Could an Iran Deal Avoid Fate of the League of Nations?

Could an Iran Deal Avoid Fate of the League of Nations?

By Bill Scher - November 17, 2014

The second-term president had just suffered a brutal midterm election in which his party lost control of Congress, despite an October plea to the public asking for representatives that shared his vision. Shrugging off the results, the president forged ahead as if nothing had changed, seeking a highly controversial but potentially game-changing international agreement.

Not President Barack Obama. President Woodrow Wilson.

It didn’t work out well for Wilson. After he personally spearheaded hard-fought global negotiations to include a League of Nations in the treaty that ended the Great War, the Republican Senate refused to ratify it.

This was no ordinary loss. The defeat closed the book on his presidency. Wilson’s entire foreign policy vision was tossed on the trash heap. And the electorate affirmed the treaty’s rejection in the presidential election of 1920, which re-litigated the League debate and elected Republican Warren Harding in a landslide.

Tomorrow, Obama’s diplomatic team meets in Vienna for the final round of nuclear talks with Iran before an informal Nov. 24 deadline, and Russia’s deputy foreign minister just sounded a hopeful note that a deal may soon be struck. If there is a deal, it could amount to a tectonic shift in Middle East politics. But if Congress scuttles it, as with the League of Nations, it could mean a disastrous finish for the Obama presidency.

How can Obama avoid Wilson’s fate? You can easily imagine the conventional knock on Wilson being affixed to Obama: An overly idealistic, overeager and uncompromising president, ignoring lack of support in Congress, foolishly grabs at a bad deal and suffers the consequences. To those subscribing to this view, the answer to how Obama can avoid Wilson’s fate is to walk away from the negotiating table.

But the failure of Wilson was not in the trying. There was a path for success that he missed, and lessons for Obama to take.

One lesson Obama is already heeding. Unlike the 28th president, Obama is not seeking a legally binding treaty that would be subject to a two-thirds vote by a hostile Senate, and he may instead sign a deal that does not initially require any legislative action. Under the 2010 Iran sanctions law, Obama can temporarily waive sanctions as international inspectors monitor Iranian compliance with terms of deal. Also, the 2010 law expires at the end of 2016 if no new law is passed.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and a proponent of a deal, speculated in Reuters that congressional hawks will want to vote on legislation to blow up the deal as soon as possible. The longer Iran complies, the harder it will be to justify re-imposing sanctions. Since current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can be counted on to prevent sanctions legislation from reaching the floor, the earliest skeptics could act would be when Sen. Mitch McConnell takes control of the Senate calendar in January.

But Obama will still have his veto pen. Though Wilson needed to keep his own party unified and win over a faction of Republicans, all Obama needs is a relatively loyal Democratic caucus that won’t side with Republicans to pass legislation with a veto-proof majority.

However, considering that 11 returning Democratic senators (assuming Sen. Mary Landrieu loses her runoff in December) sponsored legislation last year designed to upset the interim agreement Obama forged with Iran, and 13 Democrats will be needed to override a veto, Obama can’t presume his party will stick by him. He still needs to mind the congressional politics, even if the bar for success is lower than Wilson’s.

The tough question for Obama is how best to keep Democrats in line: by private assurances or by rallying public opinion? In Wilson’s case, he botched the inside and outside strategies.

This inside game was mainly lost due to his refusal to compromise on “Article X” which directed League members to respond to “external aggression” against other members. Opponents feared this would force America to enter into war without a vote from Congress. Wilson’s argument that Congress could interpret how to apply the article didn’t satisfy critics. And Wilson would not bend on attaching “reservations” that would clarify America’s legal obligations. As Phyllis Lee Levin noted in the book “Edith and Woodrow,” even before his debilitating October 1919 stroke, Wilson’s “intransigence was in fact a classic symptom of brain damage.”

But that aspect of Wilson’s failure is irrelevant to Obama, who is neither mentally compromised nor would be aiming to pass affirming legislation. He would only be trying to block hostile legislation.

Wilson’s inside game had other problems. For one, he lacked a solid Republican wingman to help build bipartisan support. He almost had one in William Howard Taft, the previous president whom Wilson defeated. Taft shrugged it off and founded the League to Enforce Peace, which enthusiastically backed the treaty. In March 1919, they appeared together in a jam-packed New York Metropolitan Opera House in a show of support for the draft treaty. But Taft later proposed some reservations, undercutting Wilson’s absolutist stance.

Another Wilson mistake was his initial address to the Senate in July 1919, following his return from negotiating the treaty in Europe. According to Wilson historian John Milton Cooper, the speech was “a flop.” Wilson gave “a soufflé of rhetorical phrases,” said one senator, when his colleagues were expecting more detailed explanations.

Wilson then deemed it necessary to hold meetings with senators individually to answer lingering questions, which delayed and negatively impacted his planned outside strategy: a cross-country speaking tour. By the time he got around to it in September he was, per Cooper, “trying to do too much too fast … in a belated attempt to make up for time lost.” He overloaded his schedule. He was fatigued. His performances were uneven. His health deteriorated, leading to his stroke.

Perhaps the biggest indignity was being sandbagged from within his own administration. William Bullitt, a diplomat who quit in the spring after Wilson would not recognize Russia’s Bolshevik government, testified to the Senate in September – during Wilson’s tour – that the Secretary of State Robert Lansing called the League “entirely useless” and “if the American people could really understand it, it would unquestionably be defeated," devastating comments that Lansing tacitly confirmed.

What can Obama take from that sad history?

While he does not need to win over Republicans, Obama could still use a Republican wingman to help with shaping public opinion and convincing wavering Democrats he isn’t out on a limb alone. A likely candidate would be former Bush administration Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has endorsed Obama twice for president and whose former chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, has editorialized in favor of an Iranian deal.

Obama also needs to make sure he’s not hit from inside his administration. While it is doubtful he’s worried that a current White House aide would betray him, he needs to keep an eye on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She has largely remained loyal to Obama as she ponders another presidential bid, but in an August interview with The Atlantic she signaled her skepticism regarding an Iran deal. Keeping her in the fold will be critical.

Finally, he should not hesitate to seize the bully pulpit immediately upon striking the deal. Failure to quickly shape public opinion and to thoroughly address specific questions could lead to Democrats breaking ranks.

Wilson’s vision eventually won the day, as his internationalist disciples Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman learned from his mistakes to establish the United Nations. But it took a second world war to get there. Obama would greatly prefer getting the Iran deal done now, instead of being proven right decades later after a bloody Iran-Israel war.

Bill Scher is executive editor of LiberalOasis and a contributor to RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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