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Even now, in November 2012, it is hard not to think back with elation on Barack Obama's first year as president of the United States. In his first 100 days in the White House, the energetic president took a series of daring steps that extricated the American economy from its worst crisis since the 1930s. Immediately after that he put an end to torture, indicted Dick Cheney, convened a Middle East peace conference and made historic reconciliation visits to Havana, Damascus and Tehran.

Obama's economic and foreign policies were both based on a moral worldview that inspired Americans and non-Americans alike. After years of despair and cynicism, the 44th president proposed a new national and international agenda based on dialogue, demilitarization, justice and peace.

The first signs that something was wrong had already appeared at the end of that first year of grace. Nevertheless, Washington was astounded when, in the summer of 2010, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that he was expelling international inspectors and galloping full-tilt toward the production of nuclear weapons. The shock turned to horror on the eve of Christmas 2010, when Iran's spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, stated that his country had its first three nuclear warheads - aimed at Riyadh, Cairo and Tel Aviv.

Spring 2011 was dramatic. First a mutual defense treaty and an agreement to collaborate on oil exports were signed between Tehran and the fragile Baghdad government. Then Kuwait, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai bowed their heads and signed treaties that made them protectorates of the rising Shi'ite state. Saudi Arabia took the opposite approach: In May 2011, it announced that it had purchased nuclear weapons from Pakistan both for itself and for its ally Egypt. But Egypt's sudden nuclearization failed to appease the Muslim Brotherhood. Mass demonstrations forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign shortly after he suspended the peace agreement with Israel.

By Thanksgiving 2011, the situation was clear. Jordan's King Abdullah left for exile in London. Hezbollah took control of Beirut and a bloody war of attrition erupted between Israel and the Palestinians. The unrest in western Asia had repercussions on the rest of the international arena: Afghanistan went up in flames, Pakistan collapsed and Russia raised its head. In view of Washington's helplessness, some European states began to lean increasingly toward China. When the price of oil rose above $200 a barrel, the American economy plunged into another deep recession.

Obama had no chance in the snows of Iowa in 2012. So with Oprah Winfrey wiping a tear at his side, the most promising president ever announced he would not run for a second term.

What went wrong? Where did Obama go astray? In retrospect, the answer is clear and simple. In the summer of 2009, the president had to make the most courageous decision of his life: to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Granted, opting for confrontation would have been incompatible with the DNA of the liberal Democrat from Chicago. Ironically, however, only such a decision could have saved his legacy and advanced the noble values he believed in. Only that decision could have led to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. If Obama had decided three years ago to impose a political-economic siege on Tehran, he would have changed the course of history. The Roosevelt of the 21st century would have prevented regional chaos, a worldwide nuclear arms race and an American decline.

Yesterday, immediately after television networks announced the sweeping Republican victory of November 2012, close friends gathered around the outgoing president. They found him sad but sober. Obama had no doubts: Had he known at the beginning of his term what he knows now, he would have made a different strategic decision about Iran's nuclear program. If only it were possible to go back, the pensive president told his humbled chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. If only he could have made a different decision in the summer of 2009.