columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Do Obama’s obsessions explain Biden’s Iran appeasement?

Ransom payments of $6 billion will fund more Iranian terror. But the real question is why America is still pursuing Iran. The former president may be part of the answer.

Then-President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a phone call from the Oval Office, on June 8, 2009. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons.
Then-President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a phone call from the Oval Office, on June 8, 2009. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

There’s nothing the government of Israel can do about it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can issue warnings that the $6 billion that the Biden administration is sending to Iran will wind up funding more terrorism, but he can’t stop it. Neither can Congress. The money, which comes from funds that were frozen by sanctions, is a significant windfall for the Iranian regime. It’s a ransom payment extorted by Tehran in exchange for the eventual release of five American citizens who have been unjustly imprisoned by the theocratic tyranny.

If you think that you’ve heard this story before, you have. Washington’s actions follow the same pattern of failed attempts at negotiations with Tehran that always end with American surrenders and appeasement that wind up enriching and empowering Iran. That was the modus operandi of the Barack Obama presidency. But aside from the immediate policy implications, these events raise questions about why Obama’s obsession with achieving a rapprochement with Iran wasn’t shelved by Biden after its obvious failure. The answer that some are providing is that this is evidence that what we are witnessing is essentially Obama’s “third term.”

That was part of the upshot of a fascinating article in Tablet magazine that went viral earlier this month in which journalist David Samuels interviewed historian David Garrow, the author of an insightful biography of Obama. The piece delved into Garrow’s findings about the way Obama fictionalized his past, and explored his decision to flout tradition and stay in Washington after his presidency. It raises some important questions about the 44th president that not only speak to what’s going on now but also the failure of the media to hold Obama or Biden accountable.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, at a meeting in New York on the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, Sept. 22, 2016. Credit: U.N. Photo/Amanda Voisard.

An informal new Iran deal

Washington is claiming that the ransom payment will help ease tensions with Iran and perhaps lead to what may be an informal agreement that will help revive former President Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal. But the Iranians, as they have consistently done with the last two Democratic presidents, are playing hard to get. The Islamist government is representing the deal as another example of its skill in manipulating its Western enemies. It also sends a message to the protest movement that has been clamoring for democracy and women’s rights for the last year, that—just as Obama did in 2009 during similar Iranian anti-regime protests that were also violently repressed—the United States has no interest in supporting them.

Biden’s foreign-policy team spent two-and-a-half years pursuing the Iranians in order to get them to agree to a new and even weaker nuclear agreement than the one that Obama considered his signature international achievement. Now they appear content to achieve some sort of private understanding with them that will, as The New York Times explained, allow the White House to avoid having to defend its policies to Congress or the American people prior to the 2024 presidential election. This will be represented, as it was in the Times, as a way to “contain” Iran’s nuclear program. But what it really will do is continue Obama’s policy that failed to prevent Tehran from obtaining a weapon of mass destruction, and instead, actually guaranteed that it would get one.

Samuels’s interview with Garrow provides some timely context for this troubling development.

Lest anyone think the Tablet piece is a conservative hit job, Samuels is a liberal journalist who writes of his enthusiasm for Obama’s presidential candidacy. Garrow is one of the most important historians of the civil-rights movement and the author of Bearing the Cross, the authoritative biography of Martin Luther King Jr.

Garrow had access to the Obama White House and interviewed him at length for his 2017 Rising Star. It’s an important book that suffered from bad timing since it came out months after he left office at a time when the nation was transfixed by the early days of the Trump presidency, as well as the reporting about alleged collusion with Russia that turned out to be a hoax produced by the Hillary Clinton campaign and Obama administration officials. So, despite revelations that should have generated a national discussion, it was largely ignored.

The element of the article that has gotten the most attention concerns Garrow’s interviews with a key character in Obama’s best-selling autobiography Dreams From My Father, but whom the rest of the press never bothered to track down.

