• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Obama's Legacy In Smoke

May 2018

In essence, Barack Obama’s legacy is naught. Of the three vital achievements that defined his presidency and his career, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or ACA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal, and the Paris Agreement on climate, all but one still breathes life. Yet even to say that the ACA breathes life might be too strong a word. In truth, this last of Obama’s surviving policies chokes on its last breath. It’s exhausted, winded, unwell, and it’s barely hanging on. This past summer proved as much. The time between Memorial and Labor Day saw, on no fewer than six occasions, Congress’ dogged attempt either fully to abrogate or partially to repeal Obama’s eponymous law. It seemed like every few months the ACA would huff, crackle, and wheeze as breathlessly it trudged along Pennsylvania Avenue attached to an iron lung.

But, nevertheless, it’s the ACA and not the Iran nuclear deal nor the Paris accord that lives on today. Once achievements, now relics, Paris and Tehran belong to the category of memories of Obama’s vanishing legacy.

For such a popular president, as was Obama toward the end of his second term, this is an extraordinary thing. How could it be that the much-bemoaned ACA remains the final corner of his crumbling triangle of victories as the other two go up in smoke? How is it that Obamacare has become the last leg of his three triumphs and the capstone of his political success? After all, the other two (the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Agreement) suffered none of the scorn to which the ACA so mercilessly has been exposed.

In fact, when they existed, they were rather popular items for the administration and the polls show as much. A full 42% of Americans supported staying in the Iran nuclear deal (with an added 70% saying it should be re-negotiated without being fully annulled), while about 60% wanted to remain a party to the Paris accord. So, how is it that these more agreeable aspects of Obama’s legacy—if still we can call it that—have been swept away? The answer, in a word, is President Trump. In a second word, it would be Obama. Not the man himself, but rather his inability to push through Congress these measures and codify them into treaties or bills.

Indeed, because it never was formalized as a treaty, the Iran nuclear deal has become as of Tuesday a thing of the past. Anticipating a May 12th deadline, by which time President Trump would’ve been made to decide whether or not to re-certify the controversial deal, Trump announced from the White House that the U.S. would be politely stepping away. No longer were we to be a party to the starry-eyed deal brokered on America’s behalf by John Kerry, Ben Rhodes, and President Obama. In a speech eclipsing ten minutes and not a second more, Trump clarified his rationale for doing so. He emphasized above all the profligate sum of cash that was re-opened to the Iranian government for its having accepted the original 2015 deal. This, to him, was inexcusable. It was a concept around which he couldn’t wrap his head, nor could most other Americans when it came to the point.

The amount, which was set to the tune of about $100 billion, came in the form of unfrozen oil assets that had been for years withheld from Iran. This was the long-standing and accreting result of a financial sanctions package meant to cripple the regime. Before the deal, and likely hereafter, Iran had been slapped with this onerous measure for the way in which it was conducting its affairs in the Middle East and beyond. The measures were punitive, and they were harsh, but they were deserved. What’s more, they seemed to be effective.

The sanctions actually began in the wake of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. They continued in more or less the same way for decades, before gaining a little extra muscle in 2006. It was then that former Iranian President Ahmadinejad boasted to the world that he was in the early stages of enriching uranium on an unprecedented scale. There was no ambiguity in his goal; he wanted more than anything to obtain for his dastardly regime a nuclear bomb. Iran had been advancing scientifically for years and an atomic weapon would be its pièce de résistance. Not only that, it would be a strong deterrent and insurance policy in an ever-inhospitable and religiously zealous Middle East. Yet, the last thing the world needed was another theocratic nation (sympathetic to Islamic terrorism, I might add) proliferating in plain sight. Pakistan, under the unscrupulous brilliance of AQ Khan, had done so years before and we didn’t need nor could we afford to watch that scene replay itself out again in Tehran.

As a consequence of the sanctions, Iranian businesses became personae non-grata in the halls of certain markets overseas and investments in Iranian banks and companies vanished. Further, its oil exportation—the very commodity upon which the Middle Eastern country’s financial health relies—was restricted by most European countries and by America. Exacerbating these external pressures, Iran was faced with a lagging malaise from within. Poorly governed, Iran witnessed its currency debased and its rate of inflation jump to nearly 10%. That’s peanuts in the long view of monetary history, but tell that to the local merchant or consumer whose supernumerary rials were suddenly chasing fewer goods. Businessmen saw their prospects fading, politicians began feeling the heat, and the poor citizens felt even more acutely the economic squeeze. Tehran was in dire straits, and the nuclear deal was the latch through which it might hope to escape.

And escape it did. The passage of the Iran nuclear deal by the P5+1 (the shorthand name given to the five permanent UN Security Council nation states—France, America, China, Russia, and Great Britain plus Germany) removed from Tehran’s throat the UN’s smothering heel. In exchange for greater access to its nuclear facilities, for the reduction of its uranium stockpile, for the removal of its heavy-water devices, for the closure of its centrifuges, and for the drastic limitation of its ability to enrich uranium from 90% to less than 4% (uranium must be enriched to about 90% if it’s to be weaponized in the form of an atomic bomb), Iran was awarded its economic freedom.

You would expect a putatively “moderate” regime—one who’d just been granted an economic second chance—to get itself straightened out at home having stumbled into this generous windfall. You’d expect it to improve its failing infrastructure or perhaps to build more hospitals and schools. Maybe you’d even expect it to invest in its youth or to succor its aged and infirm. It certainly wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a little bit of Westernized liberalism to find its way across the desert, take root, and usher in a progressive new day. After all, such a “moderate” Iranian regime wouldn’t have a need nor scarce a desire to invest all of its newly accessible cash into rebuilding its military or engineering to perfection its long-distance ballistic missiles. Nor would such a “moderate” state transfer exorbitant sums of wealth to the nefarious likes of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Syria’s Ba’athist party, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, or Palestine’s Hamas. Yet that’s precisely what this refreshingly “moderate” Iran did.

It’s for these reasons that, in President Trump’s mind, this deal was so sorely misbegotten. From the outset, he thought it was injurious, baleful, and badly conceived. Literally and figuratively, he saw it as having been built upon a foundation of sand. There was nothing firm nor re-assuring undergirding it. He felt that more than anything, by accepting this deal, America had been had. We’d been taken for a fool, for a ride, for a gullible guppy caught on the rod and dragged in. We unfettered Iran of its economic shackles, and what did we get in return? A specious friendship, a vulpine smile—yes, in excess we got both of these things.

But more importantly, we got a cunning miscreant and a subversive enemy whose true colors we’d always known. A trove of documents acquired by Israeli agents revealed as much. Between 100,000 discs and documents, Tehran’s ulterior motives were laid bare. Israel showed that Tehran had successfully circumvented this deal by misleading inspectors and burying its aims. Thanks to the audacity of Israel and the galling negligence of Iran, this information was finally given to the light of day.

And thus, so too has President Obama’s legacy been made clear. Translucent, really, as it’s now paper-thin; his Paris Agreement is burned to a crisp. His Iran nuclear deal imploded in ash. His healthcare law struggles to stand on two feet. It leaves one to ponder just what we’ll remember of the young Illinois senator with the eloquent tongue, the urbane visage, the solicitous ears, and the entrancing smile? It might be that all we remember is he who succeeded him.

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