June 4, 2016
The Perils of Secret Diplomacy: From President Richard Nixon to Barack Obama
by Ray Takeyh
Secret diplomacy has a special place in the annals of American history. Henry Kissinger’s furtive trip to China has been acclaimed as the quintessence of diplomacy. The Obama administration, steeped in its own brand of realism, is another devotee of secret talks, meeting with Iranian officials in Oman and Cuban functionaries in less-exotic Canada. Richard Nixon and Barack Obama are probably the two presidents with the greatest affinity for surreptitious maneuverings. Such practitioners of clandestine diplomacy believe that revolutionaries are, behind the curtains, just waiting to offer concessions: Once ensconced in hideaways with their American counterparts, the revolutionaries’ essential pragmatism will reveal itself. The actual track record for such secret talks, however, shows that the revolutionaries inevitably gain the high ground. Washington ends up abandoning its sensible red lines and often betraying its longstanding allies.
No diplomatic opening has been more celebrated than the Nixon administration’s overtures to China. History is often defined by those who write it, and Kissinger’s thousand-page memoirs breathlessly told the story of sneaking into the Forbidden Kingdom and bringing China in from the cold. A bit of actual history is in order. In the late 1960s, China was a vicious, despotic regime ruled by history’s greatest mass murderer, Mao Zedong. It was a revolutionary state whose radicalism offended even the Soviet Union. China was a reliable supporter of anti-American forces wherever they manifested themselves but most intensely in Vietnam, where it armed and trained the guerrillas who lacerated American troops.
The notion that Nixon and Kissinger were the first cagey Americans to imagine a new relationship with China is itself a distortion of history. In his 1967 State of the Union speech, Lyndon Johnson offered his own olive branch: “We shall continue to hope for a reconciliation between the people of Mainland China and the world community—including working together in all the tasks of arms control, security, and progress on which the fate of the Chinese people, like their fellow men elsewhere, depends.” Despite the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution, Johnson returned to the theme of reconciliation in his final State of the Union, calling for “the travel of journalists to both our countries; to undertake cultural and educational exchanges; and to talk about the exchange of basic food crop materials.” But China was not ready for such peace offerings, as Russia was not yet pressing it militarily and America was not prepared to abandon its key Asian allies. Both factors changed in 1969.
China had turned against its Soviet ally earlier in the decade, as Mao considered the Kremlin too soft in its prosecution of the Cold War. As Richard Nixon settled into the White House, the border clashes between China and the Soviet Union became so intense that both capitals were gripped with war fever. Mao understood that waging war against one superpower while remaining hostile to the other could prove disastrous. Beijing needed American leverage and Washington was prepared to offer it on the cheap. The price of rapprochement with China was an expressed pledge to downgrade Taiwan—a rearrangement of priorities that has ever since left some doubt about whether the United States would defend the island against Chinese aggression—and a willingness to settle the Vietnam war on terms largely advantageous to Hanoi.
The paradox of the Nixon Presidency is that two of the most secretive politicians ever to occupy the White House, the president and his national security adviser, left behind the most transparent administration in history. With mutual paranoia, Nixon taped every conversation in the Oval Office while Kissinger maintained copious notes. The expansive archival record reveals an administration that said one thing to the American public and something very different to American adversaries privately. The secret talks were an occasion for Kissinger to unburden himself, disparaging allies like Taiwan and Japan and assuring his skeptical hosts that America sought a reduced footprint in East Asia.
The twists and turns of this secret diplomacy are by now well-known. It set America on the path of normalizing ties with China, an altogether worthy objective, but the United States paid the steeper price for that normalization. A beleaguered Beijing fearing atomic retaliation from its erstwhile Russian ally traded few of its cards away. China did not diminish its support for North Vietnam nor abandon its claim to Taiwan. It maintained its support for revolutionary forces throughout the Third World and sustained its animosity toward Japan and South Korea, who were blindsided by Kissinger’s diplomatic gambit—America’s Asian allies had assumed Washington shared their commitment to containing China and would not make moves toward Beijing without consulting them. What concessions did the Chinese make to the Americans in the secret talks? None. Nor does there appear to be even a remote, indirect connection between Nixon and Kissinger’s diplomacy and the Communist leadership’s decision, after Mao’s bloody rule, to move away from a Communist economy towards state capitalism. And it was China that gained leverage in its relations with Russia, not the United States. Moscow understood that the territorial integrity of China was an important American concern. There is no indication that the Soviet Union softened its arms control terms or tempered its global ambitions as a result of the new Chinese-American relationship.
