John McTernan: Obama’s still got the power

Rapprochement with Iran can be a major achievement for Barack Obama. Picture: Reuters
Rapprochement with Iran can be a major achievement for Barack Obama. Picture: Reuters
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The US president is far from finished, with bold and successful initiatives on both foreign and domestic fronts, writes John McTernan

Lame duck. It’s a terrible thing for a politician to be. In office, but not in power. It is often said to be the fate of second-term US presidents. Everyone knows they can’t get re-elected, so there comes a time – about two years through their second term – when procrastination becomes a powerful weapon. On many issues opponents can simply wait out the president – after all, there will be another one along in a while.

The implicit weakness of a president nearing the end of his term can become brutally explicit when they suffer an electoral reversal. President Obama faced this when he lost control of both houses of Congress in November. Many reasons were cited for this defeat, but there is little doubt that nearing the end of his time as commander-in-chief, Barack Obama is no longer the politician he was: the eloquent, charismatic, popular figure who swept all before him. Like a number of centre-left politicians who were swept into office on high hopes and even higher approval ratings – think Tony Blair in Britain or Kevin Rudd in Australia – Obama’s political honeymoon has been followed by a painful hangover. So is this just an American example of the Enoch Powell adage that all political careers end in failure? I don’t think so. Not least because of Obamacare. Introducing socialised medicine into the US 110 years after Teddy Roosevelt put the issue on the agenda is a historic achievement and irreversible. But there’s more. Obama hasn’t stopped yet.

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It’s a common observation that, as presidents and prime ministers spend more time in office, they find domestic policy triumphs rarer and they turn to foreign policy. Nothing is nicer than the reception a world leader gets when they travel abroad – even their own staff aren’t as obsequious.

Obama has been sticking with foreign policy, but he has made a bold move domestically. He has used his powers of executive action to protect about 4.3 million unauthorised immigrants in the US from deportation. Yes, that’s not a typo – I wrote 4.3 million. Seems a world away from our squalid debate on immigration.

The situation in the US is very different, of course. The four most populous states – New York, Florida, California and Texas – are effectively bi-lingual in English and Spanish. Lose the Hispanic vote and you not only kiss goodbye to the presidency (it is no coincidence that the Bushes speak Spanish). They know what’s at stake. Businesses in the US are strongly in favour of immigration and are not afraid to speak out strongly, unlike business leaders in the UK. And the kicker is that there are estimated to be at least 12 million illegal immigrants in the US. There is no plausible, practical plan to deport that many people. There is still, though, a political risk for Obama. Immigration is a mobiliser for the Republicans. The US is still a majority white country, and angry white people who oppose immigration say it is one of the main reasons to vote Republican. Whereas the opposite isn’t true – immigration isn’t a huge driver pushing people to the Democrats.

Demographically, being on the wrong side of the issue traps Republicans, but not in the short term.

It is in the Middle East that Obama is currently having his greatest foreign policy success. The action against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq is succeeding. The air strikes are containing the jihadists and the support for the Kurds is leading to some welcome victories. The strategy of eliminating the IS leaders is making the “no boots on the ground” policy as successful as it can be. The defeat of IS is a long way off, not least because the disorganised and demoralised Iraqi army is in no state to win. But the fragile internal Iraqi coalition between national security forces, Shiite militia and Kurdish Peshmerga is holding together. More striking perhaps for those who know the region is the way that the Gulf States have mobilised and become a firm part of the coalition against IS. It’s got to the point where a recent speech by al-Baghdadi, the IS leader, set out the hierarchy of enemies thus: Shia Muslims, Saudi Arabia, Jews and finally western forces.

The most stunning recent development has been Iranian air strikes against IS in Iraq. To counter speculation of US-Iranian collusion, the US line is simple. As a Pentagon spokesman said: “We are flying missions over Iraq, we co-ordinate with the Iraqi government as we conduct those. It’s up to the Iraqi government to de-conflict that airspace.” In plain English: “Nothing to do with us.”

The rapprochement with Iran is the great prize – and the greatest surprise of an American presidency. The key to this is nuclear negotiations. The P5+1 (the five permanent members of United Nations Security Council, China, France, Russia, the UK and the US, plus Germany) are in talks with Iran about allowing civil nuclear power while preventing Iran getting the bomb. In previous years, there would have been no talks, or if they had happened, talks that collapsed acrimoniously. These talks have been prolonged into next year, not to defer failure or to long-grass the issue but because there is real dialogue and real hope of a deal.

The risks are obvious for Obama. On the one hand, an intransigent Israel where prime minister Netanyahu says better no deal than a bad deal. On the other, a Republican Congress desperate to use national security as an issue to criticise Obama. But the prize is greater. Iran back in the community of civilised nations. A proof that negotiation can pay off. A prime mover in the Middle East conflict brought close.

It turns out that President Obama has decided to leave office as he entered it: as a change maker. In immigration, IS and Iran, he has chosen issues most would put in the “too-hard” box.

Not Obama though. What is power for – except to use it?

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