President Richard Nixon meeting with Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Tse-Tung
President Richard Nixon meeting with Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Tse-Tung // AP Photo/FIle

Obama’s ‘Nixon to China’ Moment

The president wants to end a war and bring U.S. troops home, even while wrestling with Congress over the reins of foreign policy. His domestic agenda is stymied by partisanship and political opponents who smell scandal. As commander-in-chief he desperately needs a bold stroke on the world stage to reverse his fortunes.

Does this describe Barack Obama on the cusp of a humiliating rejection by Congress of his plans to strike Syria, even with troops still fighting in Afghanistan and Congressional investigators picking through the cold ashes of Benghazi? No, it’s actually Richard Nixon in 1972, facing a rebellious Congress still furious over his secret invasion of Cambodia, with the storm crows gathering around the dirty tricks campaign that would blossom into the Watergate scandal.

Before the very real enmity that exists between the U.S. and Russian governments dooms the current Syrian initiative and continues to propel both nations along their trajectory towards a Cold War-lite, it’s worth asking whether the attendant diplomacy could actually represent a game-changing, Nixon-to-China moment. Because viewed through the foreign policy prism of realism that defined Nixon and his former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — meaning a view unclouded by excessive idealism or rancor — there are trends afoot bringing the strategic interests of the United States and Russia, and their respective leaders, into unexpected alignment.

There’s little question that Russia’s last-minute proposal for the international community to secure and eventually destroy Syria’s chemical weapons offered Obama a much-needed lifeline. Obama’s ill-advised decision to threaten loudly but pawn his big stick to Congress very nearly disarmed the leader of the free world at a moment of global upheaval. In the face of stubborn U.S. inaction, Syria’s sectarian civil war has continued to metastasize, spreading beyond its borders along with more than 2 million refugees, on top of 4 million internally displaced; killing more than 100,000 people; empowering Islamic extremists of every stripe; and conjuring the specter of deadly chemical weapons clouds not witnessed in decades. For the United States,  continuing to do next to nothing represents a conscious decision to abandon venerable allies and acquiesce to a failed state and the use of weapons of mass destruction in the heart the world’s strategic energy reserves. 

The odds are still stacked against a deal that actually secures and eventually destroys Syria’s chemical weapons under international supervision. But the potential payoff is worth the risk. Even the process towards an imperfect deal will require international mediation, negotiations among the key players, significant boots on the ground by United Nations weapons inspectors, and almost certainly some sort of ceasefire. All of which are to be greatly desired.

Hardliners in Washington are already insisting that a former KGB apparatchik like Vladimir Putin, who admittedly misses few opportunities to poke the United States in the eye, is not a man the United States can do business with. Before Nixon made his legacy-burnishing trip to Beijing in 1972, however, they said the same thing about the arch communist Mao Zedong, who, after all, had backed our enemies the North Vietnamese. Chairman Mao did not let his revolutionary zeal or his enmity towards the United States cloud his vision, however, which perceived scores of Soviet armored divisions on his northern border. For different reasons, both Nixon and Mao felt the need for a rebalancing.

For all his characteristic bluster, when Vladimir Putin peers outside the Kremlin he likewise perceives strategic vulnerability. His economy remains overly dependent on oil, and demographic trends are unfavorable. On his eastern border is a rapidly ascendant China, and to the west a greatly expanded NATO alliance. Along his southern border in the Caucuses are restive Islamic republics and Islamic terrorists with ties to al-Qaeda and its affiliates fighting in Syria. Putin has every reason to fear an implosion in Syria that puts chemical weapons into the hands of Islamic extremists with a land bridge to Chechnya and Dagestan.

As the authoritarian leader of a great power in decline, with a permanent seat and a veto in the U.N. Security Council, Putin also wants to avoid another unilateral, precedent-setting U.S. military action. Not surprisingly he has also taken different sides in the Arab Spring, preferring status quo authoritarian regimes and stability to democratic upheaval. With turmoil and setbacks in the democratic transitions in Egypt, Libya and even Tunisia, however, the gulf between the positions of Moscow and Washington may have narrowed in the near term. With the U.S. looking inward after a decade of war, Putin also senses the world is becoming more multipolar, and wants back in the game in a way that doesn’t make Russia a weak counterweight to the United States. All of those incentives may drive Putin to take real risks to reach a deal on Syria’s chemical weapons.

“Woody Allen said that ninety percent of success is just showing up, but Putin is not only showing up, he’s doing it at the right time in Syria,” said Aaron David Miller, a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “If he can preempt a U.S. military strike, legitimize a role for Assad in the negotiations, and insert himself as a major player on the international scene, that all serves Putin’s interests. It also raises some intriguing possibilities for the Obama administration to achieve its narrow objectives in Syria. So we should let this play out.”

Critics will argue that cutting a deal with Russia requires leaving Bashar al-Assad in power, and may ultimately amount to a de facto victory for his allies Iran and Hezbollah. Yet the United States signed the Dayton Peace Accords with Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic to end the Balkans war in 1995, and still Milosevic spent his final days in a prison beneath the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. With no coalition of outsiders willing to decisively help overthrow Assad and defeat his allies, a negotiated settlement is certainly preferable to a stalemated civil war that slowly bleeds Syria and fractures it along sectarian lines, creating perpetually warring rump states that destabilize the entire region indefinitely.

The real question is whether, after more than a decade of unpopular and costly wars, Washington is ready to concede it is no longer “a lone superpower in a unipolar world.” Congress’ apparent willingness to cut the commander-in-chief off at the knees during the Syrian crisis, and gut U.S. military power through sequestration, suggests instead that the United States is a great power facing a period of withdrawal. Confronted with a similar period of retrenchment after an unpopular war, Richard Nixon played a weak hand exceptionally well with his outreach to China, accommodating a former foe in a way that split the communist block and rebalanced the global chessboard.

“If you look at the Syrian crisis analytically in terms of U.S. and Russian interests, then there is an alignment we should take advantage of,” said Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest in Washington. For starters Obama was facing a humiliating defeat in Congress that would have diminished U.S. standing on the international stage, he said, and Putin was backing a dictator whose use of chemical weapons were making him a huge liability internationally. “Taking advantage of this alignment like Nixon and Kissinger did in China, however, will require a clear understanding of core U.S. interests, and a willingness to accommodate Russia on its core interests. I’m not sure the Obama administration or Congress is capable of that kind of strategic vision.”

One person interested in finding out is Secretary of State John Kerry. Shortly before leaving for Geneva this week to meet with his Russian counterpart on the Syrian initiative, Kerry called Henry Kissinger to the State Department for a private chat. It’s not known exactly what was said, but Kissinger has made no secret of his view that the solution to the Syrian crisis has always run through Moscow.