Donald Trump is obsessed with Barack Obama. The U.S. president never misses an opportunity to insult and taunt his predecessor. Trump does his best to diminish Obama’s achievements as he endeavors to erase them from the history books as well. His task is naturally easier in foreign affairs and national security, where his independent authority is wider. He withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership, backed away from the Paris Accord on global warming and scaled back Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba.
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But just as repealing Obamacare was and remains the principle objective in expunging Obama’s legacy on the domestic front, so is Obama’s nuclear accord with Iran seen as the red flag that won’t let Trump rest until he tears it to shreds.
The hostility between the 45th president and the 44th, unprecedented in recent presidential history, is the product of Trump’s feelings of inferiority, his narcissistic personality and his cynical political exploitation of American racism, which he may or not share. On one hand, Trump positioned himself as the front man for the semi-deranged “birther" movement and then used his newfound popularity as fuel for his successful presidential run. On the other hand, Trump can never forgive Obama for mocking and humiliating him at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, just after he’d published his birth certificate. Trump was mortified by Obama’s active participation in Hillary Clinton’s election campaign. He was enraged by Obama’s post-election assertion that if he had been the candidate, he would have beaten Trump roundly. And he can’t stand the fact that as a direct consequence of his problematic presidency, most of the world misses Obama today more than it appreciated him when he was in office.
Benjamin Netanyahu shares Trump’s Obama-complex but seeks to exploit it as well. Obama handed Netanyahu a stinging defeat, perhaps the worst of his career, when he moved the Iran nuclear deal through Congress, notwithstanding Netanyahu’s objections and despite his controversial speech before a joint session in March 2015. Obama didn’t hide his disappointment from Netanyahu, though there is a marked difference in his assessment of Trump and of the Israeli prime minister; the latter, as Obama has often conceded, is intelligent. What Netanyahu and Trump have in common, among other things, is their inability to accept criticism, their tendency to turn critics into enemies and their fervent wish to wipe the smile off what they see as Obama’s condescending face.
This is the backdrop to the meeting in New York on Monday between Trump and Netanyahu, the two senior members of the Obama Victims Club, who are both seeking payback by trying to erase his signature foreign policy achievement. In principle, the two are unlikely to disagree. They will concur that the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran was ill-conceived from the outset and is now a disaster waiting to happen. They will disparage all the generals, diplomats and intelligence experts from both countries who believe that keeping the nuclear deal, despite its faults, is preferable to all the alternatives. They will agree that even if the U.S. can’t nullify the agreement outright, there are numerous detours that can lead to the same result.
Trump’s preferred option is to refrain next month from certifying that Iran is in compliance with the agreement, thus giving the U.S. Senate 60 days to reimpose sanctions that were suspended in the wake of the nuclear deal. But Netanyahu knows, as does Trump, that the Senate is far from reliable these days, despite its Republican majority. Just as it failed to repeal and replace Obamacare, the senators could decide not to assume responsibility for a clash that could deteriorate to war. Against the backdrop of the tense relations between Trump and the GOP leadership – as well as doubts about Trump’s competence – some Republican lawmakers may not be eager to create a new crisis for Trump to handle when he has yet to prove that can handle the old ones, such as the nuclear standoff with North Korea.
Netanyahu has an interest in convincing Trump to go for Iran first. He knows that the U.S. president is stuck between a rock and hard place in his confrontation with Kim Jong-Un, and he must also realize that a direct clash between Washington and Pyongyang will necessarily put the Iran nuclear deal on the back burner. Perhaps he’ll subtly remind Trump that the North Korean nuclear program is registered under the names of several previous presidents, and its resolution won’t be viewed as a direct hit on Obama’s legacy. If you want to be a real man, Netanyahu could intimate, take care of the nuclear deal with Tehran and of the growing Iranian presence in Syria. A strong message from the Middle East would certainly reach Pyongyang as well as Barack Hussein.
In normal times, Netanyahu should have shied away from blatantly and publicly pushing the U.S. president into a clash that could put American soldiers in harm’s way. But his own obsession with the Iran deal, his wish to settle an old score with Obama and possibly his hope to deflect attention away from his criminal troubles back home – the two leaders could certainly exchange notes on that topic – could push Netanyahu, not for the first time, to miscalculate. His 2015 speech to Congress, initiated in collusion with the GOP’s congressional leadership and behind the White House’s back, created a gulf between Netanyahu and large parts of the Democratic Party as well as the American Jewish community. Pushing Trump to a diplomatic clash with the other partners to the nuclear deal with Iran, at best, or to a dangerous military confrontation with Iran, at worst, could cast Netanyahu and Israel as being directly responsible for a diplomatic crisis or, far worse, for the loss of American lives. As long as Trump remains in power this may not be a concern, but when the next Democratic president is elected, Netanyahu and his allies in Israel and the U.S. could find themselves pining for the good old days of Barack Obama.