National Security & Defense

Obama’s Iran Initiative

It bears no resemblance to the Nixon–Kissinger opening to China.

This is written as the Iran nuclear talks come right up to their March 31 deadline. The vacuum created and quickly enlarged by the American effort to placate Iran at the expense of Israel and Saudi Arabia, and to influence the Israeli election, is being filled more quickly and effectively than could have been foreseen by the agility of the Saudis and the acumen of Benjamin Netanyahu. It is no secret that Obama and his advisers think their overture to Iran is an updated equivalent of the dramatic Nixon–Kissinger opening to China in 1971–72. They even believe they are on a roll of diplomatic breakthroughs, having commenced this stately diplomatic progress by scrapping the official isolation of Castroite Cuba a few months ago.

The Cuban measure was a unilateral action of no strategic significance. The United States had proved its point after Cuba’s seizure without compensation of American private-sector assets in Cuba, and had assisted several countries in defeating Cuban efforts at subversion, especially Bolivia, where Ernesto “Che” Guevara met his end in 1967. Cuba has been a perfect model of economic misgovernment, with withered prosperity, mass imprisonment, and the flight of almost the entire professional and managerial class, which has stoked the boom in Florida and made that state the third most populous in the U.S. All the Castro-imitative efforts in the Latin American countries have failed, and none of it matters any more, since the collapse of the Soviet Union has made Latin American Marxist self-rule geopolitically irrelevant.

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The Iranian policy bears no resemblance at all to the carefully prepared Nixon initiative to China. In that policy, it was made clear, discreetly, that Nixon was prepared to move toward normalization of relations with China at a time when China could assist the United States in extracting itself safely from Vietnam, and Soviet–Chinese relations were so antagonistic they contained some potential for a Great Power war, and possibly a nuclear war, in Eurasia. The United States acknowledged, as it always had, that Taiwan and the People’s Republic were both part of China, and the Chinese undertook that China would not be reunified coercively. The China initiative dismayed the American Right, including National Review’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., but the arrangement has held, without significant difficulty, these 43 years. The rapprochement of China and the U.S. strengthened China opposite the Soviet Union, though President Nixon made it clear that he went to China “in peace for all mankind” and was not negotiating against China’s rivals or at the expense of America’s allies.

North Vietnam had previously refused to consider peace on any terms except abject American unilateral departure while overthrowing the South Vietnamese government as it left. Despite North Vietnam’s mighty offensive and outright invasion of the South, including with tank brigades, in the time between Nixon’s return from China and his visit to the USSR, both China and Russia now assisted the United States in persuading Hanoi that it had to abandon all hope of humiliating the U.S., and negotiate that country’s withdrawal from the war. This process was heavily assisted by the South Vietnamese defeat of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong on the ground, with no assistance from U.S. ground forces, and by Nixon’s belated suspension of Lyndon Johnson’s unsuccessful 1968 bombing pause and the pummeling of North Vietnam with 1,000 air strikes a day, moving up to 1,200 a day for his highly successful trip to the Soviet Union in May 1972, which proved to be the most elaborate state visit in the entire history of the USSR.

It produced the most comprehensive arms-control agreement in the history of the world up to that time, SALT I. The Vietnam peace agreement followed eight months later, and was ratified by the U.S. Senate. It was the perfectly plausible belief of President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger, ever afterward, that when, as was expected, the North Vietnamese violated the peace agreement, the same formula that worked in 1972 would work again: South Vietnamese resistance on the ground and massive American air support, with no particular intervention from the Soviet Union or China. No one on either side could have foreseen that the Watergate errors and the Democratic putsch that exploited them would vaporize the executive authority of the administration and that the Democratic-controlled Congress would, two years later, cut off all funds to South Vietnam and hand all Indochina to the gentle mercy of the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong, and the Khmer Rouge, who between them would massacre 3 million people and send hundreds of thousands fleeing for their lives in the unseaworthy craft of the “Boat People.”

