WASHINGTON -- His hair almost fully gray now, his tone somber but earnestly hopeful, President Barack Obama stood in the White House Rose Garden Thursday and made a case for the centerpiece of his second term, for his vision of how to handle dangerous enemies, and for his own role in history.
This was Obama at his own personal summit, carrying out what he views as his destiny: a coolly practical peacemaker.
Invoking three Cold War presidents -- John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan -- the 53-year-old Obama, still young by global statesman standards, claimed to have reached, with Iran, a tentative deal for the ages.
In doing so, Obama said, he and his Big Power partners were showing how, in the 21st century, military might is not the only way, or even the primary way, to advance the cause of peace.
At one point, Obama remarked that at the height of an earlier, more dangerous era of confrontation with the Soviet Union, a young President Kennedy had said, “We should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate.” Kennedy ultimately negotiated, as did Nixon and Reagan in later years. Arms limitation deals arose. The Soviet Union collapsed.
The Iran deal, if and when finalized, will be to Obama’s second term what the Affordable Care Act was to his first: an unforced, high-risk, presidency-defining choice. Once again he is diving into a complex, seemingly insoluble problem. Once again, he risks not only failure but also further division in an already dysfunctional American political system.
His critics took only minutes to begin denouncing the tentative deal. The Republicans who control Congress will almost certainly try to derail it. And even if they act in good faith, they may well modify the deal so severely that Iran will walk away.
There are many reasons to doubt Iran’s intentions -- not least because, as Obama himself acknowledged, Iran continues to deploy terrorists worldwide, build missile systems and use proxies to control capitals like Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus, as well as, now, the country of Yemen.
It’s not just the Israelis who fear Iran. The Arab Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, have sectarian and ethnic fears about Shiites and Persians that stretch back a thousand years.
But if there has been one consistent motif to Obama’s public life, it has been his willingness to look for answers that do not begin and end with military force.
It was an anti-war speech about Iraq in 2002 that ultimately allowed Obama to get the inside track on Hillary Clinton in 2008. His pledges to end military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan were key to his victory in the general election.
The American people wanted the opposite of what they had come to see in President George W. Bush -- a bombs-away “decider” who knew little and cared less about other cultures, and who had no imagination for solutions not military in nature.
Will the Iran deal work? Will it fall apart politically in the U.S.? No one knows, but Obama can perhaps take some comfort from the fact that he has already lived the domestic version of this narrative.
It was complex beyond measure, with so many interrelated parts that even experts had trouble comprehending it all.
Republicans in Congress hated it, and tried to defeat it any way they could.
Obama had staked everything on the deal, seeing it as the crown jewel of his economic and domestic agenda. He was constantly on the phone with the negotiators. He knew the details.
In the end, Obama won. And Obamacare is working much better than its GOP critics claimed it would.
On Iran, the president is arguing, in effect, that he is even more skeptical than Reagan was in his day. While dealing with Soviet leaders on nuclear arms control in the '80s, Reagan vowed to “trust but verify.”
Obama insists that he doesn’t “trust” Iran at all, and he assures us that the world -- specifically, the International Atomic Energy Administration -- can indeed “verify.”
Well, the Iranians have successfully hidden secret nuclear facilities for years. Now Obama is saying that “a diplomatic solution is the best way” to prevent Iran from doing it again.
It may take many years to know whether Obama is right. But no one should be surprised that he has faith in his own strategy.