Lincoln's Lesson for Obama on Iran
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met today in Munich with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, as a prelude to the resumption of the P5+1 talks on the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. Many Democrats and Republicans alike are growing increasingly wary about how much the Barack Obama administration might give away to get a deal -- and how serious the Iranians are. The administration, for its part, insists that it will agree to nothing that jeopardizes the security of the U.S. or Israel, or allows Iran to gain a nuclear weapon.
The negotiations are apparently controversial even in Tehran, where hard-liners worry that their leaders may be giving away the store. Perhaps the need for both sides to quiet domestic critics helps explain the dust-up this week as the Obama administration said that the Iranian ballistic missile program is part of the talks, but the Iranian government insists that it isn’t.
Should the administration be proceeding with talks so politically fraught, and with an adversary so intransigent -- and potentially dangerous? As so often, history offers a useful precedent. As it happens, this week is the sesquicentennial of the Hampton Roads Conference, the February 1865 meeting between President Abraham Lincoln and representatives of the Confederacy that marked the last serious effort to reach a negotiated end to the Civil War. It’s useful to remember what occurred on that fateful occasion because there are lessons for both sides in our occasionally overheated political debate over the Iran negotiations.
The meeting took place on the presidential steamer, the River Queen, anchored off Hampton Roads, Virginia. Lincoln and his secretary of state, William Seward, met three Southern commissioners, including Lincoln’s old friend Alexander Stephens, by then the vice president of the Confederacy.
The negotiations did not go well.
One popular account at the time held that Lincoln offered to write the word “Union” at the top of the page and allow the Southern commissioners to fill in whatever other terms they pleased. The rumor reached Washington where, as Carl Sandburg put it, “This reported repudiation of the Emancipation Proclamation was to the radicals a hair-raising piece of news.” Lincoln also was reported to have said that he could raise $400 million to compensate the South for the loss of its slaves. The fear was that Lincoln was so desperate for peace that he would restore the Union by any means.
The Southerners walked away from the deal.
Did it really happen that way? Even decades later, the claim that it did raised hackles throughout the South. In May 1916, the convention of the United Confederate Veterans met in Birmingham, Alabama, and condemned the story “as utterly false.” This mattered, because after the war many Southern politicians argued that Lincoln’s offer -- if it was made -- should have been accepted, to spare the Confederacy its humiliating defeat.
Not many historians believe that Lincoln actually invited the Southerners to write any peace terms they wanted as along as the Union was preserved. It seems clear, to the contrary, that the negotiations foundered upon Lincoln’s insistence on emancipation as part of any deal. But he certainly offered to find the $400 million (about $6 billion in 2014 dollars) to compensate the slave owners. This proposal, writes biographer David Herbert Donald, “was not a figment of the Confederates’ imagination,” as attested by the fact that upon his return to Washington, he drew up a formal legislative proposal -- “an astonishing document,” says Donald, that shows Lincoln’s “almost desperate sense of urgency to bring the war to a speedy end.”
Lincoln, explains historian Richard Carwardine, was “driven in part by the hope that it would inhibit post-war guerilla resistance and by the calculation that it would cost the Union less than if the war dribbled on into the summer months.” But even if well calculated as a matter of strategy, the offer was, in political terms, a terrible idea. After such enormous losses, there was no sentiment in the Union to reward the rebels rather than punish them.
Put vengeance aside. There was also an easy case to make -- even at the time -- that the offer was morally wrong. Before the war, one might have argued, as many did, for a gradual manumission, accompanied by compensation. At least the great evil of slavery would have ended. But by the time of the Hampton Roads Conference, the war was all but won. Everyone knew the South was on the verge of collapse.
In that brief meeting, Lincoln the idealist learned what the more hard-nosed had suspected from the start. The South never intended a serious negotiation. Its leaders would not settle for anything less than independence. The carrot they’d dangled before a president they still thought a simpleton was the vision of a joint expedition against Mexico. Some historians even suggest that the South harbored the fantasy that the threat of a Mexican war would bring France to support the Confederacy. So worried was the Senate about the negotiations that it demanded all State Department correspondence concerning them -- which, interestingly, Lincoln at once provided.
Yet Lincoln, although crestfallen, clung stubbornly to his dream. Even after returning to Washington, he continued to insist that he might find $400 million to compensate the slave owners and so bring a rapid ending to the war. But his cabinet unanimously opposed the idea. (In those more constitutionally sensible political times, cabinet secretaries did not see their role as selling whatever policies the White House came up with.) And it became plain that the Congress would never endorse a paid manumission.
That’s when the realist in Lincoln came to the fore. No president has ever wielded as much independent authority as the sixteenth, but even he recognized that the time had come to yield to the facts. The legislative branch wouldn’t go along, and that was the end of the matter.
There lies the lesson. Presidents ought to dream big dreams -- dreams, sometimes, that go further than what their fellow citizens are willing to abide. But they should also know when to admit that a dream is unattainable – and politically untenable. The Iran negotiations may not have reached that point just yet. All the signs suggest, however, that they’ll be there soon. And that’s when Obama will face his Lincoln moment.
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