Obama seeing likeness to Nixon and Reagan
Washington - As US President Barack Obama eyes his legacy, he is channelling two Republican presidents whom he sees as transformational: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Nixon, one of the most controversial American presidents, resigned after the biggest political scandal in US history and Reagan, publicly popular, was ideologically Obama’s opposite. But in foreign policy, Obama sees similarities.
In an interview with Tom Friedman of the New York Times, Obama argued that in negotiations with Iran he was guided by the same strategic logic that Nixon and Reagan used in dealing with China and the Soviet Union, respectively.
“You know,” Obama said, “I have a lot of differences with Ronald Reagan but where I completely admire him was his recognition that if you were able to verify an agreement that [was negotiated] with the ‘evil empire’ that was hell bent on our destruction and was a far greater existential threat to us than Iran will ever be, then it would be worth doing.”
As for Nixon, Obama said: “He understood there was the prospect that China could take a different path… and as long as we are preserving our security capacity, as long as we are not giving away our ability to respond forcefully, militarily, where necessary to protect our friends and our allies, that is a risk we have to take.”
Are Obama’s analogies with Nixon and Reagan accurate? Is Iran like the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War? Is Obama’s opening to Iran in the same league as Nixon’s trip to China or the strategic nuclear weapons agreements that Reagan reached with the Soviets? Is Iranian President Hassan Rohani the new Mikhail Gorbachev?
The main and most obvious difference is that, unlike Nixon’s trip to China, the Iranians will not soon be rolling out the red carpet in Tehran for a US president.
And unlike the Chinese, which welcomed the opening with the United States, Iranians still chant “Death to America” in the streets and the supreme leader has made clear that nothing will change in Iran’s relationship with the “arrogant” United States.
The Iran deal is limited to one issue. In contrast, Nixon’s opening to China was broad-based, says Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson Center. It opened the door for a new relationship in all fields — political, economic and cultural.
According to Daly, Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, “had a long list of unwritten strategic understandings that emerged” as a result of discussions with the Chinese leadership. By contrast, Obama stressed that “we’re not measuring this deal by whether we are solving every problem that can be traced back to Iran, whether we are eliminating their nefarious activities around the globe”.
And US Secretary of State John Kerry stated on many occasions that the agreement is not a “grand bargain” with Iran. This is why, Daly said, “For now, the analogy [with China] doesn’t hold well.”
Another difference is one of scale and degree of threat. While China in the 1970s boasted 1 billion people and was a nuclear weapons power, Iran is a comparatively small regional power of 80 million people. Iran’s threat is regional; China’s threat was much broader. But the opening to Iran has proven more difficult than the one to China because the extremist nature of the Iranian regime made it more intransigent than Chinese Communist Party leaders were.
The analogy with the arms-control agreements Reagan struck with the Soviets holds more on form but not on substance. Reagan believed in American power and that the Cold War was a zero-sum game. He doubled the defence budget and dramatically called on Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
While Reagan was negotiating with the Soviets, he simultaneously kept Moscow’s feet to the fire in Afghanistan and other global hotspots.
Obama’s critics say that, unlike Reagan, Obama did not keep pressure on the Iranians as the negotiations proceeded. In fact, some argue, Tehran has intensified its influence in the region.
William Pomeranz of the Kennan Institute on Russia said: “I think President Obama with the end of the Cuba sanctions put the Cold War behind us and with the end of the Iran sanctions put [President Jimmy] Carter and the 1970s behind us.”
He may be right about Cuba but could be too optimistic on Iran because everything hinges on Tehran’s behaviour.
The looming debate in the US Congress will be tough but it is doubtful that Republicans will be able to stop the deal. The Cuban flag has been raised over the country’s embassy in Washington for the first time in more than 50 years. The Iranian embassy is not far away geographically; however, the distance that needs to be travelled before the Iranian flag flies again is long and arduous. But Obama has opened the door and left it ajar.