Four years ago at this time, I was in the middle of writing what became a cover story with the (immodest) title “Obama, Explained.” In it, I examined whether the slow, understated, long-game approach of a one-term president about to run for re-election, whose critics blasted him for naivete and “leading from behind” while many of his allies considered him aloof and disengaged, should be considered that of a chessmaster—or of a pawn. Was Obama actually outwitting the Republicans, the Chinese, the Russians, the Congress that would approve or reject his efforts (and where his party had just lost 63 seats in the House), a variety of lobbyists, and others who opposed him? Or was he just getting rolled?
Obviously it will take books, and years, to answer that question fully. A lot has gone disastrously wrong around the world and in America on his watch; a lot has quietly gone right. The upheaval in the Arab world that was largely provoked by the war in Iraq under Bush has accelerated under Obama. Strictly in political terms, at all levels except the presidential Obama’s Democratic party is in much weaker shape than when he arrived. And so on.
But today, after the climate agreement in Paris, it would be wrong not to note three big things that have happened during his presidency that in all probability would not have happened without him:
- The climate deal itself, as explained in a NYT piece just now, and in unbelievable contrast to the utter collapse of the Copenhagen negotiations early in Obama’s term;
- The rapprochement with Cuba, marking the beginning of the end of the single stupidest (but hardest to change) aberration in modern U.S. foreign policy; and
- The international agreement with Iran, which in the short term offers (as I have argued at length) the best prospects for keeping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and in the long run has the potential of beginning to end Iran’s destructive estrangement from the international order.