Presidents Obama and Wilson Play the Politics of Fear


Editor’s Note: This piece on the War on the Rocks Hasty Ambush blog is published in partnership with the Hoover Institution’s new Military History in the News, a weekly column from the Hoover Institution that reflects on how the study of the past alone allows us to make sense of the often baffling daily violence, not by offering exact parallels from history, but rather by providing contexts of similarity and difference that foster perspective and insight — and reassurance that nothing is ever quite new.



Is President Obama deploying the “politics of fear” to push the Iran deal through on the domestic front? That’s what Eli Lake writes in his latest article for Bloomberg View. He shows that the White House’s plan in lobbying for the nuclear agreement is to vilify those who raise concerns about the agreement, namely by associating them with the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. President Obama claims he has yet to hear any valid concerns about the agreement.

The approach is consistent with President Obama’s politics of polarization, refusing to acknowledge any reasonable basis for objection to his foreign policy. And he’s likely to continue in this vein as congressional review of the agreement progresses, because public opposition has doubled since June.

This brings to mind President Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 campaign for ratification of the Versailles Treaty, in which he argued bitterly that the only people arguing against him were “an organized propaganda” by immigrants on behalf of their countries of origin. In his final speech on the subject, Wilson said:

If I can catch any man with a hyphen in this great contest I will know that I have got an enemy of the Republic. My fellow citizens, it is only certain bodies of foreign sympathies, certain bodies of sympathy with foreign nations that are organized against this great document which the American representatives have brought back from Paris.

It is true that large numbers of Irish-Americans and German-Americans opposed the treaty, although for very different reasons. German-Americans believed the treaty unduly harsh toward Germany. Irish-Americans opposed it thinking the treaty too beneficial to Great Britain, which had just put down the Irish Easter Rising. Both had solid bases for their concerns. Versailles broke up Germany’s imperial holdings while preserving and even expanding those of the victorious allies. Britain was accorded the most profitable of them. But President Wilson’s defamation only solidified the opposition to his treaty.

In both Wilson and Obama’s cases, the approach smacks of desperation. President Obama has already tried campaigning on the basis of others supporting the accord: He submitted the agreement to the United Nations Security Council before submitting it to the United States Congress. European allies have also been active on Capitol Hill, to little avail. But campaigning against those opposed to the treaty doesn’t have a strong track record. At the end of the day, the best strategy is to make the case on its merits.


Kori Schake, Ph.D. is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

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