Reality Check

How the Middle East Could Make Or Break Obama’s Legacy

Congratulations, Mr. President. You've got four more years of dealing with the world's most dysfunctional region.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Congratulations, Barack Obama. You now join a small club of 16 two-term presidents. (Of those, only 13 actually served out their second four-year term — William McKinley, Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon weren’t so lucky.)

An eight-year run does count for something. There are no great one-termers. All consequential presidents require a bond with the public that the validation of a second term provides. Consider it a necessary but not sufficient condition for presidential greatness.

Governing this republic effectively is hard and sometimes, I think, borders on the impossible. To a certain extent, the founders willfully contributed to the problem by designing a system that the late constitutional scholar Edwin Corwin brilliantly described as an open invitation to struggle. They did so to make the accretion of too much power by an individual or branch of government very hard.

But they still reserved for the presidency the capacity — depending on the president and his circumstances — to lead energetically, in a way 535 elected legislators or 9 Supreme Court jurists cannot. The presidency is the only national office all Americans can vote for — it stands for something special, and remains to this day, regardless of its flaws and tendency to disappoint, the repository of our hopes and aspirations.

John F. Kennedy once said that nobody should judge presidents — not even poor James Buchanan — because it’s impossible to know what it’s really like to be in the White House.

Fair enough. At the same time, we elected you — myself included. And, not to put too fine a point on it, you work for us.

And so, having worked for several of your predecessors on Middle East policy — and having watched Republican and Democratic administrations succeed and fail in foreign policy — I don’t have the slightest reservation in offering up a number of suggestions for your second term.

1. Don’t look for transformation this time around.

I get the fact that in your first term you saw yourself as a transformative figure — a leader with a mandate to save the nation through bold policies at home and abroad.

And maybe you thought the country wanted a savior. I know that Abraham Lincoln was very much on your mind. With the possible exception of George W. Bush, you owe your presidency to him more than any other man.

We got the point. You recreated part of Lincoln’s train journey to Washington, were sworn in on his Bible, and all but reenacted his post-inaugural lunch — right down to the sour cherry chutney served on Mary Todd Lincoln’s china.

With all due respect, Mr. President, try to be a tad more humble and less narcissistic in your second term. I knew Abe Lincoln, and you’re no Abe Lincoln. I know you already think you’re entitled to be in the presidential hall of fame, but forget transforming the country at home. Americans don’t want a polarizing transformer; they want a president who can fix what’s broken — this time with the support of Republicans so that change can be legitimate, authoritative, and successful.

Abroad, you also thought you would transform the world. You seemed to believe that, somehow, your own persona and the imperfections of your predecessor could combine to solve historic conflicts and convert adversaries into friends. But the world wasn’t and isn’t going to be transformed by you or anyone else. Look around at the 192 other nations represented in the United Nations. Do you see any transformative figures there, or international conflicts just waiting to be solved?

If the world is amenable to anything these days, it’s transaction. Sports analogies are usually horrible, but in this case I think one works: Forget home runs; try small ball. Moderate progress, after all, can buy time to deal with the bigger issues like Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (more on that later).

2. Legacy cuts both ways: the hero or the goat

Having been elected to a second term, the only thing you’re running against now is the reputations and accomplishments of your predecessors. Health care — it’s too soon to know for sure — may be your domestic legacy. But the temptation to secure a foreign-policy spectacular will be great, too.

I saw the draw of legacy play out in a negative way during the final year of the Clinton administration. As Clinton saw his last days in the White House tick away, he grasped on to the idea of hosting an ill-timed, ill-prepared, and poorly thought-through summit with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat at Camp David in July 2000.The rush to the summit led to a collapse of the peace process from which Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have yet to recover. Arafat received much of the blame for Camp David’s failure, much of it well-deserved but counter-productive nonetheless, leading to another spasm of violence.

As the sand passes through the hourglass of your second term, that’s something to keep in mind. Yes, a dramatic success on a tough issue can add to the luster of your presidency. But failure also carries consequences that go well beyond your presidency and can have serious implications for your successor.

3. Empower your secretary of state

I would have thought, given the huge domestic crisis you faced in 2008, that you would have been only too happy to delegate significant responsibility to your diplomat-in-chief. And why not? Hillary Clinton is talented and knowledgeable. And while certainly not a great secretary of state in the mold of Henry Kissinger or James Baker, she has done an immense amount to improve America’s image by pursuing an agenda of global humanism — emphasizing the role of women, the environment, technology, and social media.

But when it came to the big issues such as Iran, Afghanistan, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you withheld far more than you gave. All power on these issues flowed to and from the White House. Clinton owned not a one of them.

No matter whom you choose as your next secretary of state, you ought to be more generous in delegating authority over some of these big issues.

Yes, this may conflict with your desire to forge your own legacy. But presidents can’t be everywhere and do everything. Smart and empowered secretaries of state can set up all kinds of opportunities through the tireless and tedious diplomacy that you may not have the time to join. Baker worked for nine months to set up the Madrid peace conference for Bush 41. Madeleine Albright labored for a year and a half to set up the Wye River Summit and prevented a great deal of Israeli-Palestinian violence in the process. Give your secretary of state a few big issues — he or she can actually make you look good, and serve American national interests too.

