If President Obama’s intention is to forge a legacy, one mainly based on his foreign policy, he’s made several decisive steps toward that goal. Several months ago he reached out to Cuba with the purpose of normalizing relations with the island nation. But his effort to deal diplomatically with Iran, putting a stop to its nuclear weapon possibilities is by far the most dramatic indication of the “Obama doctrine,” a policy given full exposition during a recent interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times.
At the very top of the long interview, Obama spelled out what he conceived as his doctrine. “You asked about an Obama doctrine. The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities,” he told Friedman.
To get to the core of the doctrine, the president brought Cuba into the discussion. “You take a country like Cuba,” he began. “For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t that many risks for us. It’s a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so [there’s no reason not] to test the proposition.
“And if it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies,” Obama continued. “The same is true with respect to Iran, a larger country, a dangerous country, one that has engaged in activities that resulted in the death of U.S. citizens, but the truth of the matter is: Iran’s defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us.”
One of the criticisms of the so-called Obama doctrine from Israel and many Republicans is that the bargain weakens the U.S. and presents Iran with a path toward nuclear bomb. Obama told Friedman that America’s military power stays in place. “We’re not relinquishing our capacity to defend ourselves or our allies. In that situation, why wouldn’t we test it?”
The president said the U.S. stands forthright behind Israel in the event of an attack from Iran. “What I would say to the Israeli people is … that there is no formula, there is no option, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon that will be more effective than the diplomatic initiative and framework that we put forward — and that’s demonstrable,” he said.
When asked if he was concerned about the huge amount of money flowing to the Republican Party from super-rich Israelis—a shift that was evident during the last mid-term elections—Obama said it was something of concern to him and other Democrats. He observed that Israel is a “robust democracy” and historically their ties to the U.S. “has transcended party, and I think that has to be preserved.”
Any commentary on the current U.S.-Israel relations has to be seen in light of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rejection of the deal and his address to the joint session of congress last month. “There has to be a way for Prime Minister Netanyahu to disagree with me on policy without being viewed as anti-Democrat, and I think the right way to do it is to recognize that as many commonalities as we have, there are going to be strategic differences,” Obama explained.
The president also addressed some of the concerns about protecting his Sunni Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia. But, in his estimation, Iran presents a lesser threat to stability or an invasion than the dissatisfaction inside their own countries. “That’s a tough conversation to have,” he said, “but it’s one that we have to have.”
Of course, the deal with Iran is far from concluded, Obama added, and nothing is more vital to its finality than a vote from Congress, where many members tend to view the diplomacy as nothing more than the president exercising his executive authority. “We’re not done yet,” he said. “There are a lot of details to be worked out, and you could see backtracking and slippage and real political difficulties, both in Iran and obviously here in the United States Congress.”
There are many important details to be worked out on the agreement, including the role of inspectors, what sanctions will be lifted, and what is the process if Iran violates the agreement.