A few notes ago I sought to tease some lessons about politics from the similarities between Benyamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama ("Political twins," July 10).
Here I'll try my luck with a comparison between Barack Obama and Woodrow Wilson.
The focus is Wilson's participation in the Paris Peace Conference and efforts to create the League of Nations, his failure to get Senate confirmation of US membership, and Obama's people managing negotiations to constrain Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Almost a century separates their careers, and one can find many differences along with some interesting similarities.
Both came to politics via higher education. Wilson's academic career as Professor then President of Princeton was more impressive than Obama's part-time stint at the University of Chicago Law School. One can argue if Wilson's two years as New Jersey Governor was more or less impressive than Obama's three years in the Senate.
As Presidents, and as prime movers in major international efforts, both came under close scrutiny, both had assiduous opponents, both were accused of arrogance and rejecting alternate strategies, and both can be faulted for their tactics.
Their key political battles were highly partisan. Critics faulted Wilson for failing to bring Senate Republican leaders to Paris, where they would have a part in creating the peace treaty and the Charter for the League of Nations that was incorporated in the peace treaty, and which would be brought to the Senate for confirmation. Republicans controlled the Senate, and confirmation required a 2/3 vote in that body. Also against Wilson were the large blocs of German and Irish ethnics who had opposed his entry in the war on the side of Great Britain.
There was a Jewish issue in both cases. Both men were accused of anti-Semitism, and both made major appointments to Jews.
The status of American Jews was vastly different in the early part of the 20th century. Jews from Germany had gone to the US in sizable numbers beginning in the 1840s. Some had acquired status and wealth, and they were not all that happy to see it challenged by the mass of poor Jews who began coming from Eastern Europe in the 1880s. In a pattern seen elsewhere where there were established Jews threatened by a flood of refugees, Germans helped the newcomers with significant resources, but also sought to disperse them in ways they hoped with minimize an onset of anti-Semitism against themselves
One can find comments in Wilson's pre-presidential writings against Jews from Eastern Europe that can be described without effort as anti-Semitic. At the same time, he was also writing against other poor immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. As President, Wilson appointed Louis D. Brandeis the first Jew to the Supreme Court. His concern for the rights of European minorities was seen as support for a Jewish homeland, but he let the British deal with that hot potato.
For a lengthy article dealing with Wilson, the status of Jews and early Zionism in the US, Brandeis' efforts to enlist the support of Wilson for a Jewish homeland, along with limits on Jews' capacity to speak out too forcefully, see this.
Doing an Internet search for the subject of Wilson and the Jews produces items not unlike the clamor around assertions of Obama's birthplace, claims of him being a Muslim or having a high affinity for Muslims, and being sufficiently opposed to Israel's interests as to qualify for the label of anti-Semite.
The Internet includes items probing Wilson anti-Semitism, and claiming him to be a tool of international Jewry.
There is an enormous literature about Wilson's struggle for the League of Nation, his loss in the Senate, its impact on his health, and its contribution to subsequent events. Historians link his lack of strategic wisdom to America's post-war isolationism, a Red Scare that rivaled or surpassed McCarthyism, as well as the absence of significant role in international affairs for the US as fascism festered in Europe and Japan. When the war had already begun in Europe and Asia, US involvement seemed inevitable, yet Franklin Roosevelt could get Congressional approval of a key provision for compulsory military service by a margin of only one vote in the House of Representatives.
The essence of Wilson's 14 points was the freedom of nations from colonial control. Taking account of the emphasis on democracy that developed after 1918, Wilson could have produced the text of Obama's Cairo speech. Even more clearly, Wilson would have been pleased with Obama's emphasis on diplomacy to settle international problems.
The earlier President had about as much success in moving Britain and France from continued colonialism as the later President had with his ideas of equality and democracy in the Muslim Middle East.
The sharpest difference between the two would have been the matter of race. If Wilson had met Obama in the Oval Office, we can imagine him saying something like, "Now I've met the waiter. Where is the President?"
For Wilson on matters of race, see this.
Obama's partisan struggle for the confirmation of his primary item of foreign policy is a work in progress. Opposition to the agreement is not solely a Jewish issue, and Jews are not all on one side. While prominent Jewish organizations have signed on to the opposition nominally led by Israel, prominent Jews--beyond Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the highest ranking professional in the US delegation negotiating the agreement--have endorsed the President's position. No surprise that JStreet is on the President's side. Also supporting the agreement as having more positive than negative features are Ami Ayalon, former head of Shin Bet and former chief of the Israeli Navy; and former Mossad head, Efraim Halevy.
A recent revelation helps those arguing against Obama. It finds the Syrians still producing and using poison gas, long after Obama claimed to have dealt with the issue via diplomacy.
One can parse the arguments against the Iran agreement for their Jewish roots. Its failure to address Iran's support of terrorism, and Iran's obsessive opposition to the legitimacy of the Jewish state are prominent in a Jewish bill of particulars.
The rules of the game are markedly in Obama's favor. In sharp contrast to the 2/3 vote in an Republican Senate that the Democrat Wilson needed, Obama needs only one third of either the Senate or House of Representatives to uphold what may come to be his veto of a Congressional resolution against the agreement.
There'll be work here for historians, writing in the context of who knows what changes will occur with respect to Iran, the US, American Jews, and Israel.