The Iran deal will not be scuttled by Congress, now that President Obama has secured the support of enough Senate Democrats to sustain any veto of any attempt to strip Obama of his authority to waive sanctions. It’s a historic win for peace and diplomacy.
Unlike military victories, diplomatic wins are rarely cherished contemporaneously and only slightly more so with the passage of time. Jimmy Carter was booted out of the office despite his Herculean efforts to forge the Camp David Accords and his wise decision to relinquish the Panama Canal. We don’t remember Bill Clinton for the Good Friday Agreement, ending 30 years of strife between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We don’t remember what Harry Truman did to establish the United Nations, let alone the name of the Secretary of State who did most of the heavy lifting. (It was Edward Stettinius.) Did you even know Teddy Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for sealing the Portsmouth Peace Treaty and ending the Russo-Japanese War?
But it’s important to chronicle what it took to achieve this victory. It was not pre-ordained. It was not the natural current of geopolitics. To make this deal a reality required the vision, courage and political dexterity of the individuals involved.
Woodrow Wilson had the vision for a League of Nations that would end all wars, and the courage to end the Great War on the basis of achieving “peace without victory” — despite the criticism he took from that century’s band of Republican hawks led by Roosevelt.
Similarly, Obama had the vision to turn the page with Iran from the beginning of his administration, though plenty of sticks were employed alongside the carrots. His first Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had the foresight to begin backchannel talks. And her successor John Kerry was willing to put his entire reputation on the line, weathering constant mockery amidst setbacks to hammer out a deal (making the case for naming Secretaries of State who don’t plan on running for president again and worry less about political risks).
But as I noted in a Real Clear Politics piece last year, Wilson lacked the political dexterity. While some Republicans were feeling for a possible compromise, attaching reservations to the treaty to win their support, Wilson wouldn’t budge. This was not because he was inherently a self-righteous uncompromising liberal, but because he was literally suffering brain damage, eventually becoming debilitated by a stroke during his ill-fated campaign for ratification.
His vision won out in the end, carried forth by his disciples Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman in the creation of the United Nations, which has dramatically shrunk the amount of death and suffering due to wars on our globe. But Wilson functioning at his best may well have brought about that more peaceful world sooner.
Obama did not make Wilson’s mistake. Besides not having stroke, he was careful to listen to needs of skeptical, even downright hostile, senators who wanted a role in the process. The result was the Corker-Cardin bill, blessed by the White House and passed with near unanimity, which created a legislative review process but did not require majority support in Congress to advance the nuclear deal.
Obama had more leverage in those talks than Wilson did. Wilson’s treaty needed the backing of two-thirds of the Senate. Obama already had the executive authority to waive sanctions thanks to the past congressional legislation which created the sanctions in the first place, and didn’t need a fresh majority vote to use that authority. Still, a more dismissive approach from the White House might have riled enough Senators to spark a two-thirds majority that would strip Obama’s authority and kill the deal.
The White House was also thorough in lining up support outside of Congress and steadily rolling it out throughout the August recess, smothering any backwards momentum sparked by the opposition of Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer. Republican foreign policy experts, rabbis … even the head of one of the main organizations opposing the deal quit to announce he’s supporting the deal.
The public relations effort kept public opinion afloat. Poll numbers varied depending on the wording of the questions, but polls that actually described the terms consistently showed support.
Most importantly, Democratic public opinion was viscerally for the deal, and Democratic politicians who didn’t want primary challenges had to respect that. As I wrote back in April, “[Obama’s] dogged and multi-faceted direct diplomacy … delivered the dramatic break with our recent foreign policy that liberals had long expected and craved. For many Democrats, this deal is why they nominated Obama in the first place. Which is why it is so dangerous for congressional Democrats to join Republicans in killing it.”
But the deal will be done not simply because the political currents demanded it. A more passive administration could have simply looked away while tensions continued to churn. Instead, the decision was made early on that peace should be pursued to the fullest, and the administration stuck with that decision in the face of continuous naysaying. Remember that the next time conservatives tell us that a diplomatic initiative is destined to fail.