For the last two weeks, the political class has been near-unanimous in declaring Barack Obama’s foreign policy a failure. The president had been betrayed by members of his own party, outmaneuvered by Vladimir Putin, and exposed as a bumbling leader unable to stand up even to tin-pot dictators like Bashar al-Assad.
“Hapless,” intoned Fouad Ajami in the Wall Street Journal. The deal struck by the U.S. and Russia to dismantle Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal “has about zero chance of disarming Damascus,” according to Charles Krauthammer, who trashed the Administration for “a diplomacy of epic incompetence.” Clinton administration official David J. Rothkopf wrote that less than a year into Obama’s second term, he “runs the risk of becoming a lame duck very prematurely.” Only a gift from the political gods—“a war, a disaster, a foreign upset or opportunity, or a major misstep by his opponents in the U.S.—could restore life to his presidency.”
Sooner than anyone could have predicted, precisely this scenario may be happening. Multiple news reports have disclosed details of a rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran that may ultimately lead to a deal to cap Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of Western sanctions against Tehran. In a Washington Post op-ed, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, signaled an openness to direct negotiations with the U.S., urging Obama to “make the most of the mandate for prudent engagement that my people have given me and to respond genuinely to my government’s efforts to engage in constructive dialogue.” The two leaders may meet during this week’s gathering of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
However distant, the prospect of a peaceful resolution to the U.S.’s biggest security challenge in the Middle East has palpably lifted the spirits of Obama’s supporters, who are already conjuring visions of the President’s diplomatic vindication. “If he gets this right in the ninth inning, no one will remember what the fourth and fifth inning looked like,” David Axelrod told the New York Times.
Don’t break out the whipped cream pies just yet. The U.S. and Iran aren’t anywhere close to a deal. It’s still unclear just how sincere Rouhani’s offers are and whether he’d be willing to abandon the pursuit of nukes altogether, as the U.S. and its allies demand. Both Obama and Rouhani face domestic pressures that could scuttle negotiations before they have a chance to succeed: In Rouhani’s case, there’s the possibility that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who retains ultimate authority over foreign-policy decisions, could bow to hardliners who oppose concessions with the West. As for Obama, he’s likely to face bipartisan skepticism in Congress, which, as Peter Beinart argues in this week’s print edition, is packed with ultra-hawks who view any compromise with Iran as appeasement.
Talking to Iran is still better than the alternative: a confrontation ending with an American strike that, in Beinart’s words, “would have limited benefits and potentially disastrous costs.” So the mere glimmer of a possible diplomatic solution to the Iranian problem should be welcomed. It’s also a reminder of the folly of viewing diplomacy as a cage match, rather than a chess game played out over months and even years, in which neither side emerges with a clear-cut victory or defeat.
A few years ago, I asked Jack Matlock, who served as U.S. Ambassador to the U.S.S.R. under Ronald Reagan, about the keys to Reagan’s success in his summits with Mikhail Gorbachev, which helped end the Cold War. “Reagan never claimed victory. He wanted to get into a real negotiation and for that you had to stop treating it like a sports contest, with scores and a winner and loser.” Reagan, Matlock said, “really did try to understand where the other guy was coming from, how far you could push, how you could find some common interests. That’s the bottom line of what he and Gorbachev were able to do.”
So far, Obama hasn’t shown himself to be anywhere near as adept as Reagan was in the delicate arts of statesmanship. It’s worth remembering, however, that Reagan’s relationship with Gorbachev didn’t truly begin producing results until the last eighteen months of his Presidency. Obama likes to say he was elected to end wars, not start them. But he’ll be judged less for how many conflicts he avoided than by how well he performed when opportunity fell into his lap.