After seven years of trying to distance himself from his predecessor, President Obama finds himself uncomfortably with something in common with the man he succeeded. Because of the nuclear deal his administration negotiated with Iran, the president must wait for history to prove him right in the Middle East.
Every time he was asked about his own legacy, George W. Bush brushed aside the question with some variation of what he said in November 2013: "It's going to take a while for history to judge whether the decisions I made are consequential or not. ... I read some biographies of Washington. My attitude is if they're still writing biographies of the first guy, the 43rd guy doesn't need to worry." Bush spoke from experience about the quick shifting of reputations and legacy. To his regret, he saw the instant praise for many of his actions give way over time to widespread criticism.
Obama need not worry about instant praise, of course. The congressional assault against this deal will be fierce. Republicans already are lined up as if this were a test of party loyalty, while many Democrats, such as Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, are more than willing to appear before cameras to denounce Secretary of State John Kerry's handiwork as dangerous for the country.
At the White House, they expect this agreement to play a major role in shaping the historical legacy of the president. And the president acknowledged as much, talking about the consequences of inaction and the very difficult decisions a future president would face if the deal is undone by Congress.
In a somber White House statement only an hour after sunrise, Obama implored skeptics across the world—but particularly in Congress—to "consider the alternative." That alternative, he insisted, includes a collapse of the sanctions regime, no limitations on the Iranian nuclear program, more centrifuges, a reactor capable of producing plutonium for a bomb, and a dangerous nuclear arms race in the world's most volatile region.
"Put simply, no deal means a greater chance of more war in the Middle East," he said grimly, insisting the deal leaves his successors in the Oval Office "in a far stronger position with Iran further away from a weapon."
How history treats this agreement with Iran will not be clear until it is known if that country's nuclear program was restrained, if the mullahs in Tehran conform their behavior to international norms, and how Iran uses the revenue it receives when sanctions are lifted. Obama can only hope that history will be as kind to him as it has been for almost all his predecessors who reached deals with unfriendly nations.
Confronting a central argument against negotiating with such a notorious backer of world terrorism, the president pointedly reminded Congress "that you don't make deals like this with your friends." He recalled the long history of Washington negotiations with Moscow when the Russians had nuclear weapons aimed at America, saying "those agreements ultimately made us safer." He even tossed in a not-so-subtle nod to President Reagan's famous "trust but verify" mantra, stating, "This deal is not built on trust. It is built on verification."
The White House is about to learn that the president faces a much more daunting challenge selling this deal than Reagan ever did with his agreements with Moscow. Overshadowing the announcement of the deal as the clock starts ticking on the 60-day review by Congress is the president's track record on winning over opponents. It would be hard for the White House to deny that a president in his seventh year in office still has trouble mastering the bully pulpit. He is eloquent but not always persuasive, as evidenced by the latest polls showing his signature domestic accomplishment of health care reform still underwater. This latest challenge will test him, perhaps, like no other because the stakes are so incredibly high. Failure could mean war at worst or worsened Middle East instability at best.
As he starts that campaign, the short-term outlook is daunting. In Washington, his allies are few and less than vocal. In Israel, the opposition is likely to grow even more strident. And, in Iran, he knows that he won't get much help in his sales job. To the contrary, he almost definitely can count on the mullahs in the leadership to undercut him, both by continuing the noxious prosecution of a jailed Washington Post reporter and by making comments aimed to persuade Iranian skeptics that they snookered the Great Satan.
The reality is that almost every president who has reached a major agreement with a U.S. foe has been viciously attacked, with treaty foes warning of dire consequences. But even as he is being battered over the Iran deal, Obama can take some solace from the fact all of those presidents were rewarded by sticking with the deal and ignoring popular disdain and stinging criticisms.
Some of the venom was captured earlier this year in "A Brief History of Hating Treaties," by reporter David H. Montgomery of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He recalled the criticism of the Jay Treaty in 1796 that dealt with the issues left over from the Revolutionary War. George Washington was too revered a figure to assail, so the critics went after Washington's chief negotiator, John Jay. Montgomery cited one newspaper editor who wrote sentiments about Jay not too far away from today's Republican attitudes toward Obama, referring to Jay as "the arch traitor—seize him, drown him, burn him, flay him alive."
Seven years later, Thomas Jefferson was viciously attacked for agreeing to the Louisiana Purchase for $15 million. Then there was the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty, again with Britain, which one congressman said was a collection of "errors, mistakes, blunders, concessions, explanations, apologies, losses, and mortifications." But history showed both Jay and Webster to be good treaties for the United States, and Jefferson was vindicated for doubling the size of the United States.
That also was true of those who blasted Secretary of State William H. Seward's purchase of Alaska for $7 million, calling it "Seward's folly." Eighty years later, Republican Sen. Robert A. Taft led the charge against the treaty establishing the NATO alliance, insisting it would drag America into war. Seward and President Truman turned out to be right. They looked like visionaries while Taft and the other critics just looked wrong.
In 1963, the critics rose again to excoriate President Kennedy for the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting the testing of nuclear weapons in outer space, underwater or in the atmosphere. The same argument used against Kennedy was trotted out to undermine the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty when Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter were in office. Opponents pointed to the global misdeeds of the Soviet Union—and China—and contended there should be no negotiating with U.S. enemies. Among those critics was Reagan, who, once in office, abided by SALT and negotiated even-more-ambitious agreements with the Kremlin, flipping him from the wrong side to the right side of history.
Reagan was also on the wrong side in opposing the Torrijos-Carter Treaties in 1977 that ceded control of the Panama Canal. History vindicated Carter when none of the dire warnings of the opponents came true. Almost four decades later, Obama can only hope for a similar legacy. But that is possibly only if he can be as effective a salesman as Carter was in 1977.
The best hope for Obama is that Republicans today fall into the trap that ensnared treaty opponents all through history—overstating the case against the deal. Critics of the Iran deal tend to too easily forget just how war-weary the American public is after more than a decade of fighting in the Middle East and how much they agree with Winston Churchill when he said in 1954 "to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war." The president needs to persuade skeptics that, this time, the jaw-jaw yielded a deal that leaves the country safer.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.