Obama’s foreign policy doctrine that would take the U.S. off its war footing smells an awful lot like what Nixon went for in the face of similar realities and crises.
The nation’s chattering classes and the world at large were set atwitter this past week by an event that seems to have become a semi-annual spectacle for those who pay attention to U.S. foreign policy — the West Point presidential address. Presented before the year’s graduating cadets — a group that will ultimately have to pay the blood price for any decision on war and peace — the speech has become a forum for incumbent presidents to lay out their vision for what they see as America’s role in the world.
In 2002, of course, this was first done by then-President George W. Bush, who laid out a doctrine of preventive war and aggressive intervention abroad to a nation still reeling from and terrified by the terror attacks that brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center the previous September. In effect, Bush announced the beginning of a crusade to root out perceived threats to American security that could no longer, in his view, be tolerated: rootless terrorists with no home address and the rogue states that harbored them.
This would ultimately lead to the invasion and occupation of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and a multi-year war against an improper noun — “terrorism” — that would backfire horrifically. Instead of bringing peace, freedom and security to the Middle East, America got bogged down in two vicious guerilla wars — first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq — and sparked a latent civil war between the two branches of the Islamic faith right in the heart of the Arab world that, by 2014, has metastasized well beyond the borders of the country we invaded in 2003.
What’s more, we didn’t even catch Osama bin Laden, the orchestrator of the 9/11 plot, as preparations for Bush’s grand endeavor sucked away resources from Afghanistan and, more generally, counterterrorism operations. Soon Afghanistan, too, turned into a war we were losing. Even more disturbingly, “terror” itself became more inchoate the more overtly we struck at it, turning from a single organization into a hydra-headed ideological movement more dangerous than the actual al-Qaida organization itself.
Then there is what we ignored: the rise of China and the steady erosion of American economic power and geopolitical influence that necessarily came with dumping vast amounts of resources down ratholes in the Middle East. Russia, too, became more aggressive, and saw off attempts to create pro-Western regimes on its borders through half-baked color revolutions with increasingly overt amounts of military force. Nowhere, it seems, is American credibility taken seriously by those who would shift the regional or global status quo more fully in their direction.
In the midst of this morass is the Obama administration. In his speech to this new generation of cadets, he outlined a very different vision than that set out by his predecessor 12 years ago. Obama called for America to effectively pull back from full-fledged military intervention and the oftentimes stupid use of American military power. American military power, he said, would only be used to protect the U.S. homeland and our “core interests” abroad — fuzzy terms under which all manner of sins can be committed, but nonetheless much more restrained than the full-throated call for an ideological crusade that Bush articulated in 2002.
Instead, Obama argued that multilateralism — working with others — and diplomacy with our adversaries, e.g. jaw, jaw, not war, war, should take even more precedence than it already has under his leadership. For those grown weary of unending wars and conflict abroad, all this is to the good, and so far, Obama’s example has largely been an exercise in toning down the impulse to use force — with the exception of his global drone campaign. It has even borne some fruit, as progress on Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s chemical weapons attests.
Predictably, those committed to the vision of a militant America being a strong, forceful actor in the world are disappointed, and even those who might be deemed neutral observers have noted the speech was the most dovish since President Jimmy Carter’s address on foreign policy to the graduating class of Notre Dame in 1977. Weakness, they say, is what Obama reeks of, and what he has presented at West Point is nothing more than retreat dressed up in fancy platitudes. Depressingly, though the American public may actually support reducing our presence in the world’s many conflicts, they nonetheless do not like the seemingly defeatist, decline-ridden talk it is saddled in.
Yet, while conservatives and many hawkish liberals would like to make the association between Obama and the much-maligned Jimmy Carter, the better analogy is with Richard Nixon, who — with the Machiavellian Henry Kissinger at his side — similarly talked peace and diplomacy, and worked to reduce the active use of American military power in our interactions with other nations. Indeed, the strategic similarities between Nixon and Obama are in many ways unsurprising, for both faced a similar geopolitical reality.
Like Obama today, Richard Nixon came to office in the midst of domestic and international crisis. At home, Vietnam and the emerging counterculture were creating unprecedented levels of political unrest that would culminate in massive anti-war marches around the country, urban riots and violent clashes on college campuses like that which took place at Kent State in Ohio. Americans then, like Americans today, were deeply divided on issues of race, class and culture, and while the economy had not dropped out of the bottom as it had in 2008, the 1970s would become synonymous with economic stagflation.
