A US president without a legacy in either foreign or domestic affairs is the worst fear imaginable for any leader. The last administration to face such a fate was Hoover’s in 1929. From FDR onward, the US presidency was the cornerstone of world leadership and/or the author of a domestic social revolution which reverberated across the partisan aisles of Congress. Enter Barack Obama. As the first African-American president, one would think that would be an achievement to satisfy the history books. But the legacy of an historical election is not the same as the success or failure of a presidential administration. President Obama wants to be remembered by something other than his skin color.
On the domestic side of the Obama ledger, events cannot be worse. Both the economy and the political system (Congress) are fractured. Over five years, the average growth rate of the US has been under one per cent. The level of inequality in “the land of equality” has risen to unprecedented heights. Neither political party appears to have a remedy. Unlike the glory days, they talk past each other in shrill tones. As of the first of October, the US Government has been shut down, and their is even talk of a default on the national debt.
In foreign affairs, the President does have plans. In the next three years, he will place his efforts and his historical reputation on four major goals. He will attempt a nuclear detente with Iran. He will end the Syrian Civil War, with all its regional implications. He will initiate a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And finally for good measure, after all is accomplished, US foreign policy will leave the Middle East and blithely pivot to Asia, legacy intact. Most hard boiled realists would view these aims as either an over-reach (the more kindly ones) or delusional (the less kindly ones). But does the President have a secret plan for the region? Or are these goals unattainable and just another example of American confusion and lack of direction in the wake of the Arab Spring and the end-game in the Iranian nuclear program?
On Iran the game will end with either a good plan, a bad plan, war or a bomb. War or a bomb are Obama legacy destroyers. A good nuclear plan is in everyone’s interest except Iran’s. A good plan would leave Iranian break-out potential stymied within time frames that would be easily detectable. Without a nuclear hedge, Iranian regional hegemony becomes impossible. A bad plan is in nobody’s interest except Iran’s. With a bad plan, Iran has a kind of leverage over the region that a good plan doesn’t allow. Enter the Obama blue line. What is a blue line, you ask? It is a special politician’s line that straddles the good and the bad. The Iranian nuclear negotiations will be declared a success even though the outcome will probably be unsatisfactory to the Israeli Government. Congress will remain quiet because it knows the American people will not enter into another Middle East war. Then, the Obama legacy question becomes; how will the Israelis respond?
On Syria, the end game is also dependent on a conclusion to the Iranian nuclear file. If a US-Iranian detente is established, the sanctions will be lifted. Oil revenues will once again flow into Tehran’s coffers. This will work to strengthen the loyalist forces in Syria. It is in both the US and Iran’s interest to see a roll-back of the Sunni jihad opposition. With a nuclear deal in place or near, Iran will be welcomed at the Syrian negotiations. Again the US might draw a new line, whereby the Alawi and Shia are maintained in a Syrian end-game that has room for a milder, less confrontational “Axis of Resistance” and Hezbollah. Even if Assad were to be removed, with an Iranian rapprochement, it would be hard to imagine a new Syrian regime completely hostile to Tehran. In fact, without some kind of alternative Israeli regional “grand bargain”, Iran’s place within the Levant (some would say its hegemony) will be firmly established. Again, the Obama legacy question becomes; how will the Israelis respond?
By this point, PM Netanyahu will have either gone to war, leaving either his legacy in tatters or President Obama’s or both. Of course, the President is gambling that the PM won’t risk war and isolation. Meanwhile, nobody in Washington is expecting the PM to propose any kind of alternative regional peace plan. In fact, the Obama legacy is dependent on Netanyahu’s inaction and therefore the fall of his right-wing government. After so many red-lines, what else could be the PM’s fate? Exit Bibi, enter the center-left. With a shift of the regional balance of power toward the new, moderate Iran, President Abbas will find it easier to make the necessary compromises for an historic conclusion to the hundred year conflict. Arafat had no problem with the Islamic Republic. The Left will be only to pleased to share in the Obama plan for the Middle East ( yes, we can too). One can only wonder, at this point, what will the Kings of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Jordan be thinking about the US president’s legacy? And, how might they respond?
Finally, with all its Middle East problems solved, the US will be free to concentrate on the Chinese. The pivot to Asia will be the essence of the Obama legacy. Big power politics is at the core of history. China must be contained. That’s the real stuff of a US president’s legacy. The Middle East can be fudged with Obama blue lines, neither good or bad. That’s the ticket. The US-Iranian confrontation will be a thing of the past. Talk of the “Great Satan” and “Axis of Evil” will become politically incorrect. Ambassadors will be exchanged. Trade and money will flow. The Gulf will be protected. A new US twin policy will be enacted. Saudi Arabia and Iran will move closer together. Obama’s legacy– is it a secret plan or is it a delusion? How will Israel respond to Obama’s nuclear blue line?