4. Come clean on Benghazi

You have a real credibility problem on this one from almost every conceivable angle. You’ve prided yourself on competence in foreign policy, and yet the fatal attack on the diplomatic mission in eastern Libya raises serious questions about your administration’s judgment and performance.

Over the past two months, the questions have piled up higher and higher: Why weren’t adequate preparations taken months before the attack to deal with what was clearly a higher threat level to Western and U.S. interests in Libya? What was the CIA’s role in responding to the crisis, and the Pentagon’s too? And what about the confused and misleading messages that came from your administration as you responded to the crisis?

Neither a congressional nor a State Department investigation will be credible enough to answer these questions. Some independent panel should be created — one with the mandate to go after the White House, too — to determine what transpired. In a turbulent Middle East, the threats to America’s diplomats will continue. We need to figure out a better way to minimize the risks.

5. The Middle East is a choice between root canals or migraines. Pick your poison.

No region of the world is going to be more dangerous for the United States than the Middle East. Challenges abound — but at the moment there don’t appear to be a great many opportunities. Disengagement, sadly, is not an option.

Again, think transaction, not transformation. On Iran, explore the hell out of diplomacy before you seriously consider military action — let alone war. Getting out of these conflicts is always more difficult than it seems, and the risk-to-reward ratio on Iran is inherently skewed toward the risk end. Once a nation acquires the knowledge and capacity to construct a nuclear weapon, it can’t just be bombed out of its collective consciousness. Military actions will at best delay, not prevent, Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Unless you can change the mullahcracy in Tehran, your best bet would be an outcome that would keep Iran years away from actually making a nuclear weapon. Given the depth of animosity and mistrust between the United States and Iran over the last half-century, the odds of a grand bargain are pretty low.

But here’s how to give it your best shot: Start with an interim arrangement that deals with the issue of enrichment, and forestalls Iran from acquiring enough highly enriched uranium to construct a nuke. To get such a deal, by the way, you can’t just come to the party with sticks. Carrots will be required too — not only some sanctions relief on the enrichment question, but developing Iran’s enrichment capacity on the civilian side. None of this may work — but a good-faith, sustained effort is critical to your credibility and to any follow-on military attack.

On Israeli-Palestinian peace, think interim agreements and managing the conflict. Barring some profound change in the politics of Israel or Palestine, no conflict-ending solution that addresses borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security is likely.

Also, prepare to deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for some time to come. If you’re looking to get even with him for stiffing you on settlements, sit quietly until the urge passes. Israeli elections in January will likely return Bibi to power, and if his coalition expands it will be for the purpose of stability and maybe war with Iran — not for bold moves toward the Palestinians.

Let’s face it: You don’t have much credibility with Netanyahu. If you want any progress, you’re going to have to figure out a way to create a relationship with him. In any event, think small for now. Do what you can to keep the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty afloat. Push international donors to keep the Palestinian Authority in the black. Press hard on keeping Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation up and running. Push the Israelis to end restrictions on movement and economy opportunities for Palestinians. And, if there’s a way to encourage quiet discussion on the least contentious final-status issues like territory and security, try that too.

If you truly can’t help yourself and need to lay out a U.S. plan on all of the big issues, go ahead. Chances are they’ll still be out there when your successor takes the inaugural oath. But don’t delude yourself with visions of being the man to solve this thing once and for all.

On Syria, don’t be lulled into believing that some notional post-election flexibility is going to expand your options there. As long as the rebels are so inchoate, the regime so militarily powerful, and the Russians so supportive of President Bashar al-Assad, the chances for dramatic change are pretty low.

That doesn’t mean you should be idle on the Syrian front. Do what you can to ease the humanitarian and refugee crisis. Support Jordan, continue to work with the Turks, and support efforts to encourage a credible Syrian opposition. But be wary of a more proactive policy on the military side, particularly when it comes to providing sophisticated weaponry to a divided rebel movement whose interests may not necessarily be yours and which is acquiring its own record of war crimes.

6. Fix America’s house even as you persist in trying to fix others.

Here’s the bad news: Your credibility will begin to diminish the first day after your inauguration, and your status as a lame duck will grow ever closer as 2016 nears.

It’s not that you can’t chew gum and walk at the same time. The United States has to be involved in the rest of the world even while its domestic house is in a state of disarray. The major priority, though, must be on fixing our broken house and addressing the Five Deadly D’s that sap American strength: debt, deficit, dysfunctional politics, decaying infrastructure, and dependence on hydrocarbons. If you bet on risky adventures abroad and lose, your credibility and political stock will fall when, in fact, it’s badly needed to deal with pressing domestic matters, particularly the economy.

Governing is about choosing. The best thing you can do both for America and its position in the world is to address the sources of domestic weakness. If you succeed on that front, you will be strengthening the foundation on which our foreign policy rests. And in the process, who knows? You might actually become what you aspire to be — a truly consequential American president.

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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