Richard Nixon was the greatest peacemaker in U.S. history. He orchestrated the historic opening with Beijing. And he presided over the most significant arms control treaties of the détente period: the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and the ABM treaty.
Wait, that doesn’t sound right. Let’s start over.
Richard Nixon was the greatest warmonger in U.S. history. He sharply escalated the war in Vietnam and widened the conflict, tragically, to Cambodia and Laos. He destabilized Chile, looked the other way as his West Pakistani ally laid waste to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and ignored the Nigerian civil war and the resulting famine in Biafra.
This bifocal view of Richard Nixon reveals one of the great paradoxes of the U.S. peace movement. Peace activists divide into two sometimes irreconcilable groups — the antiwar movement and the arms control community. The former considered Richard Nixon and his henchman Henry Kissinger to be war criminals. The arms controllers, meanwhile, worked through Nixon’s Arms Control and Disarmament Agency to score significant though partial successes.
The same cognitive dissonance holds true today. Though he would no doubt run from the comparison, President Barack Obama is shaping up to be a true heir of Richard Nixon. He’s simultaneously reviled by the antiwar crowd for his policies in Afghanistan and held up as a savior by the arms control community for his commitment to nuclear abolition.
Progress is indeed being made on the arms control front. On the sidelines of the Copenhagen negotiations, the leaders of the United States and Russia talked about actually cutting the number of nuclear weapons that the two countries cling to like huge pacifiers. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) expired two weeks ago, and both Moscow and Washington have promised to abide by the terms until a new treaty is in place. But Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev plan to go beyond mere arms control and cut as much as one-quarter of their respective nuclear arsenals on the way toward even deeper reductions. The new treaty will also cover tactical nuclear weapons, a big advance in arms control.
The president has a year to push through his nuclear agenda before midterm elections potentially deprive him of his large Senate majority. There’s more on the table than just strategic and tactical nuclear reductions with the Russians. There’s also the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the president needs the support of 67 Senators for ratification. If Obama can push a new START treaty through the Senate, then it will be time to deal with the several objectionable demands (such as an accompanying nuclear modernization program) of the few Republicans willing to sign the CTBT. With the Nuclear Non-Proliferation review conference coming up this spring, the Obama administration is also pushing for a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty that would ban the production of nuclear material. The narrowing of differences with India on this issue bodes well for 2010.
These are not done deals. But a new START treaty in early 2010 is quite likely. And let’s not miss the important point here. Obama has been dismissed for being all talk during his first year in office. On disarmament, at least, he is following through on his commitment.
Meanwhile, on the antiwar side of the equation, I frankly wish that Obama were all talk and no action. At least when he was simply talking with advisors and others for several months, he wasn’t sending additional troops to Afghanistan. Last week, the new, muscular Obama ramped up drone attacks in Pakistan. Also last week, the U.S. government provided military assistance to the government of Yemen in targeting suspected al-Qaeda sites (and managed to kill many women and children in the process). The power of the Pentagon has grown so dominant that even a former Bush administration official — Thomas Schweich, former ambassador for counter-narcotics in Afghanistan — believes that “we no longer have a civilian-led government.”
Will Obama reverse the Pentagon’s mission creep? Without the military credentials, the president has been reluctant so far to take on the generals. Indeed, he has capitulated. During his West Point speech on Afghanistan on December 1, “Obama surrendered,” writes Tom Engelhardt. “It may not have looked like that: there were no surrender documents; he wasn’t on the deck of the USS Missouri; he never bowed his head. Still, from today on, think of him not as the commander-in-chief, but as the commanded-in-chief.”
As the president reminded us in Oslo, he is a firm believer in the use of violent means to achieve noble ends. Despite his parenthetical invocation of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., the president doesn’t really take nonviolence seriously. Rather than just war doctrine, the president should instead draw inspiration from the peace churches, like Quakerism.
“Using a broad array of tactics — including strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, and protests — nonviolent movements have not only gained important rights for millions of oppressed people around the world, they have confronted, and successfully brought down, some of the most ruthless regimes of the last 100 years,” Eric Stoner argues in A Lesson on Nonviolence for the President. “These incredible victories for nonviolence were not flukes. After analyzing 323 resistance campaigns over the last century, one important study published last year in the journal International Security, found that ‘major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns.’”
When we call on the president to follow through on his promises, we have to be careful what we wish for. Yes, he called for nuclear abolition as a candidate, and he is following through on his pledge. But he also promised to refocus U.S. military attention on Afghanistan and vigorously wage war on terrorism, and, unfortunately, he has done that as well. Obama the candidate said he would give the United States a new start after the truculence of the Bush years. But he is shaping up to be much like our second Quaker president, Nixon, in his simultaneous commitment to nuclear arms control and conventional warfighting. Alas, that’s not the Quaker tradition he should be emulating …
JOHN FEFFER writes for Foreign Policy in Focus, where this essay originally appeared.