Is Obama another Woodrow Wilson?

Dr. John C. Hulsman

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He came out of nowhere like a meteor to take American politics by storm. He is the greatest orator of his age, though far better at giving set piece addresses than in speaking off the cuff. He inspires fervent devotion and scorn in equal measure, as his first-rate intellect is matched only by his arrogant assumption that he is always in the right, and that those who don’t agree with him must either be dim or have ulterior motives. For all the hysteria that surrounds him, he is a cool, cerebral man, not given to sharing his inner thoughts. Further, he is convinced that he - and he alone - can re-make the world, and shows few signs of flexibility toward his many enemies.

It is very hard to tell from the above descriptive paragraph if I am talking about Woodrow Wilson, or the present occupant of the White House. For the two uncannily similar men share one more attribute in common: They both have a terrible track record in dealing with Congress, a commonality that may prove Barack Obama’s undoing, as surely as it destroyed Wilson.

Already the critics of the president’s interim Iran nuclear deal, including a large number in Congress, are circling. First, the interim agreement keeps the nuclear technology of Iran intact; rather than rolling back the program it is at best merely mothballed. In return for sanctions relief, Tehran need merely wait for 10 or 15 years (a blink of an eye for a country like Iran) and then wholly legally proceed to jumpstart its nuclear program.

Second, the pace for the lifting of sanctions is unclear, but it appears to be far quicker than most observers expected. It has been estimated that it will take Iran at least six months from the signing of the final agreement in late June to fulfil all the conditions necessary to receive sanctions relief; that means that as soon as the end of this year the majority of sanctions could already be a thing of the past.


Third, it remains unclear how tough the additional protocol measures used by the IAEA to monitor Iran’s nuclear program will be. This is a central point as without verification being ironclad, accusations of Iranian cheating on the accord (if not outright cheating itself) are bound to surface, poisoning the process.

The two uncannily similar men share one more attribute in common: They both have a terrible track record in dealing with Congress, a commonality that may prove Barack Obama’s undoing, as surely as it destroyed Wilson

Dr. John C. Hulsman

But beyond all these specific points lies the spectre of Woodrow Wilson, and his colossal mismanagement of Congress during the failed fight over the League of Nations in 1919-1920. For Obama - as was true for Wilson and in contrast to the far more successful post-1945 manoeuvring of Harry Truman - has included none of the Republican congressional opposition directly in the diplomatic process.

As a result he has not made his domestic political adversaries stakeholders in the Iran talks, giving them skin in the game in terms of the agreement’s overall success. As was true for Wilson, Obama’s aloofness simply does not make for shrewd politics.

Worst of all from the administration’s point of view, in Republican Senator Bob Corker, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the administration has happened upon an eminently reasonable foe, whose position is shared by a large majority of the American public.

Final say

A Pew Research poll of March 29, 2015 found that fully six in 10 of those surveyed felt that Congress should have the final say over a deal with Iran. The White House’s somewhat confused initial position regarding Congress’s role in the process is that it should be allowed oversight of the final settlement, but must not be given the power to approve the deal.

Yet this amounts to a distinction without a difference, as a majority of lawmakers in both parties feel they should have the right to approve or reject the agreement’s lifting of sanctions on Iran that they themselves imposed in the first place. It stands to reason that a failure to do away with sanctions would certainly lead Iran to the view that the terms of the deal had been broken.

As such, what a bipartisan majority of both parties of Congress want is the de facto right to ultimately determine whether the Iran accord succeeds or fails, regardless of the White House’s stance. Legislation to that effect, Senator Corker’s “Iran Nuclear Review Act,” will be voted on in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as soon as the Senate returns from recess in mid-April.

That gives a White House wholly unused to working with Congress a scant two weeks to corral enough Democrats into line to prevent the Corker act attaining the two-thirds majority it needs to override a presidential veto. Look out, but the ghost of Woodrow Wilson may well be stalking the halls of the White House.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has also given 1490 interviews, written over 410 articles, prepared over 1270 briefings, and delivered more than 460 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

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