Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

The Echoes of Kennedy and Obama’s Distortion of History

The president gave an eloquent, high-minded, and judicious speech at American University on the most urgent nuclear weapons issue of the day. In an impassioned yet charitable tone, he appealed for national and even global unity, because “our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We ...


The president gave an eloquent, high-minded, and judicious speech at American University on the most urgent nuclear weapons issue of the day. In an impassioned yet charitable tone, he appealed for national and even global unity, because “our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

Alert readers will realize that description and quote comes not from President Barack Obama’s speech on Wednesday, but from President John F. Kennedy’s speech at the same university 52 years ago. In consciously trying to echo the Kennedy address, Obama actually indicted himself with the comparison. Reading the two speeches alongside each other is a jarring experience. Where Kennedy was visionary and winsome, Obama was divisive and petulant.

I had hoped that yesterday’s speech would display the president at his best: thoughtfully laying out a reasoned case, acknowledging the merit in opposing viewpoints, fairly engaging critics, displaying humility about his own convictions, while still ably defending his position. But regrettably the speech instead was Obama at his tendentious worst: full of bile and ridicule, caricaturing critics, distorting history, setting fire to straw men — and of course taking the obligatory cheap shots at the Bush administration (while ignoring Bush’s relevant achievements, such as launching the P5+1 negotiations).

Obama’s speech deployed a very selective reading of recent history that portrayed his administration as flawless in its diplomacy with Iran while deriding those who disagree as unthinking warmongers. Yet in his haste to disparage the critics of the deal, he glossed over the serial mistakes his administration made in conceding vast diplomatic leverage to Iran. Those mistakes, which I detailed here, included ignoring the Green Movement, opposing congressional passage of sanctions, failing to leverage the global plunge in oil prices, effectively dismissing even the possibility of the use of force (and thus assuring Iran it had nothing worse to fear), abandoning Iraq and neglecting Syria (which conceded tremendous regional leverage and confidence to Iran), alienating America’s most important allies in the region, and communicating to Tehran that the White House was desperate for a deal.

In sum, the administration effectively blindfolded itself and tied both hands behind its back before it entered the negotiations with Iran — yet now makes the risible claim that it secured the “best deal possible.” And even if after taking stock of all those mistakes, you still think the administration secured the best deal possible, try this simple thought experiment: imagine if James Baker had served as the lead U.S. negotiator instead of John Kerry. All of a sudden, a much better agreement comes into view, doesn’t it?

To evade the discomfort of admitting that some critics may have a point, Obama repeatedly invoked a feeble guilt-by-association by comparing opponents of the Iran deal to supporters of the 2003 Iraq War. If, in Obama’s mind, past support for the Iraq War renders one’s opinion on the Iran deal invalid, then that raises big problems for the support of the Iran deal expressed by Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry — all of whom backed the Iraq War.

Yet perhaps the biggest liability of the speech was its failure to resolve the strategic contradiction at the heart of the agreement.   The contradiction is this: by effectively removing all meaningful restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in 10-15 years, the agreement is based on the implicit hope that within the decade a much more peaceful and reformist Iranian government will be in power. Yet the very terms of the agreement undermine this hope by bolstering the current regime’s hold on power, through providing almost immediate sanctions relief (which should produce up to a $150 billion influx from unfrozen assets, on top of which will come a surge in international investment), considerable control over inspections, and the international community’s embrace. In short, this deal solidifies Ayatollah Khameini’s hold on power and makes even more likely that when he dies, he will be succeeded by a supreme ruler of a similar malevolence, with an open pathway to a nuclear weapon.

Obama’s only response to this fundamental concern was to make empty assertions, such as: “The prohibition on Iran having a nuclear weapon is permanent.” Well, yes — but that prohibition stands regardless of this deal. Iran is already “prohibited” from having a nuclear weapon by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and at least five other U.N. Security Council resolutions, all of which Tehran has blithely disregarded. Likewise, Obama’s argument that 15 years from now, the United States will have the same options to stop Iran’s renewed pursuit of a nuclear weapon conveniently disregards the fact that after 15 years of being free of sanctions, embraced by many nations, flush with international investments, boasting a larger and stronger military, and having an international agreement that affirms its right to a full spectrum of nuclear activities, Iran will be in a much stronger position to resist any opposition to a nuclear weapons program.

This is why Henry Kissinger and George Shultz grimly concluded that “negotiations that began 12 years ago as an international effort to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal are ending with an agreement that concedes this very capability.”

President Kennedy’s 1963 speech led to what became one of the Cold War’s most important treaties banning above-ground nuclear testing. His thoughtful engagement with skeptics persuaded many Americans and led to the U.S. Senate approving ratification of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty by a strong bipartisan vote of 80-19. In contrast to the four-fifths of the Senate that endorsed Kennedy’s treaty, a panicked White House is now watching public support plummet and scrambling desperately to get just 34 Democratic senators to sustain an anticipated veto and support his Iran agreement. By dismissing anyone who even questions the deal as a warmonger or fool, Obama’s speech did not help the case.

This post has been updated. 


Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.