Whether or not President Obama has negotiated a realistic, enforceable deal to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb, he has assured his place in history as author of the most dramatic departure in U.S. foreign policy since Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.
Like Nixon, who succeeded Lyndon B. Johnson on a promise to end the costly war in Vietnam, Obama took over from a president, George W. Bush, whom he blamed for squandering the United States’ reputation and resources on military misadventures in the Middle East. Nixon saw Vietnam, as Obama sees Iraq, as emblematic of larger conceptual flaws in U.S. strategy.
Nixon and Obama both thought they could achieve a more flexible, and hence sustainable, U.S. global position by modifying well-established policy commitments and alliances, while seeking common ground with bitter, long-standing enemies (even enemies with the blood of U.S. troops on their hands). Both brushed aside cries of betrayal from old friends, led by Taiwan in Nixon’s case and Israel in Obama’s.
Both convinced themselves, and tried to convince the public, that there was virtue in necessity and that realpolitik could lead to genuine cooperation and truly lasting peace, once the United States proved to the other side that our intentions were benign and our long-term interests consistent with theirs.
In 1967, while preparing for his 1968 White House run, Nixon wrote of “pulling China back into the world community — but as a great and progressing nation, not as the epicenter of world revolution.” Obama has said that Iran could be “a very successful regional power that was also abiding by international norms and international rules, and that would be good for everybody.”
Obama thus joins Nixon on the list of “retrenchment” presidents, to use a phrase coined by former U.S. ambassador Stephen Sestanovich, now a professor at Columbia.
In his recent book, “Maximalist,” Sestanovich describes post-World War II U.S. foreign policy as a constant pendulum-swing between administrations that aggressively pursued U.S. goals abroad (the “maximalists” of his title) and those that “retrenched,” so as to correct the perceived overreaching of their predecessors and free up U.S. resources for domestic concerns.
Yet as Sestanovich’s review of recent history reminds us, retrenchment is no more immune to wishful thinking and unintended consequences than maximalism.
Just as Obama speaks of winning an Iranian “buy-in” to a Syria settlement, and coaxing its aid in calming Iraq, one of Nixon’s short-term goals was to secure Beijing’s help pacifying Southeast Asia. It never quite panned out.
Obama seeks Iranian cooperation against a common enemy, the Islamic State; Nixon saw his China move as part of a grander strategy involving the Soviet Union. Tilting to Beijing, Moscow’s Communist rival, he thought, would pressure the Soviets and force them to seek real detente with the United States.
Here, too, the results were mixed. Moscow did sign a strategic arms treaty in 1972 — but otherwise spent the ’70s seeking new gains in Africa, Latin America and Asia, both directly and through “national liberation movements.” Frightened and provoked by the new U.S.-China dalliance, the Soviets were trying to take advantage of American retrenchment before it could have its intended strengthening effect on the United States.
As for Nixon’s dream of “pulling China back into the world community — but as a great and progressing nation,” even now the jury is out. Trade with the West has opened the country to Western money and culture, helping to lift hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. Yet the Communist Party has used the nation’s new wealth to perpetuate dictatorship, to re-arm and, in recent years, to threaten China’s neighbors.
As a lifelong anti-communist, Nixon was well positioned to blunt a revolt by conservatives against his China policy. “Only Nixon could go to China,” it was said.
By contrast, Obama, a perennial dove, is not playing against type. Congress, controlled by Republicans, doesn’t trust him, and even some Democrats are concerned that he’s taking too many chances with Israel’s security.
While Nixon rode national acclaim for his China visit to reelection in 1972, Obama, already in his second term, seems determined to ram through the Iran agreement over the objections of a large, but not veto-proof, majority on Capitol Hill — then wait for the verdict of history. That verdict will hinge, in large part, on how, if at all, his successor manages an inherited Iran deal.
It’s worth recalling that, even after Nixon resigned in disgrace over domestic scandals, his successors basically continued his policies toward China and the Soviet Union until December 1979, when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan forced Jimmy Carter to reassess.
By then, though, domestic critics, led by Ronald Reagan, were already waging a comprehensive attack on retrenchment’s disappointing results.
A new round of maximalism was on its way.
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