Nixon and Kissinger came into office prepared to lose the Vietnam war, and the negotiations were designed to secure a “decent interval” between America’s withdrawal and South Vietnam’s collapse. The talks with North Vietnam had to take place in secret, for it was the only way for Kissinger to impress upon Hanoi Washington’s intentions.
At the outset, lead North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho presented maximalist terms to which the United States largely conceded. Hanoi demanded the removal of American forces, refused to withdraw its own troops, continued the provision of aid to its surrogates, and pressed for the resignation of the South Vietnamese government led by President Nguyen Van Thieu. Throughout the years of negotiations, the Nixon administration steadily withdrew U.S. forces while escalating bombing in the hope it would stem the tide of the insurgency in the South. The failure of this military strategy only led to a stream of concessions at the negotiating table. In back channel conversations, another favorite Kissinger tactic, the national security adviser assured the Soviets and the Chinese that America wanted to leave and understood that the future of Vietnam would be up to the Vietnamese themselves—a clear signal the North Vietnamese could devour South Vietnam after America’s departure. Nixon can be heard on the tapes pleading with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin for help and assuring him that South Vietnamese sovereignty was negotiable.
After years of talks, a defiant Hanoi conceded that the Saigon government need not resign immediately but could perish over time. It never withdrew any Northern troops, and soon after the formal signing of the Paris Peace Accords, Hanoi began its final invasion of the South, as Nixon and Kissinger knew it would. Secret talks appear to have been a means of keeping Congress and the bureaucracy away from the negotiations, as opposed to extracting concessions from North Vietnam. The accord did yield something: Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Tho had the revolutionary’s integrity to reject such Scandinavian blandishments; after the speedy fall of Saigon, Kissinger sought to return his prize. It was a fitting epitaph of Kissinger’s secret diplomacy that he made the attempt quietly.
The President that Barack Obama resembles most has always been Richard Nixon. Both men perceived the United States as a declining power that had to accommodate its geopolitical rivals. They were both unnatural politicians who grew petulant when criticized and disdained a Washington establishment that they imagined was plotting against them. Both men were happiest cloistered with just a few pliable aides who shared their ambitions and animosities. And they both had a penchant for secret overtures to entrenched American adversaries.
Obama has given Nixon’s realism a twist with his unusual attraction to nations he feels have been victimized by American imperialism. Nixon may have wanted to leave Vietnam but he did not think Hanoi was a repository of Third Worldist virtue. Obama’s policies are not just about strategic retrenchment but propitiating those adversaries he thinks America has wronged. Thus his attraction to Iran and Cuba. In his left-wing cosmology, these two nations stand out as particularly tormented by an America that foisted vicious dictators upon them for its own material benefits. A distinct ideology underpins Obama’s realism that was largely absent from Nixon’s balance-of-power fixations.
Barack Obama’s singular achievement will always be the most unimpressive arms control agreement in American history, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). From his early days as a presidential candidate, Obama eyed Iran’s clerical oligarchs as the target of his most daring and dangerous foray into diplomacy. Soon after assuming power, Obama began writing letters and dispatching emissaries to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Although the content of that diplomatic outreach remains classified, the Iranians have at times outed the White House. In a speech last year, Khamenei revealed that an important regional leader (most likely the sultan of Oman) came to Tehran early on with the American offerings. In the supreme leader’s telling, “The American president said to him that they want to resolve the nuclear matter with Iran and that they would lift sanctions. Two fundamental points existed in his statement: One was that they would recognize Iran as a nuclear power. Second, he said that they would lift sanctions in the course of six months.” Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran’s parliament and a Khamenei confidant, has similarly noted that whatever Obama’s public tenor, “he picks up a very friendly and kindly tone when he writes a letter to Khamenei.”
Before even entering talks, the administration had conceded its cards; the purpose of the marathon negotiations was to determine the scale of its concessions. The negotiations had to be secret as the contemplated compromises would have appalled Congress and distressed Israel and the Arab allies. As with the Vietnamese negotiations, the private talks were a means of keeping the American public, and our allies, in the dark as the United States contemplated abandoning its key red lines.
