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Barack Obama: Historian in Chief


            Jimmy Carter, to his lasting discredit, engaged in this exchange during a February 13, 1980 press conference, in the midst of the hostage crisis in Iran:

QUESTION: Mr. President, do you think it was proper for the United States to restore the Shah to the throne in 1953 against the popular will within Iran?  

THE PRESIDENT. That's ancient history, and I don't think it's appropriate or helpful for me to go into the propriety of something that happened 30 years ago.


On the contrary, acknowledging the historical record – one of the goals of the Iranian militants’ takeover of the U.S. embassy had been to uncover American efforts to support the Shah – might have opened the way for an earlier resolution of the crisis and the lessening of tensions between the U.S. and the new anti-Shah, anti-American government in Teheran.

To his credit, Barack Obama has been more open to historical facts in U.S.-Iranian relations as he seeks to make his case for the proposed deal to prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.  Obama has also sought to use historical symbolism in these efforts.

In the course of a wide-ranging interview with influential New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman published on July 15, 2015, Obama said:

[E]ven with your adversaries, I do think that you have to have the capacity to put yourself occasionally in their shoes, and if you look at Iranian history, the fact is that we had some involvement with overthrowing a democratically elected regime in Iran.  We have had in the past supported Saddam Hussein when we know he used chemical weapons in the war between Iran and Iraq, and so, as a consequence, they have their own security concerns, their own narrative.  It may not be one we agree with…[but] when we are able to see their country and their culture in specific terms, historical terms, as opposed to just applying a broad brush, that’s when you have the possibility at least of some movement.


The phrase “some involvement” in the 1953 coup might be a bit weak, but on the whole this is a remarkable statement from a sitting American President discussing past U.S. relations with a nation widely perceived as a present-day “enemy.”  Indeed, it is perhaps unprecedented. 

Obama then delivered his major address on behalf of the agreement, on August 5, at American University in Washington, D.C., very deliberately choosing the site of John F. Kennedy’s June 10, 1963 commencement address at which that other young President announced the start of negotiations with the Soviet Union for a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty.  JFK also said at American University that the U.S. would take a first tentative step in limiting the arms race by forgoing atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.  Indeed, Obama began his 2015 speech by describing the circumstances the U.S. faced in 1963, at the height of the Cold War, with many calling on Kennedy “to take military action against the Soviets, to hasten what they saw as inevitable confrontation.”  JFK, instead, moved toward negotiations with the other superpower.  While “not every conflict was averted,” Obama stated, “the world avoided nuclear catastrophe, and we created the time and the space to win the Cold War without firing a shot at the Soviets.”  (Ryan Grim and Jessica Schulberg almost immediately characterized it on Huffington Post as Obama “channeling” JFK.)

There are a few weak spots in this analysis, too – most notably some chronological confusion regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis, a refusal to acknowledge the U.S. role in setting the stage for that crisis, and the omission entirely of the Vietnam War.  Nevertheless, Obama’s recounting of Kennedy’s moves toward diplomacy with the Soviets, which included concessions by the U.S., was generally accurate and effectively mobilized a historical precedent on behalf of the current campaign to convince the American public and enough members of Congress to support the deal negotiated with Iran by the U.S., along with Russia, China, Britain, Germany, France, and the European Union. 

Obama, of course, has often sought to “use” history to back up current initiatives; I have jokingly told my students that he must see himself as “historian-in-chief” as well as commander-in-chief.  Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo seeking “a new beginning” in U.S. relations with the Muslim world included passages on Islamic contributions to world civilization that could have been taken from a 21st century World History textbook.  “It was Islam,” Obama observed then, “that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment.”  Islamic culture, stated the President, gave the world, among other things, algebra, improved tools of navigation, and a better “understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed.”  (The “new beginning” between the U.S. and the Islamic world did not take, to be sure.)

Many historians, along with social justice activists, thrilled to Obama’s alliterative invocation in his Second Inaugural Address to “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” as signposts along the journey that Americans were still traveling towards equality. 

And the President and his advisers very deliberately chose Osawatomie, Kansas, the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 “New Nationalism” speech, as the venue for Obama’s own 2011 speech arguing for a strong federal government role in both economic development and economic justice.  (Present-day Republicans were not swayed by that reminder of long-ago Progressive Republicanism – and one might add, too, that TR himself paid homage to historical symbolism by choosing the site of one of John Brown’s raids as the setting for his speech, precisely fifty years after the hanging of the anti-slavery crusader.)

To be sure, Obama has stumbled at times in marshaling historical precedents for his policies, as in his unabashedly “American exceptionalist” argument in September 2013 for military action against Syria.  At that time the President called the U.S. “the anchor of global security” since World War II and as the chief enforcer of “international agreements,” overlooking, among many other transgressions, the insecurity and repression unleashed by U.S. participation in the overthrow of elected governments in Guatemala and Chile, and the flouting of international law when the U.S. mined the harbors of Nicaragua.  But having criticized the President in the past for such lapses, it is especially gratifying now for me to be able to congratulate him on his path-breaking and strategically innovative appeals to the historical record.

