During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, as Ariel Sharon’s tanks crossed the Suez Canal to cut off the reeling Egyptian Army from its home, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev declared that he was prepared to drop several divisions of paratroopers into the Sinai Desert to protect his Arab client. Within hours of Brezhnev’s statement going public, the entire US Seventh Fleet sailed from its Mediterranean bases. That was how Richard Nixon dealt with Russian provocation.
Apart from the perpetually resentful on the academic left, few would deny that Nixon was the most formidable practitioner of the dark arts of foreign policy in modern America history. He opened up China and ringed the Soviet Union with adversaries. He paved the way for peace between Israel and Egypt by bringing Anwar Sadat out of Moscow’s orbit. He ended the war in Vietnam. His speechwriter Ben Stein recalls that Nixon’s favorite phrase was “we must create a generation of peace”.
Nixon and his right hand Henry Kissinger gave voice to a generation forged in wars against Fascism and Communism and steeped in the harsh diplomatic lessons of the 20th century. They represented the confluence of hard headed practical politics with an encyclopedic knowledge of the historical motivations of America’s friends and enemies.
Unfortunately, there is no one of their mettle in this White House. Kiev is ablaze; senior Chinese military leaders now openly boast of their desire to settle millennial scores with their neighbors; al-Qaida is stronger than ever; the mullahs’ nuclear march accelerates; Israel feels abandoned; and American diplomats were left to fend for themselves in Libya because a president did not want to interrupt his campaign narrative.
When the Egyptian generals saved their country by ousting al-Qaida’s allies in Cairo, they were condemned by a White House that was subsequently shocked when those same officers turned up in Moscow asking Putin for help. Iraq has collapsed, and the administration is determined to produce the same effect in Afghanistan.
In spite of that, the secretary of state says the greatest threat to national security is climate change. In the meantime, where real weapons actually count, the armed forces are being decimated by budget cuts and exhausted by the baleful effects of political correctness. There is no longer a cost in saying no to the United States.
The president gives every indication that he is not in charge. Rather than seeking action, he explains the problems, hoping that someone or something will relieve him of the responsibility of actually having to choose a course of action. Toe-to-toe with Putin and the mandarins in Beijing, he is outclassed and outmaneuvered. He neither understands nor appreciates the power and basic goodness of the nation he leads.
Can anyone imagine Richard Nixon repeating empty threats about “red lines” and “escalating costs” during the multiple international crises he faced? In the Crimea, he would have measured Putin for what he is–an atavist thug. He would place missile defenses in the territory of Russia’s traditional victims, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. He would begin squeezing Russian credit in an international finance system that still runs through New York City. He would stop the mindless disarmament of America and through multiple actions make it manifest that Putin will follow the same path to oblivion as did his old Soviet masters. There would be no phony bluster–Nixon would win without breaking a sweat.
The President’s fecklessness is a group effort. He has populated his administration with Ivy League dreamers who may have academic pedigree but no experience of the world outside of the Harvard Faculty Lounge. There is no Henry Kissinger amongst Biden, Kerry and Hagel. My former boss, Robert Gates, posited that we have a vice president and a secretary of state who have not been on the right side of any foreign policy or defense issue in 40 years. The Weekly Standard was less prosaic: “to say we have the B team in charge is an insult to B teams everywhere.”
Don Rumsfeld used to tell us that “weakness is provocative” and we are now reaping that whirlwind with the most “provocative” administration in our history. Our President does not understand that Vladimir Putin and the mullahs are not community organizers. The brutish KGB colonel and his comrades are laughing at America and someplace, somewhere Richard Nixon is weeping.
Robert Wilkie served as Assistant Secretary of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld and Special Assistant to President George W. Bush for National Security Affairs. He also served as Counsel to Senator Jesse Helms.