By 2013, the fiction that Iran had elected a moderate president in Hassan Rouhani proved convenient for a White House eager to offer a cascade of concessions. Oman, far away from a prying press, offered the perfect venue for secret talks. The Obama team speedily recognized an Iranian right to enrich uranium, though it had been a longstanding pillar of America’s arms control strategy to prevent proliferation of dangerous nuclear technologies. The final agreement was even worse. Instead of the previous U.S. position that Iran had a right only to a face-saving, modest atomic apparatus, the JCPOA stipulated that Iran could eventually industrialize its nuclear program. The accord’s verification regime was irresponsibly leaky while the mullahs refused to disclose previous weaponization activities. Iran’s expanding missile arsenal that is suitable only for delivering a nuclear payload was exempted from the agreement. The sanctions regime that took decades to build was dismantled. Since the JCPOA was finalized in July 2015, Iran has become more aggressive in the Middle East, not less.
In the end, Obama’s arms control agreement was not about controlling arms but getting out of the Middle East. The entire Obama presidency has been devoted to leaving behind the morass of Arab politics at precisely the time our allies were growing weaker and our adversaries stronger. It was a strategic doctrine shaped by resentments against George W. Bush for invading Iraq and a Washington establishment for thinking the Middle East mattered. But Obama could not truly exit the region so long as Iran’s nuclear portfolio remained unsettled. In the end, the JCPOA was designed to create another “decent interval,” as Iran’s path to nuclear weapons is assured but a bit delayed.
If there are some vague strategic arguments to be made on behalf of the administration’s nuclear diplomacy, there are no such justifications for the opening to Cuba—other than the traditional progressive attraction to Fidel Castro. Obama often speaks about transcending the rot of history, yet his Cuba policy is all too reminiscent of the 1960s New Left’s infatuation with Castro. The irony is that despite all its economic problems, Cuba’s Communists did not really want the normalization and Obama emissaries had to do all the pleading. The talks again had to be secret since the only thing the White House was asking of Cuba was to accept its argument that American policy has been a mistake. Raul Castro, clearly the more cunning of the two brothers, finally yielded to American entreaties and Obama was granted his visit to Havana.
The historic visit began inauspiciously: Obama was met at the airport by the relatively junior Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez rather than the actual head of state. In his address, Obama declared, “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.” The president may have been so willing but Fidel was not prepared to abandon his enmities. Not only did he refuse to see Obama but declared, “We don’t need the empire to give us anything.” Obama capped off his visit by accompanying Raul to a baseball game and doing the wave just after Brussels had been struck by terrorist attacks.
Since the signing of the JCPOA and the normalization of relations with Cuba, both dictatorships have become more repressive. Iran continues to abuse its citizens while enabling Bashar al-Assad’s killing machine in Syria and menacing Israel with its sponsorship of terrorist groups. The Islamic Republic is second only to China in executions, while Cuba has arrested 5,351 dissidents so far this year. Soon American commerce will flow to the island, allowing the Castro brothers a means of sustaining one of the last outposts of Communist rule. But just as the JCPOA was not about arms control, the opening to Cuba was not about fostering democratic change. It was just a left-wing dream—acting on its long-held resentment against America’s Cold War in the Third World—come to fruition.
It was not unwise for Nixon to reach out to the most populous country in the world; it was unwise to do so without demanding any Chinese reciprocity. An agreement was a sensible approach to Iran’s nuclear imbroglio; an accord that did not impose durable limits on that program is not astute arms control. A Cuba that adhered to global human-rights conventions and liberalized its political system should have been welcomed back into the community of nations; a Castro-led tyranny should not have been offered the same dispensation. Too often, secret diplomacy has served as a platform for America to concede its just standards and propitiate dictators with scant interest in changing their ways.
Neither Nixon nor Obama was morally offended by their interlocutors. Nixon and Kissinger had no qualms about bantering with Mao and complimenting his leadership. Obama had no problem writing respectful letters to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, a Holocaust denier who nurtures conspiracy theories about the “true” origins of the 9/11 attacks. Nixon should never have gone to China, and Obama should never have visited Cuba. Diplomacy at times involves dealing with unsavory actors, but American presidents—who represent the moral majesty of the United States—should never gush over hardened despots. A little distance and self-respect is always in order.
Ray Takeyh is the coauthor of The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East.