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.”