By Carol E. Lee
WASHINGTON--President Barack Obama made major strides over the
past year on the four planks of his second-term foreign-policy
agenda: a nuclear deal with Iran, restoring diplomatic ties with
Cuba, a global climate-change agreement and a new trade pact with
But each of those remains fragile. Some have gotten little
political buy-in at home so far. Others face legal challenges, or
could be eroded over time under his successor in the White House or
As a result, much of the White House's effort in 2016 will be
focused on safeguarding these four initiatives by pushing them so
far along by 2017 that they would be too hard to undo.
On Cuba, that means taking additional executive actions so
Americans become accustomed to traveling to the island-nation 90
miles off the coast of Florida and U.S. businesses are deeply
invested there. For the climate-change deal, he will instruct
administration officials to work to keep the 195 countries that
agreed to it on board through discussions next year designed to
firm up certain parts of the deal.
On the Iran agreement, he must ensure that Tehran continues to
dismantle its nuclear infrastructure. And it means pushing hard for
congressional ratification of the trade deal despite bipartisan
reluctance among some in Congress and resistance from candidates of
both parties in the presidential campaign.
Mr. Obama, while acknowledging some of the political obstacles
his agenda still faces, has argued that making tough choices now
increase the chances his achievements will stand the test of
"As I look back on this year, one thing I see is that so much of
our steady, persistent work over the years is paying off for the
American people in big, tangible ways," he said on Friday, citing
diplomatic efforts on Iran, Cuba, trade and climate change. "We
have shown what is possible when America leads."
Mr. Obama's victories, which supporters and critics agree could
reshape U.S. foreign policy for years to come, also risk being
overshadowed by growing fears of the threat of terrorism in the
U.S., and Americans' deepening dissatisfaction with his strategy in
Syria and Iraq to combat Islamic State.
Syria, in particular, could be a blemish on Mr. Obama's legacy
despite his other accomplishments, foreign-policy experts say, and
will open him to critiques of his broader approach of relying
heavily on diplomatic and economic engagement.
"Obama has focused on what can be accomplished through patient
and persistent diplomacy, which is a lot," said Bruce Jones, the
director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings
Institution. "But by the same token, the Obama administration has
frequently underestimated the importance of military power as a
tool for shaping what's possible politically, and Syria is that in
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations,
said Mr. Obama's approach to the Middle East has been different
from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, but its implications
equally important. "In its own way, what he failed to do in Syria
will be seen as every bit as consequential for the region as what
Mr. Bush chose to do in 2003 in Iraq," Mr. Haass said. "We've gone
from a president who history could well judge critically by what he
did in the region, to a president that history is likely to judge
critically for what he failed to do."
As he pivots to his final year in office, Mr. Obama faces his
last chance to solidify the foundation of his legacy and turn
around public opinion. Following the terrorist attacks in San
Bernardino and Paris, the majority of Americans--60%--disapprove of
Mr. Obama's handling of the fight against Islamic State, and 57%
disapprove of the job he is doing on foreign-policy issues in
general, according to a December Wall Street Journal/NBC News
Mr. Obama on Friday defended his Islamic State strategy and his
approach to the Syrian conflict since it began five years ago. He
argued that diplomatic negotiations that protect the interests of
Russia and Iran and allow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to be
part of a government transition could lead to a more unified
international effort to combat Islamic State.
"We now have an opportunity not to turn back the clock," Mr.
Obama said, "but to find a political transition that maintains the
Syrian state, that recognizes there are a bunch of a stakeholders
inside of Syria, and, hopefully, to initiate a cease-fire."
Mr. Obama's shift in his second term to emphasizing both his
executive authority and an ambitious foreign, rather than domestic,
policy agenda has made some of his biggest accomplishments
possible, but also more vulnerable.
"Our theory of the case is that the cost of undoing these
policies will be far too high in the real world," said Ben Rhodes,
a deputy national security adviser at the White House. "Tearing up
the Iran deal jump-starts Iran's program and could lead to war.
Pulling out of Paris angers almost 200 countries. Closing our
Embassy and telling Americans they can't go to Cuba makes no sense.
It'd be totally illogical for a new president to begin their
presidency by creating crises and alienating the world, so there
are natural checks."
The Asia trade pact is the one policy that could be
legislatively binding, and the White House plans to make an
aggressive push next year for Republican leaders to schedule a vote
on it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) recently
said Congress shouldn't vote on the pact until after the November
election, while House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) has said
lawmakers should approve the deal before then. Mr. Obama expressed
optimism on Friday that lawmakers would pass it next year.
White House officials see climate change as the most vulnerable
piece of Mr. Obama's legacy if a Republican is elected president.
The U.S. commitments in the agreement reached in Paris this month
rely entirely on executive actions. "Most of the steps we've taken
we've done through executive authority, so they remain at the
authority of the executive," said Brian Deese, Mr. Obama's top
adviser on climate change. "But I think the thing that is very
important is that regulations, once enacted and then once absorbed
and built into the way the industry operates, are very difficult to
Mr. Obama's commitment to, for the first time, put limits on
carbon emissions for new and existing power plants--the cornerstone
of U.S. pledges in the international climate change deal--is widely
opposed by Republicans in Congress and is being challenged in court
by more than 20 states.
The year since Mr. Obama announced he was restoring U.S. ties
with Cuba has progressed slowly. Although both countries reopened
embassies in each other's capitals and officials announced last
week Americans will soon be able to take commercial flights to
Havana, Congress hasn't lifted the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
Mr. Obama, who is likely to travel to Cuba next year, has both
bipartisan support and opposition to the policy. Donald Trump and
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul are the only GOP presidential candidates
who support it; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has said he would reverse
Still, Cuba appears to be the most solid piece of Mr. Obama's
legacy. Former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who served in
the George W. Bush administration and supports Mr. Obama's Cuba
policy, said at this stage it is hard to imagine any president
closing down the U.S. embassy in Havana.
"The risk is that a future president will not advance the
policy, and it will just remain stagnant," Mr. Gutierrez said. "But
I think there's a very low likelihood that it will be reversed or
The Iran deal has faced more criticism from Republicans. It won
no GOP support in Congress and only advanced after Republicans
failed to amass a veto-proof majority for rejecting the deal.
Mr. Trump last week called it an "absolutely incompetent deal,"
and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has said he would pull out of it
immediately after taking office. But other presidential candidates,
such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have said that is not a
Iran has so far complied with the deal, U.S. officials have
said. But Tehran's other actions, including recently testing
ballistic missiles capable of delivering atomic weapons, have
prompted GOP calls for a stronger response from the White
"Failure to impose any consequences on Iran for its violations
of U.N. Security Council Resolutions and other destabilizing
actions sets a dangerous precedent before implementation of the
nuclear agreement, when sanctions are lifted and the leverage
shifts to Iran," said Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Prem Kumar, a former adviser to Mr. Obama on the Middle East who
is now senior vice president of Albright Stonebridge Group, said
further implementation will make it harder to roll back.
"The future of the deal depends on the action of the Iranians
but I would argue that in the past few months the likelihood that
the deal will endure has increased," Mr. Kumar said.
Write to Carol E. Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
December 20, 2015 19:18 ET (00:18 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2015 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.