Even more worryingly, Washington’s grand adventure in Southeast Asia came to a ruinous conclusion as the Vietnam War came to an end after more than a decade of U.S. military intervention there. In exchange for billions spent and over 58,000 service members killed, we got to watch as our withdrawal turned into a route when North Vietnam invaded and occupied the South — annexing it and clearly and soundly defeating America — the first such outright defeat the U.S. had suffered in the modern era. Nothing, it seemed, was more humiliating than seeing our officials and the South Vietnamese who supported us scramble aboard fleeing helicopters from the rooftop of our embassy in Saigon.
In the midst of this ruin, however, Nixon articulated a strategy that sounds very similar to the one presented so recently by Obama. Made in 1969 just as this later era of ruin was most fully upon us, the Nixon Doctrine, as it came to be known, laid down a strategy that would increasingly see American forces drawn down from active combat in places like Vietnam — where so-called Vietnamization, or the turning over of combat responsibility to Saigon’s troops — was a key part of Nixon’s plans. No longer, said Nixon, would America fight directly to contain perceived Soviet advances. Instead, it would rely upon strong regional allies to contain the communist threat. American troops would withdraw, but arms, spies and money would flow to state and non-state allies as never before. Proxy wars, backed up by Washington’s nuclear umbrella, would be the order of the day.
As it turns out, this is exactly the course Obama is heading us down. Combat troops are now out of Iraq, though our influence is still felt there through the force of our money, arms and intelligence services. Afghanistan, too, will shortly be bereft of U.S. troops, and our allies there will find us willing to provide little besides drones, guns and cash. Elsewhere, such as in Syria, we see the same technique being used — guns, cash, drones and spooks, yes, but no publically-acknowledged uniformed boots on the ground that can catch the attention of the media with flag-draped coffins or suck up trillions of dollars in vast military missions that in the end produce nothing except profits for military contractors.
While the jury is out on whether it will work, one should recognize that as a strategy born out of necessity, it isn’t a half-bad one. Husbanding resources — both strategic and financial — is always wise, and if we are to have wars at all, small-scale, clandestine wars are far better than the alternative. Indeed, it should be remembered that just such clandestine work, not massive wars, is what allowed us to eventually track down and eliminate Osama bin Laden, whose merry adventures in Afghanistan started us down this dark, sorry road to begin with.
Unfortunately, being born out of the reality of weakness — though not one either Obama or Nixon created — this approach is one that is neither guaranteed to inspire, nor even really ever truly succeed. That’s because unlike with real war or grand ideological crusades, which aim to eliminate threats through some form of final victory, secret war and diplomacy aim merely to manage them. Victories are thus only partial ones, at best, and the enemy, whoever that may be, is never really defeated, merely deflected.
What’s more, clandestine wars and diplomacy often ask us to make hard choices on what to spend resources on and whom to work with. Shall we, for instance, bet on the security provided by an ally, like Egypt, that has a government deeply unpopular with its own people? Nixon and later Carter placed a similar bet on Iran, and look how that turned out. Likewise, if a truly terrible humanitarian crisis breaks out, as is currently occurring in South Sudan, is stepping aside and letting others handle the butcher’s bill an appropriate thing to do?
For a country so fully built on its own sense of moral superiority, such restraint and prudence can be hard to bear. Smaller nations with far less power than we commonly make these choices and live with them because they have to, but it is difficult for a big, powerful country like ours to remain quiescent for long — especially after it feels it has caught its second wind and fully recovered from the disasters that initiated the strategy of retreat to begin with. Indeed, that’s exactly what happened with Nixon’s cold realpolitik, which, by the1980s, was replaced with a nationalist neoconservatism that has only now been pushed back due to the present disasters we have suffered because of it.
So, for those disappointed by Obama’s call for a prudent retreat, don’t worry. After a few years, America will have recovered and forgotten all about the calamities that led to it to fall back in the first place. Then we’ll be right back to where we started before you know it, ready to make the same damn mistakes all over again for a new generation to suffer through, rue, and learn from.