If matters of war and peace were not top of mind among Democratic voters in 2007 and 2008, Barack Obama would not have become the party’s presidential nominee. His prescient opposition to the invasion of Iraq gave him his initial opening against frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
But it was Obama’s answer to a citizen’s question in a July 2007 debate that crystallized their apparent foreign policy divide.
Asked if he would “be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration . . . with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea,” Obama replied without hesitation: “I would.”
The Clinton campaign saw an opening to paint the freshman senator from Illinois as naïve. But as Obama aide David Plouffe recounted in his campaign memoir, “The Audacity to Win,” Clinton’s attack backfired.
“Our field staff in Iowa reported that the exchange had opened eyes and ears on the ground,” he wrote. “In focus groups we were discovering that it was a signal to voters that Obama represented change in these areas and Hillary did not.”
After Obama won the presidency, a whirlwind of bilateral summits with the world’s worst leaders did not materialize, and it is true that Obama has not been a pure dove. He has used drones to take out terrorists, provided air power to oust Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and sent military advisers back to Iraq to tackle ISIS. But it also is true that Obama has expended copious diplomatic resources in hopes of resolving some of our toughest foreign policy problems, from Afghanistan to the West Bank to Syria.
Still, a game-changing foreign policy win has been elusive. The biggest success to date has been the Cuban thaw, which pulled the plug on a failed policy stuck in the Cold War but lacks much secondary benefit.
But if liberal hopes of an instantaneously more peaceful world have been dashed, Obama’s successful negotiations with Iran are the biggest validation of their belief in the power of diplomacy and multilateralism since the Camp David Accords.
The fact that the Iranian negotiation process was so protracted in some ways makes the deal more satisfying for liberals. It amplifies the value of patient and creative diplomacy, and provides a rebuttal to future naysayers when diplomacy doesn’t pay off immediately.
Even if Obama didn’t literally sup with Iran in his first year, his dogged and multi-faceted direct diplomacy still delivered the dramatic break with our recent foreign policy that liberals had long expected and craved. For many Democrats, this deal is why they nominated Obama in the first place.
Which is why it is so dangerous for congressional Democrats to join Republicans in killing it.
Democratic skeptics of the Iran deal will have a hard time scrapping the signature foreign policy achievement of a Democratic president unless there is clear disapproval across the country and among their own constituents, especially within the party’s base. But recent polls that described the basic outlines of the deal yielded big numbers in support.
And Obama commanded a near-flawless rollout of the deal, keeping Democratic criticism to a minimum. The decision to leak one month ago that the final deal would include some temporary provisions was a smart example of expectations setting; instead of a concession shocker, the biggest surprise of the deal was a lower-than-expected number of centrifuges that would keep spinning.
Hillary Clinton, who had signaled some skepticism of Iran’s intentions last August, responded to the announcement by saying, “I strongly support President Obama and Secretary Kerry’s efforts between now and June to reach a final deal,” giving no oxygen to those who want legislation to scuttle the deal. The new ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin, said any bill establishing congressional review of the agreement should “strengthen the president, not weaken the president. I don’t want it to undermine negotiations.”
Without public opinion blowing in their direction, and without prominent Democrats comfortable in stating outright opposition, anyone trying to build a veto-proof congressional super-majority is lacking some critical ingredients.
Obama’s nomination was fueled by a powerful desire to bring diplomacy back. Any congressional Democrat wanting to send back what Obama’s diplomacy delivered would be robbing a majority of American voters of the change they tried to set in motion 6½ years ago. Don’t bet on that happening.
Bill Scher is executive editor of LiberalOasis and a contributor to RealClearPolitics, where this essay was posted.