There is a ghost hanging over the confrontation between the Republican Senate and the Democratic president. The high drama of the fight over the Senate ratification of the League of Nations, championed by President Woodrow Wilson in January 1918, is being revived, albeit over a different international issue, by the Senate’s all-or-nothing strategy to sink a possible agreement with Iran aimed at preventing its acquisition of a nuclear weapon.
In 1918, Republicans had won control of both the House and the Senate; their majority leader, Henry Cabot Lodge, had offered a number of reservations to the charter of the nascent League, but President Wilson refused to compromise. The following year, Wilson was incapacitated and his successor, the Republican Warren Harding, made sure that the United States would never ratify the covenant.
On June 1919, 44 countries signed the covenant. The withdrawal of the United States was particularly ironic as President Wilson had been awarded the Nobel Peace Price for his efforts to establish the League. He promoted it in a 14-point speech to a joint session of Congress in January 1918. The League of Nations came into being in January 1920 with a host of constitutional organs, including the Court of International Justice. Initially, the League Council had four permanent members. In 1926 Germany joined as a permanent member but later it left the League along with Japan. The history of the League of Nations recorded some success in resolving international disputes but also spectacular failures such as the inability to stop the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 through the imposition of sanctions. Ultimately, the League was impotent to stop events leading to World War II. During the war, it continued to exist legally until 1943 when the allied powers decided to replace it with a new organization, the United Nations.
Looking back at the battle of wills between a Democratic president and the Republican leader in the Senate at the culmination of World War I, it is obvious that the tables are turned and that it is Congress that is not in the mood to compromise over a document that has not even been signed. It is also obvious that the controversy that has exploded over the letter addressed to Iran by 47 Republican senators, with the clear intent to sabotage a nuclear deal with Tehran, has eliminated any possibility for improved relations between President Obama and Republican lawmakers. Apart from the fact that there is no precedent in U.S. history for senators to go over the head of the chief executive to write to a foreign leader, the controversy embraces far more than constitutional issues as it reveals a single reckless purpose, to kill the negotiations between the United States and five other countries (the so-called P5+1, i.e. five permanent Security Council members plus Germany) and Iran.
To be sure, targeting the president of the United States is not without precedent in American history, but the political offensive launched by a junior and immoderately ambitious senator follows an extraordinary act of defiance by the Republican speaker of the house. Without sharing his intention with the White House, Speaker John Boehner invited a foreign leader, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, to speak before a joint session of Congress, providing him with a forum to condemn President Obama’s nuclear negotiations with Iran.
In simple cynical terms, the Republican Party has been dealing directly with foreign leaders, encouraging them to take a position in open contrast with the administration’s foreign policy directives, going as far as warning foreign leaders against reaching a deal with the United States. The rationale of the Republicans opposing the deal that is shaping up with Iran completely ignores the catastrophic consequences that the failure to reach an agreement would entail, first and foremost war with Iran. The European allies involved in the negotiations are looking aghast at the drama engulfing Washington, just like they did in the 1920s when a U.S. president, at loggerheads with the Senate, refused to compromise with Congress. The withdrawal of the United States from the League of Nations carried a price in the unfolding of events that led to the bloodiest of world wars.
A compromise between the P5+1 and Iran is not unreachable but the Republican majority in Congress is making it far more difficult to achieve. Should they block it altogether, as Mr. Netanyahu is exhorting them to do, the collapse of negotiation would shatter the unanimous front of the allies, who would then feel free to lift many of the sanctions imposed through the years. In fact, the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany have already been discussing the lifting of sanctions against Iran if a nuclear agreement is reached.
A U.N. resolution would make it difficult for Congress to knock down a deal with Iran, no matter that Congress would have to approve the suspension of sanctions by the U.S. government. The other signatories, however, would be free to act, as the signatories of the covenant of the League of Nations were when the United States withdrew.
If negotiations collapse, the sanctions regime will unravel and the United States will take the blame. A nuclear agreement would enhance the security of the United States, Israel and the world. On other hand, the collapse of negotiations may well bring military action by Israel against Iran, probably setting back the Iranian nuclear program by a couple of years, creating the dark hole of a regional crisis that would engulf the United States with enormous political and human costs that may last for generations.
Great damage has already been done to bipartisan cooperation in Congress but more damage will come to the international standing of the United States if negotiations collapse. In the eyes of many nations, and particularly the European allies, it will be the United States that bears the brunt of responsibility for failure to defuse a powder keg in the Middle East.