In Dreams, Obama wrote about the woman he lived with in Chicago in the years before he ultimately met and married Michelle Robinson. The woman was named Sheila Miyoshi Jager; Obama twice asked her to marry him and was turned down each time. In Dreams, he represented their eventual breakup as being caused by Jager’s unwillingness to accept his embrace of the African-American experience. That journey towards his adoption of a black identity is the main theme of the book’s narrative.

Jager, who like Obama was of mixed ancestry (Dutch and Japanese) and is on the left politically (she went on to be a tenured professor of East Asian Studies at ultra-liberal Oberlin College), says that wasn’t true. She asserts that their breakup stemmed from an argument they had when he refused to condemn Steve Cokely, a local African-American activist who had given lectures sponsored by hatemonger Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam that claimed Jewish doctors were infecting black babies with AIDS as part of a genocidal plot.

Cokely was an aide to Chicago Mayor Eugene Sawyer, and the city was divided over whether he should be fired because of his antisemitism. Jager says the then-young community organizer refused to condemn black racism. Instead of the issue being her inability to accept his blackness, it was really his indifference to anti-Jewish blood libels. That had great meaning to Jager because her Dutch grandparents were heroes of the Dutch resistance, recognized by Yad Vashem as among the Righteous Among the Nations for hiding and saving 50 Jewish children during the Holocaust.

That’s a story that explains a lot about Obama’s presidency. While someone who has Jewish friends and supporters, he is uncomfortable with Jewish particularity and Israel. Like many on the left today, Obama apparently always thought Jews must tone down their talk of the past and give precedence to African-Americans in the competition for victim status.

This is the sort of thing that should have been better known when he was running for president. But in contrast to the way the lives of other candidates have been minutely dissected by the press, Obama benefited not only from consistently flattering coverage but from little to no digging into his background for embarrassing or disqualifying facts. Astonishingly, Garrow was the first person to interview Jager, and that only occurred as Obama was exiting the White House.

Despite the important role that it played in promoting his meteoric rise in politics, it’s now clear that Dreams was, as Garrow and Samuels agree, more “dreamy literary fiction” in which the author created a character he then played in real life, than autobiography.

However,  the discussion of Obama’s post-presidency by Garrow and Samuels is probably far more important than recriminations about his youth.

Obama’s legacy

As the article details, the press has also given very little attention to the role that Obama has been playing in Washington during the last several years. As a rule, presidents leave the capital after their term ends. The Obamas supposedly stayed in a mansion in the District’s Kalorama neighborhood so his younger daughter Sasha could finish high school at the elite private Sidwell Friends School. Yet they remained even after she graduated in 2019, providing a focal point for the resistance to his successor Donald Trump.

Their DC residence is one of a few homes he owns as, even more than other recent ex-presidents, Obama emerged from the White House as an enormously wealthy man due to book deals as well as, in Samuels’ words, “grifting large checks from Spotify and Netflix.” When he is not in Hawaii, Martha’s Vineyard or vacationing on yachts with celebrities, his DC home remains a hub of activity for the legions of Obama administration alumni who now run the government for Biden, though that is seldom, if ever, mentioned in the press.

Seen in that context, you don’t have to believe in conspiracy theories about Obama being the elderly and obviously impaired Biden’s puppeteer to see the current president’s unwillingness to pivot away from Iran appeasement as evidence of the influence of his former boss.

Obama was a supremely talented politician and speaker. But his presidency was a failure. The Iran deal was a disaster for the Middle East. And his indifference to Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014 set the stage for the current war. Obama’s walk back of his “red line” pledge about Syrian atrocities sealed his legacy as the president who “led from behind.” His repudiation of American exceptionalism projected weakness in a way that seemed to herald an era of decline.

At home, though he won the election by promising to unite Americans, he did more to divide and polarize the country than anything else, especially with respect to race. It’s fair to say that the chaos in the years that followed his presidency was the direct result of his conduct in office.

But if, whether due to the way his former aides look up to him or Biden’s infirmity, he is continuing to exercise outsized sway over the government, then that is something that must be discussed as his former vice president seeks re-election. That means more than just Iran appeasement with unfortunate consequences for Israel and the Iranian people. If a fourth term for Obama is on the ballot next year, then the lack of scrutiny about his current activities must end.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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