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 Asia.

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 counterparts abroad.

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 time.

"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 spades."

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 poll.

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 pull back."

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 it.

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 undone."

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 realistic option.

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 House.

"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


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 20, 2015 19:18 ET (00:18 GMT)

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