Obama: the New Nixon?

Published: Mar 10, 2010

Author: Array

Richard Nixon is back. Or so it seems from much recent press coverage and punditry.

In December, John Feffer of the Institute for Policy Studies argued in The Huffington Post that the current administration’s professed commitment to realism in international relations meant that Barack Obama is “shaping up to be a true heir of Richard Nixon.” Time’s Peter Beinart echoed that sentiment last month when he declared “Obama’s foreign policy, in fact, looks a lot like Richard Nixon’s.”

Months earlier, a Foreign Policy article entitled “Obama, the Great Wall, and Nixon’s Ghost” cast Obama’s 2009 visit to Beijing as a whimper alongside his predecessor’s historic 1972 mission. USA Today’s headline declared that “Obama follows in the footsteps of Richard Nixon.” And, when the president decided to host the leader of China’s regional rival at the administration’s first state dinner, pundits writing for The Daily Beast noted that “Richard Nixon must be turning in his grave.”

On the domestic front, President Obama has been called “the most environmentally attuned . . . in a generation.” But in recognition of the fact that it was Richard Nixon who established the Environmental Protection Agency and gave us Earth Day 40 years ago, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorialist Paul Steinberg has written, “Not since the Nixon administration have green concerns enjoyed such a high profile in the Oval Office.”

NPR political editor Ken Rudin has also declared “almost Nixonesque” the Obama administration’s efforts to delineate groups and individuals unsupportive of its policy preferences. Veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas, reacting to what she believed were the Obama White House’s efforts to influence the media, asserted last June that even “Nixon didn’t try to do that.” The list of comparisons goes on.

The prospect of Nixon’s shadow falling across his administration must surely unsettle Barack Obama. The legacy of Richard Nixon has suffered for decades whenever an instance of political dishonor required historic quantification. Every time the ubiquitous suffix “gate” is applied to political scandals both great and small — from Clinton-era Travelgate to today’s Climategate — we are forced to think in terms of Richard Nixon.

In the minds of the American people, the Nixon years were fraught with criminal conspiracies, dirty tricks, and Machiavellian political machinations. Yet there are some lessons that President Obama would do well to learn from Nixon, particularly when it comes to our nation’s approach to the global terrorist threat.

In his 1985 book No More Vietnams, President Nixon identified the political and diplomatic framework that made inevitable this nation’s engagement in the protracted, costly war in Indochina. Drawing on his personal experience as commander-in-chief and an indisputably vast understanding of geopolitical reality, the president wrote much that could be instructive to the Obama administration as it seeks to counter the menace of militant international terrorism.

First, Nixon recognized both the necessity and the limitations of American military power. “While we cannot act in every instance of terrorism,” Nixon argued, “we should always act decisively when we know who is responsible and where they are. Otherwise we give carte blanche to these international outlaws to strike again.” Once the commander-in-chief identifies a threat and receives sufficient intelligence to locate the terrorists, “swift, timely retaliation” is in order “even if there is some risk to innocent people.”

Second, Nixon — a first-rate diplomat himself — knew the constraints of diplomacy. He understood that the State Department cannot win at the negotiating table what the Defense Department cannot win on the battlefield. A direct correlation exists between America’s ability to fight and win wars and our ability to impose effective sanctions, elicit needed concessions from our adversaries, and secure peaceful resolutions to international disagreements.

If Barack Obama seeks to be heralded for his approach to national security, Richard Nixon provides a better guide than does Jimmy Carter, whose policies in this area many are likening to Obama’s. A failure to understand the purpose of American military power and to deploy it wisely is precisely what provided the basis for Carter’s disastrously anemic response to the Iranian hostage crisis, for instance. Moreover, a naïve worldview was the primary reason that Carter misunderstood the real threat in the Middle East. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, correctly identified the threat as a movement of “Moslem fundamentalist revolutionaries egged on by Khomeini and Qaddafi.”

Regrettably, President Obama is failing where Richard Nixon succeeded. Nixon was ever-willing to meet at the negotiating table, but only as a tactic that complemented his overall strategy of engagement. Thus far, POTUS 44 almost exclusively prefers the policy of outstretched hands and summits, without the diplomatic finesse and appreciation for American power that can keep our enemies guessing. Nixon never showed all his cards, and somehow managed to convince the world that he was holding trumps. President Obama, like Carter before him, gives the endless impression that his strongest bet is always a bluff.

Americans are well-served to remember Jimmy Carter’s engagement of international terrorism, a colossal failure that effectively delivered Iran into the grip of Muslim extremists who kept 53 American hostages in Tehran for 444 days. Today, the stakes are higher. A similar failure by the Obama administration could produce a mushroom cloud over Tel Aviv.

And if 444 days marks the point at which the American people will no longer tolerate feeble diplomacy and presidential ineptitude, President Obama is fast approaching the electoral end toward which his own poll numbers increasingly point.

For all his faults, Richard Nixon is still regarded on the world stage as one of the most diplomatically astute and strategically deft American presidents. President Obama should strive to acquire such a reputation.

– Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) is the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.