Analysis: Only time will tell whether he’s remembered as a peacemaker or an appeaser.
WASHINGTON — On one thing, at least, both sides in the fierce debate over President Obama’s nuclear accord with Iran agree: He will go down in history because of it. The disagreement relates to how. As a peacemaker or an appeaser?
For all of the focus on details like the number of centrifuges or the scope of inspections, the emerging battle represents a larger conflict of visions between Obama’s faith in diplomacy as the most rational way to resolve differences and his critics’ deep skepticism over the wisdom of negotiating with what they see as an adversary that cannot be trusted.
The Iran agreement, after all, is the culmination of an approach stemming from Obama’s first campaign for president, when he vowed to talk with America’s enemies, a promise that drew scorn not just from Republicans but even from his Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton. Now, with the Iran deal in hand and the reopening of an embassy in Cuba this month, Obama is realizing that aspiration.
This has become a season of diplomacy. At the same time he is securing pacts with Tehran and Havana, Obama hopes to work out a trade agreement with 11 Pacific Rim nations by the end of this month. European leaders have just negotiated at least a temporary economic accord with their Greek debtors. And the United States is trying to broker a global climate-change agreement before a Paris summit meeting in December.
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Fatigued by the warfare of recent years, the world, in effect, is testing whether it can work out at least some of its problems at the bargaining table instead of the battlefield. For Obama, the flurry of negotiations offers a chance to leave behind accomplishments in a foreign-policy arena that otherwise has been dominated by stalemated armed conflicts in the Middle East.
“Part of our goal here has been to show that diplomacy can work,” Obama told Thomas Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times. “It doesn’t work perfectly. It doesn’t give us everything that we want.” But, he added, “what we can do is shape events in ways where it’s more likely that problems get solved, rather than less likely, and that’s the opportunity we have now.”
Still, there are many examples in which diplomacy did not achieve what it intended to, especially in cases where one of the parties has been less committed. An agreement reached by President Clinton to constrain North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons fell apart when the country was caught cheating.
More recently, Russia joined not one but two agreements to bring peace to Ukraine, but the first collapsed and the second is expected to do the same as the West accuses Moscow of violating its terms. The United States also recently accused Russia of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed by President Reagan.
With time in Obama’s presidency running short, critics said he had sacrificed conditions he previously embraced in the name of reaching any deal, with some even comparing it to Neville Chamberlain’s infamous Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler in 1938.
“The analogies to Chamberlain are much too facile, but I do think at a certain moment he needed to stop and say to himself, ‘Why have I given on all of the things I said I wouldn’t give on?’ ” said Danielle Pletka, a national-security scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “And the answer is because ultimately the deal itself became more important than what was in it.”
The divide over diplomacy was just as stark during the presidency of George W. Bush, but it played out inside his administration. “We don’t negotiate with evil,” Vice President Dick Cheney once said at a meeting. “We defeat it.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wanted to try talking. Bush sided with the Cheney view in his first term while turning to the Rice approach in his second.
Kristen Silverberg, an ambassador to the European Union under Bush, said most Republicans support diplomacy if backed by real pressure. “Instead,” she said, “President Obama is sacrificing a decade’s worth of sanctions for a deal that grants Iran rights to a vast nuclear infrastructure. … It’s not diplomacy. It’s retreat.”
Others said critics were unrealistic in expecting a deal with no compromise. Among those supporting the agreement with Tehran this week was R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state who led the Iran diplomatic effort for Bush and Rice.
“The opposition in this country to this deal is coming from people who do not support any deals except those that can be crafted only by one side, i.e. unconditional surrender,” said Christopher Hill, a career diplomat who negotiated with North Korea for Bush and later was Obama’s ambassador to Iraq.
Obama maintains that sanctions alone could not force Iran to capitulate, and many nations would abandon sanctions if the United States walked away from an agreement. “There really are only two alternatives here,” he said Wednesday. “Either the issue of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through a negotiation, or it’s resolved through force, through war.”
Critics said that reveals a lack of imagination about other ways of increasing pressure, including more economic measures and covert action. Moreover, they called it a cynical effort to frame them as warmongers.
“Some of my former colleagues in the diplomatic world suggest that we must put all our eggs in the diplomatic basket to the exclusion of the other tools,” said Wallace Mark Wallace, the chief executive officer of United Against Nuclear Iran, an advocacy group, and another Bush ambassador. “President Obama subscribes to this theory,” he added, and in making clear “that diplomacy was the only option” emboldened Iran.
Obama’s approach should come as no surprise. In a July 2007 debate, he was asked if he would be willing to meet “without precondition” during his first year in office with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela.
“I would,” he answered. It took longer than that but by his seventh year, he has met with Cuban President Raúl Castro, phoned President Hassan Rouhani of Iran and sent letters to the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Still, he has stayed away from the others. Rather than meet with President Bashar Assad of Syria, Obama has called on him to step down, although he accepted a Russian-mediated deal with Assad to give up his chemical weapons.
Obama has eschewed any diplomacy with North Korea, increasing sanctions instead, and likewise applied new measures against Venezuela. Efforts to engage in or support peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan have gained little traction.
What distinguishes Obama is his willingness to see the situation from the other side, a trait that tends to outrage domestic critics because the other side is usually viewed as loathsome.
The question now is whether it is movement in the right direction. He has gambled a lot that it is.