Critics of the Iran deal have also “used” history to back up their arguments, most notably that the agreement constitutes “appeasement” with an implacable and aggressive enemy.  The agreement’s strict procedures for monitoring Iran’s research and weapons programs, along with the fact that it is a joint agreement of most of the world’s largest powers, are far removed, to say the least, from what happened in Munich in 1938.  Hitler faced no inspections of his armed forces by outside authorities at that time, and Britain and France did not receive assurances from the U.S. or the Soviet Union that any breach of the agreement by Germany would result in joint sanctions and other punishment.

To give another example of the appeal to history by opponents of the agreement, David Brooks, one of the two resident conservative columnists at the New York Times, tried a different, but equally untenable, tack.  Brooks argued that the deal represented the third major strategic defeat for the U.S. in foreign affairs in the contemporary period, with the other two being the U.S. loss in Vietnam and the disarray in Iraq today after the American invasion.  Brooks attributes these outcomes simply to a failure of will on the part of American leaders and people.  If Obama were more committed, Brooks seemed to conclude, we could end both Iranian nuclear efforts and its repressive regime.

Even aside from its pop psychology premise – this emphasis on winners being hungrier for victory may occasionally work in sports, but rarely to explain the outcome of wars and international diplomacy – Brooks’s historical analysis is flawed from start to finish.  Yes, the U.S. suffered a great defeat in its dealings with Iran, but that defeat came over three decades ago, in 1979, when the Iranian people all but unanimously threw out the U.S.-backed Shah.  That revolution did, in fact, lead to a repressive and misogynist regime which has ruled the nation ever since.  Nevertheless, the identification of the U.S. with the overthrow of Iranian democracy in 1953 and U.S. support for the Shah’s dictatorship for the next quarter-century – as Obama hinted at – means that there is precious little support in Iran for American defeat and humiliation of the current regime.   Indeed, efforts to do so merely strengthen the more repressive elements in Iran.

Moreover, the two other “big U.S. strategic defeats” which Brooks enumerates – the loss in Vietnam and the morass in Iraq – came about in part due to unilateralist actions of the U.S., without support of the United Nations and against the opposition of most of the world’s peoples.  Brooks’s path – continued efforts by the U.S. to bring down the Iranian regime – would be rejected by the other powers which helped negotiate the present agreement, and would leave the U.S. once again isolated in global diplomacy.  Indeed, Brooks’s prescription looks eerily similar to the second Bush administration’s approach to Iraq in 2002-2003, which led directly to the “strategic defeat” which Brooks bemoans.

Among the several sources of opposition to the agreement, Obama and other supporters of the deal have to counter the claims by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and others that the agreement with Iran leaves Israel vulnerable.  Perhaps it would be politically unwise to do so (and admittedly it is a cheap shot), but I wish that the President would invoke our first president’s Farewell Address on this point.  George Washington stated in 1796 (in a phrase probably penned by Alexander Hamilton): “nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others should be excluded…The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave.” 

Sure, George Washington was warning against “inveterate antipathy” toward Britain and “habitual fondness” for France, under very different circumstances from today.  But those who say that Obama must bow to Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose conduct continually furnishes proof that he seeks no agreement with the Palestinians – time after time poking the Obama administration in the eye on the issue – can justly be described as wishing to make the U.S. “in some degree a slave” to Israel in foreign affairs.  Given how routinely the Republicans, and especially its Tea Party wing, claim to be pointing to the Founders as their inspiration, Washington’s words might make them squirm as they seemingly place Israel’s interests on the same level (or even above) as our nation’s own.  Moreover, many Republicans consider U.S. participation in United Nations agreements and activities as impinging on American sovereignty; meanwhile, the arguments of AIPAC and friends about the necessity for the U.S. to follow Israel’s lead on Iran looks to me like just such an infringement.

There is another argument about Israel which is related to history and which has received too little attention in this debate.  Israel and its backers state that Iran must abandon its nuclear program altogether, and they demand that Iran open up all facilities to international inspection at any time.  And yet, Israel, which is generally believed to have at least 80 nuclear bombs – the Federation of American Scientists calls it a “public secret” and the Pentagon has released declassified U.S. documents about the Israeli weapons – has never acknowledged such possession, and has never allowed international inspectors of any sort into its nuclear facilities.  The hypocrisy on this score is stunning, and a productive debate on Israeli claims against Iran must include an open reckoning by Israel with the historical facts about its own nuclear weapons. 

The “use” of history is perilous at best, and always subject to contention.  President Obama’s refreshing, historically-minded comments provide a clear opening through which we as historians can enter the debate, and the facile and emotional appeals by the opponents of the agreement make it imperative that we do so.