The prospects of a nuclear Iran presents President Obama with perhaps the greatest threat — not just to America — but also to his legacy. First, it’s important to understand the stakes. As Newsweek’s Niall Fergusion writes, “The single biggest danger in the Middle East today is not the risk of a six-day Israeli war against Iran. It is the risk that Western wishful nonthinking allows the mullahs of Tehran to get their hands on nuclear weapons”
In fairness, thee Obama Administration seems to appreciate the seriousness of this. As Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told “60 Minutes” recently, the idea of a nuclear Iran is “a red line for us. And it’s a red line obviously for the Israelis so we share a common goal here. If we have to do it, we will do it.”
While the national security and energy implications are perhaps self-evident, from a political standpoint, this could also be the defining issue for Obama’s legacy, and for the future of the Democratic Party.
Modern presidents — good and bad — have been almost universally plagued by the Middle East. Consider Jimmy Carter, whose greatest legacy is The Camp David Accords. He ended his presidency utterly humiliated by the hostage crisis in Iran.
Even the great Ronald Reagan’s legacy was marred by the Beirut barracks bombing, and the ensuing decision to withdraw Marines from Lebanon. Though he would go on to help bring down the Soviet Union, the retreat in Beirut probably emboldened Islamic terrorists. As Osama bin Laden told ABC News in 1998, the retreat proved “the decline of American power and the weakness of the American soldier, who is ready to wage cold wars but unprepared to fight long wars. This was proven in Beirut in 1983, when the Marines fled.”
Regardless, since Carter, Republicans have essentially “owned” the issue of national security. But with the killing of bin Laden, Obama now finds himself positioned to neutralize the long-held Republican advantage there. This is a big deal, but it is also tenuous. His success could quickly meltdown.
Many observers already believe Obama dropped the ball in failing to respond quickly to Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution. How he handles Iran may ultimately determine whether or not he continues to define the stereotypical narratives about Democratic foreign policy impotence — or whether he bucks the trend to change the trajectory of America’s domestic political perceptions.
If the Iranian regime goes nuclear on his watch, expect the comparisons between Obama and Jimmy Carter to ratchet up. And the question of “Who lost Iran?,” will be hung like an albatross around his neck.