mann

    “After all, there was only one Messiah and even His attempts to heal and repair met with considerably less than complete success.”

    You want to get theological? Fine. Every single time Christ healed, he healed completely. Including raising Lazarus from the dead. His healings and other miracles were signs of a coming Kingdom on earth as promised through his holy scripture, but Israel rejected their Messiah. The healings were withdrawn, and the promised Kingdom set aside for a future time.

    People raising up Obama, or any mere mortal, as some kind of a saviour will always be disappointed, but to have done so for this man was nothing but blind ignorance and stupidity. And to insinuate in even the slightest way that Obama is akin to the real Prince of Peace is a slap in the face to every person who is truly Christian, unlike the Liar in Chief who claims to be and then accommodates the enemies of Christianity.

  • Treebrain

    Getting the chemical weapons of Syria put out of commission, refusing to get involved in military action in support of Syrian rebels who are foreign mercenaries, jihadis and al-Qaeda affiliates was a good and brave decision and getting Iran to the negotiating table after decades of enmity is not too bad a record.

    Anyone whose policies are opposed by Israel and Saudi Arabia at the same time must be doing something right!

  • jarunasax

    Ok this was nonsense… Ignoring the fact that most things the president has tried to accomplish has been blocked by congress, even things the opposition party were in favour of. I’m not going to sit here and say Obama is a messiah, but honestly if the Republican party were not wheeling and dealing to make sure he never stood a chance to make any impact on the american landscape of history, then he would likely succeed or fail on his own.
    At this rate the republicans just make it possible for people down the line to say it wasn’t Obamas fault, but the do nothing congress that tried to side swipe him all the time.
    I mean when Bush messed up, it wasn’t because of anyone else, Clinton, Nixon etc, so please stop giving the man a reason to still be considered a good president, cause if the democrats take congress in the 2014 elections and it’s a democrat sweep, and Obama actually begins to do some good, what will we be able to say then?
    And I cannot understand how anyone with any sort of qualifications could write this drivel, let alone the spectator allow it to be published… My hope is that this is an Op-Ed.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Bennie the Bomber doesn`t like the deal. But then he wants Israel to remain the only ME country with functioning nuclear weapons.

  • wbilct

    “Then there are the disappointments on the international scene, above all in the Islamic world. Remember the hopes raised by Obama’s Cairo speech of June 2009? Entitled ‘A New Beginning’, the speech offered a wide-ranging vision of reconciliation between civilisations and peoples long at odds with one another. In practical terms, that vision has yielded little of note.”

    Bacevich forgets that in a little more than a month after the Cairo speech Obama has to placate US Jewish leaders regarding the Cairo speech. Welcome to the real world of US politics.

    President Obama addresses Jewish concerns

    He tells American Jewish leaders who are concerned about the public disagreements between Israel and the U.S. that such disputes are useful in the pursuit of peace. Some are not convinced.


  • edlancey

    “Remember the hopes raised by Obama’s Cairo speech of June 2009? ”

    Depressing to see a “professor of history” having his hopes raised by the puerile, lying drivel spewed out by Obama in Cairo.

  • The only reason Obama was able to be voted into the presidential office was because his sycophantic supporters judged him (favourably) by the colour of his skin.

    Now, having been judged by the content of his character, Obama has been found to be an even more incompetent rehash of recent US presidents, with a lot of race baiting and racially biased corruption thrown on top; and yet, it is his sycophantic supporters that wrongly accuse all and sundry of judging Obama (unfavourably) by the colour of his skin.

  • disqus_eEbPU3IGDU

    The false hopes that were placed in Obama were based on the blind devotion of many Americans toward the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party has become the religion of many Americans who no longer pay attention to Christianity. Most especially our elite universities have become havens for Democratic cultists who every 4 years flock to another Democratic pied piper. This has to stop. One good way to start would be to raise the voting age from 18 to 25. Let adults vote in elections, not adolescents.

  • R13

    When I read the comments I realize how many of the commenters are out in left field and do not recognize the real problem. America is sick, rotten to the core. Thousands of female soldiers raped, thousands of soldiers committing suicide. More billionaires every year, more homeless every year. It does not matter who is President or what party wins, all are under the thumb of Israel. And the once Great Country of America lost it’s soul and everything else after becoming subservient to this criminal state in the Middle East.