#related#The Nixon–Kissinger foreign policy had been one of the masterpieces of American strategic history, carefully prepared and faultlessly executed. Any effort by the Obama administration to indulge itself in the fantasy that its conduct toward Iran constitutes a sequel gives cause for real concern that the leaders of the government have taken complete leave of their senses. Insofar as any progress has been made in relations with Iran other than by unrequited Western concessions, it is entirely down to the Saudis and the Israelis, with the concurrence of Egypt, moving to fill the vacuum formerly occupied by American force and the will to use it and the intelligence to deploy it sensibly. The U.S. possessed those faculties from the time of President Truman’s recognition of Israel and defense of Greece and Turkey, through President Eisenhower’s casualty-free deployment to Lebanon, to President Nixon’s gift of a new air force to Israel during the Yom Kippur War and Dr. Kissinger’s successful shuttle diplomacy with Syria and Egypt and the reopening of relations with Egypt, to President Carter’s personal triumph in the Camp David agreement, and the consistent efforts of the Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Clinton administrations, especially in the Gulf War, evicting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, and the second Bush administration’s rout of the Mullah Omar terrorist despotism in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It all started to go horribly wrong with the attempt to rebuild the political institutions of Iraq, and has descended with distressing velocity in the Obama administration’s tumbling sequence of the false lecture at Cairo, the imposition of quickly forgotten red lines, the sandbagging of allies and preemptive appeasement of self-declared enemies (including the overly abrupt departure from Iraq), the pretense that terrorism had been exterminated, the endless retreat from the promised prohibition by whatever means would be necessary of the Iranian nuclear military program, and the recent Iran–U.S. alliance against ISIS.

The new joint Arab–Israeli–Turkish animosity to Iranian aggression in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, Yemen, Iraq, and the Gulf States is swiftly developing into a serious policy to take the place of the fumbling weakness of the traditional Great Powers. The Arab countries have the ability to assert great pressure on the Palestinians to shift the right of return of displaced Palestinians from the longstanding demand to inundate Israel with Arabs, to an internationally assisted return to the defined borders of Palestine. That will not be influenced in any way by the developing Franco-American stampede to require a Palestinian state in a United Nations vote. Whatever limp and unverifiable agreement the six powers (U.S., U.K., China, France, Germany, Russia) serve up to Iran, they can’t deliver Israel, which already has the tacit encouragement of the Arabs to attack the Iranian nuclear program if the six-power sellout is consummated.

The resoundingly reelected Netanyahu expanded his parliamentary party at the expense of his allies in the settlers’ parties, which weakens the hardliners and gives him an enhanced mandate to act decisively — with the Iranians, but also to secure a Palestinian agreement. Saudi Arabia has provided the heaviest incentive for Iran to cease its nuclear militarization program by cutting the price of oil in half (which has had the unintended side-benefit of forcing Russia’s Putin to tread warily in Ukraine and the Baltic states and Georgia, where there are large ethnic-Russian minorities to be inflamed). The Saudis and Egyptians are assembling a pan-Arab force that is intervening in Yemen to counter the attempted takeover of that country by their Houthi protégés, in which latest Iranian aggression the United States has acquiesced. Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait are all participating in this initiative, and Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, and the two most powerful Muslim neighboring countries, Pakistan and Turkey, have expressed their intention to support this initiative also. Pakistan has condemned U.S.–Iranian cooperation in Iraq; all powers in the region find ISIS a preferable force in central Iraq to the Iranians.

The Arabs, under Saudi diplomatic and financial leadership, have moved a long way to make the bumbling Obama-led flirtation with Iran redundant. The Arab bloc and Israel have the ability and regional support to inflict heavy damage on the Iranian nuclear program, and probably to produce the long-awaited Palestinian settlement. The Obama policy, which at this moment the senior administration fabulists are still likening to the brilliant Nixon–Kissinger successes, has failed so completely, whatever happens in the nuclear talks with Iran, that it has driven the Arabs, Turks, Israelis, and Pakistanis into each other’s arms and produced a shared determination to require the Iranians to agree to a reasonable solution of the nuclear dispute, or the regional powers may impose one on them. The West’s policies have failed: in the containment of Russia in Ukraine and in the opening to Iran. But the astounding combination of the House of Saud (and its domestic Wahhabi partners) and the most unpopular Israeli leader in the history of the White House may secure Middle East peace in the wake of the failure of its traditional guardians. Truly, in this Easter and Passover season, God (through strange bedfellows and unlikely proxies) may be about to bless America and the impotent West.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at



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