There are striking parallels between Washington’s imbroglio over Obamacare and its dealings with Iran. In both cases, the administration clearly had outsized ambitions and bit off more than it could chew. Presidential rhetoric and promise ran ahead of reality — and the power of vested interests and the status quo.
When the wheels came off the Obamacare bus, the driver offered half-hearted apologies about his driving skills instead of taking control of the vehicle and getting his panicky passengers back into their seats.
The White House is now listing badly on both the domestic and international front. That is no place any president wants to be.
Barely one year into his second term, President Obama already is being called a lame-duck president. Pundits are calling his political legacy into doubt well before his term is finished. His poll numbers are tanking. Though he could never win even moderate Republicans over to his side, he now appears to be losing the basic trust and confidence of members of his own party as they rush to save their own political skins before the 2014 elections. The outrage felt by Americans who were about to lose their own private health care — and get dinged in the pocketbook despite solemn presidential assurances that no such thing would happen — has the force and political fallout of the Hurricane Katrina debacle.
When someone like Secretary of State John Kerry pronounces, on returning from failed negotiations with Iran in Geneva, that “we are not blind and we are not stupid”, the reflex response is thathe may have protested too much. Kerry also said that the Iranians had walked away from the discussions, a view promptly rejected by the Iranians.
Others have suggested that the French, still smarting from the American flip-flop on Syria and their lack of support on Mali, dug in to prevent the nascent deal from happening. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius stated publicly that the proposed deal was a “fool’s game.” The French clearly understand Tehran’s internal machinations better than the Americans and believe that Iran has no intention of giving up its enrichment ambitions, which easily could take it over the nuclear threshold.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, presumably reacting to an advance briefing from Kerry, attacked what he described as a “bad deal” and declared it would not be binding on Israel.
It’s difficult to know precisely where the truth lies in the Iran debate. What is certain is that the Obama administration very much wants a deal of some kind, one that would turn the page on a relationship that has been virtually frozen for more than thirty years.
The geopolitical or strategic logic of such a breakthrough for the U.S. with Iran is compelling. Equally, the Iranians are almost desperate to get relief from the sanctions that are having a devastating impact on their economy — sanctions which Republicans in Washington are anxious to strengthen, not ease. What’s at stake here is how to balance the desire to curtail enrichment and the expansion of centrifuges on the one hand with the offer of a carrot of softer sanctions on the other. As an academic exercise many options for success could be imagined — but without some element of trust and without stringent terms of certification, no agreement on paper would be worth much. And therein lies the rub.
There is increasing uncertainty at home and abroad about America’s ability to conclude an agreement that would effectively thwart Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, just as there is deep skepticism in many quarters — and not just in Israel — about the Khameini regime’s willingness to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions.
Other American allies in the region, like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, are deeply troubled by Obama’s initiative. And of course, there is also the embarrassing example of North Korea looming over the negotiations — suggesting that any agreement may prove both transitory and illusory, especially when you are dealing with a paranoid and wily regime that grasps at nuclear straws because it sees them as key to its own political survival.
Moreover, it does not help either that the senior U.S. negotiator, Wendy Sherman, has a thin record of nuclear expertise and is better known for campaign efforts than diplomacy.
As unresolved problems — domestic and foreign — increasingly envelop the White House and the president’s approval ratings continue to slide, there is a risk that domestic political pressure for a deal that can change the channel in Washington will intensify in coming weeks. That would be the wrong motivation on all counts – both blind and stupid. But we are left wondering whether some elements of both are in play.
Inevitably, a president weakened on the home front — as Obama is now with the problems engulfing Obamacare — is diminished globally as well. Respect and credibility are dissipating both at home and abroad precisely at a time when confident, bold leadership is needed more than ever. America’s economic recovery is not helped by the glaring dysfunction in Washington. Meanwhile, global challenges — geopolitical and economic — receive spasmodic attention at best and risk being driven exclusively by domestic politics. Allies worry that desperate attempts at deal-making are intended more to distract attention from problems at home than to make tangible progress.
With all the doubts and skepticism emanating from Washington these days, any agreement with Iran will be a tough sell … period.