What Barack Obama Can Learn from Richard Nixon on Israel and Foreign Policy
Richard Nixon and Barack Obama are rarely compared. But the way these two presidents have dealt with crises in the Middle East provides instructive contrasts on the nature of leadership.
This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the resignation of President Nixon, a man more associated with skullduggery than leadership. But in October 1973, when his Vice President was resigning in disgrace and the congressional investigation into his own misconduct was moving to its fatal conclusion, Nixon demonstrated how a leader can take command, master events, and shape history.
His example provides a contrast to the current President, whose concept of leadership involves “leading from behind.” To the extent it involves taking initiative, it is the initiative of “avoiding doing stupid shit.”
President Obama has not abandoned Israel, nor has he declared himself neutral in its current struggle against Hamas. But time after time, he has undercut Israel’s position, in an effort to curry favor with a hostile world.
His Secretary of State tried to involve Turkey and Qatar, two implacable foes of Israel, in the cease-fire negotiations, even though their financial support enabled Hamas to amass the missiles and build the tunnels that threaten Israel. After an Israeli shell landed close to a UNRWA school in Rafah, his Administration joined the global anti-Israel chorus. Before any investigation could be conducted, the State Department immediately declared itself “appalled” by Israel’s “disgraceful” act – even though Hamas rockets have been found in UNRWA schools at least three times, and even though the U.S. armed forces conducted similar attacks against schools used by hostile forces in Afghanistan. (The Israeli 4-year old boy killed on Friday was the victim of a missile fired from a site near a UNRWA school.)
Most disturbing, Obama’s White House has recently changed the military-to-military relationship by which American weaponry has been transferred to Israel, to require White House and State Department approval. Now these are U.S. weapons, and it is of course up to the U.S. government to set the protocols for their transfer. But to change the rules so abruptly, while Israel is under daily bombardment, is unprecedented.
Once again, it represented the Obama Administration’s tendency to placate the world, rather than stand by a lonely ally. This emerges from an observation by a “senior Obama Administration official” to the Wall Street Journal:
“We have many, many friends around the world. The United States is their strongest friend,” the official said. “The notion that they are playing the United States, or that they’re manipulating us publicly, completely miscalculates their place in the world.”
In other words, the Administration was telling Israel by these leaked remarks: We have many friends. You do not. Don’t ever forget it.
Sniping at friends to placate their enemies is not leadership. It is not even shrewdness. The United States has won no new friends from undercutting Israel.
To see a different kind of leadership, travel back in time and consider the performance of Richard Nixon in October 1973.
Israel faced a military crisis. Egypt and Syria, backed by nine Arab states and lavishly supplied by the Soviet Union, attacked on Yom Kippur. Israeli forces were thrown back in the Sinai and on the Golan Heights. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan told Prime Minister Golda Meir that Israel faced imminent defeat. The situation was so dire, that the Israeli government considered resorting to a last ditch nuclear option.
In this crisis situation, Richard Nixon ordered a massive airlift of military supplies to Israel. During a 32-day period beginning October 14, jumbo U.S. military aircraft touched down in Israel 567 times, delivering some 22,300 tons of material.
Conducting such an operation was a complicated task. Then, as now, Israel was not popular on the international scene. Fearful of the Arabs’ oil weapon, NATO allies refused to allow U.S. transport planes to refuel in their countries – even while NATO members Turkey and Greece were allowing Soviet supply planes to overfly their territory. Ultimately, the U.S. managed to pressure Portugal to allow landing in the Azores for refueling.
Meanwhile, in Washington, bureaucratic hurdles threatened to delay the airlift. Nixon took charge personally. White House counsel Leonard Garment recalled:
It was Nixon who did it. I was there. As [bureaucratic bickering between the State and Defense departments] was going back and forth, Nixon said, “This is insane….He just ordered Kissinger, Get your [behind] out of here and tell those people to move. “
Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, concerned by the reaction of the Arabs and Soviets to the airlift, advised sending just three transports. Nixon responded: “We are going to get blamed just as much for three as for 300…Get them in the air, now.”
Nixon worked closely with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on the airlift. When Kissinger gave him a list of the type and quantity of weaponry sought by the Israeli military, Nixon ordered him to double it, then added: “Now get the hell out of here and get the job done.” Informed of a delay caused by disagreements in the Pentagon over which planes to use, Nixon shouted at Kissinger: “[Expletive] it, use every one we have. Tell them to send everything that can fly.”
The airlift helped turn the tide. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat proposed a ceasefire enforced by Soviet and U.S. troops on the ground. The U.S. rejected the proposal. Soviet leader Brezhnev then threatened to send Russian troops to the Middle East unilaterally. Nixon ordered that U.S. military to be put on high alert. Air Force strike units were prepared for attack, and two aircraft carriers were deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean. Brezhnev backed down.
Richard Nixon neither sought nor received any political gain for his decisive leadership. The Watergate investigation intensified, culminating in his resignation ten months later. American Jews, who voted overwhelmingly for Humphrey in 1968 and McGovern in 1972, remained, and remain today, hostile to the man.
But Golda Meir never forgot Nixon’s leadership. For the rest of her life she referred to him as “my president.” She once said, in tones reminiscent of the Passover haggadah: “For generations to come, all will be told of the miracle of the immense planes from the United States bringing in the material that meant life to our people.”
It is doubtful that any Israeli, of any political persuasion, will ever remember Barack Obama as “my president.”
It is also doubtful that friends of the United States in other parts of the globe will remember him that way. When Iranian populists remember Obama, they are likely to remember him as the President who reached out to the regime’s theocratic dictators, but failed to support the courageous demonstrators of the Green Revolution. When the Poles and Czechs remember Obama, they are likely to recall him as the President who reneged on the promise to build a missile defense shield in Europe, to avoid irritating the Russians. When Ukrainians remember Obama, they are likely to recall him as the President who, after the non-irritated Russians annexed the Crimea, responded by airlifting, not weapons, but 300,000 ready-to-eat meals.
The irony of leadership is that it often proves a more effective tool to win over foes than supplication. Obama’s forbearance has won the United States no points from Russia or Iran, or any of our other opponents. It has only disappointed our friends. In contrast, Richard Nixon steadfastly supported Israel during wartime – and was lionized by Egyptians in the aftermath of that war after brokering a ceasefire.
In June 1974, just weeks before his resignation, Nixon visited Egypt and rode in an open railway car from Alexandria to Cairo with President Sadat. An estimated 6 million Egyptians lined the route, cheering him. Sadat saluted Nixon with these words:
Since the 6th of October, and since the change that took place in the American foreign policy, peace is now available in the area. And President Nixon never gave a word and didn’t fulfill it; he has fulfilled every word he gave.
Richard Nixon was a man of many flaws, not least of which was a strong strain of anti-Semitism. But he was also a leader. The current President, driven to make America liked again, may have more charity in his heart, but he has far less spinal fluid in his backbone.
Lawrence J. Siskind is a San Francisco attorney, who blogs on issues of politics, foreign policy, law, and culture, at ToPutItBluntly.com.