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Opinion: Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, and Obama’s Illusions | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to board Air Force One for travel to New Orleans from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, August 27, 2015. Obama on Thursday will highlight the “structural inequality” that hurt poor black people in New Orleans before the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, during a visit to celebrate the city’s progress 10 years after the storm. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Promoting the “deal” he claims he has made with Iran, President Barack Obama is trying to cast himself as heir to a tradition of “peace through negotiations” followed by US presidents for decades. In that context he has named Presidents John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan as shining examples, with the subtext that he hopes to join their rank in history.

Obama quotes JFK as saying one should not negotiate out of fear but should not be afraid of negotiating either.

To start with, those who oppose the supposed “deal” with Iran never opposed negotiations; they oppose the result it has produced.

Obama pretends that the alternative to the “deal” that he is marketing is war.

Needless to say, that is not a serious argument. Allegations related to Iran’s nuclear program have been around for two decades, prompting six resolutions of the United Nations’ Security Council. In one form or another, Iran and the major powers have been engaged in negotiations on the topic since 2003. What prompted Obama to press the accelerator was his desire to score a diplomatic victory before he leaves office.

It did not matter if the “deal” he concocted was more of a dog’s dinner than a serious document. He wanted something, anything , and to achieve that he was prepared to settle for one big diplomatic fudge.

Is Obama the new JFK? Hardly.

Kennedy did negotiate with the USSR but only after he had blockaded Cuba and forced Nikita Khrushchev to blink and disband the nuclear sites he had set up on the Caribbean island.

In contrast, Obama obtained nothing tangible and verifiable.

Iran’s Atomic Energy chief Ali-Akbar Salehi, put it nicely when he said that the only thing that Iran gave Obama was a promise “not to do things we were not doing anyway, or did not wish to do or could not even do at present.”

JFK also had the courage to fly to West Berlin to face the Soviet tanks and warn Moscow against attempts at overrunning the enclave of freedom that Germany’s former capital had become. With his “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a citizen of Berlin), he sided with the people of the besieged city in a long and ultimately victorious struggle against Soviet rule.

In contrast Obama does not even dare call on the mullahs to release the Americans they hold hostage. Instead, he has engaged in an epistolary courting of the Supreme Guide and instructed his administration in Washington to do and say nothing that might ruffle the mullahs’ feathers.

No, Obama is no JFK.

But is he heir to Nixon?

Though he hates Nixon ideologically, Obama has tried to compare his Iran “deal” with Nixon’s rapprochement with China.

Again, the comparison is misplaced.

Normalization with Beijing came after the Chinese leaders had sorted out their internal power struggle and decided to work their way out of the ideological impasse created by their moment of madness known as The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The big bad wolf of the tale, Lin Biao, was eliminated in an arranged air crash and the Gang of Four defanged before the new leadership set-up in Beijing could approach Washington with talk of normalization.

At the time the Chinese elite, having suffered defeat in border clashes with the USSR, saw itself surrounded by enemies, especially after China’s only ally Pakistan had been cut into two halves in an Indo-Soviet scheme that led to the creation of Bangladesh.

Hated by all its neighbors, China needed the US to break out of isolation.

Even then, the Americans drove a hard bargain. They set a list of 22 measures that Beijing had to take to prove its goodwill, chief among them was abandoning the project of “exporting revolution”.

Those of us who, as reporters, kept an eye on China and visited the People’s Republic in those days were astonished at the dramatic changes the Communist leaders introduced in domestic and foreign policies to please the Americans. In just two years, China ceased to act as a “cause” and started behaving like a nation-state. It was only then that Nixon went to Beijing to highlight a long process of normalization. In the case of Iran, Obama has obtained none of those things. In fact, his “deal” has encouraged the worst tendencies of the Khomeinist regime as symbolized by dramatic rise in executions, the number of prisoners of conscience and support for terror groups not to mention helping Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.

No, Obama is no Nixon.

But is he a new Reagan as he pretends? Hardly.

Reagan was prepared to engage the Soviets at the highest level only after he had convinced them that they could not blackmail Europe with their SS20s while seeking to expand their empire through so-called revolutionary movements they sponsored across the globe. The SS20s were countered with Pershing missiles and “revolutionary” armies with Washington-sponsored “freedom fighters.”

Unlike Obama who is scared of offending the mullahs, Reagan had no qualms about calling the USSR “The Evil Empire” and castigating its leaders on issues of freedom and human rights. The famous phrase “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” indicated that though he was ready to negotiate, Reagan was not prepared to jettison allies to clinch a deal.

Obama has made no mention of Jimmy Carter, the US president he most resembles.

However, even Carter was not as bad as Obama if only because he was prepared to boycott the Moscow Olympics to show his displeasure at the invasion of Afghanistan. Carter also tried to do something to liberate US hostages in Tehran by organizing an invasion of the Islamic Republic with seven helicopters. The result was tragicomic; but he did the best his meagre talents allowed. (NB: No one is suggesting Obama should invade Iran if only because if he did the results would be even more tragicomic than Carter’s adventure.)

On a more serious note, it is important to remember that dealing with the Khomeinist regime in Tehran is quite different from dealing with the USSR and China was in the context of detente and normalization.

Neither the USSR nor the People’s Republic regarded the United States as “enemy” in any religious context as the Khomeinist regime does. Moscow branded the US, its “Imperialist” rival, as an “adversary” (protivnik) who must be fought and, if possible, defeated, but not as a “foe” (vrag) who must be destroyed. In China, too, the US was attacked as “arch-Imperialist” or “The Paper Tiger” but not as a mortal foe. The slogan was “Yankee! Go Home!”

In the Khomeinist regime, however, the US is routinely designated as “foe” (doshman) in a religious context and the slogan is “Death to America!”

Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei has no qualms about calling for the “destruction” of America, as final step towards a new global system under the banner of his twisted version of Islam. Tehran is the only place where international “End of America” conferences are held by the government every year.

The USSR and China first cured themselves of their version of the anti-American disease before seeking detente and normalization. That did not mean they fell in love with the US. What it meant was that they learned to see the US as adversary, rival, or competitor not as a mortal foe engaged in a combat-to-death contest. The Islamic Republic has not yet cured itself of that disease and Obama’s weakness may make it even more difficult for that cure to be applied.

Détente with the USSR and normalization with China came after they modified important aspects of their behavior for the better. Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan responded positively to positive changes on the part of the adversary.

In the case of the USSR positive change started with the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in which Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin’s crimes, purged the party of its nastiest elements, notably Lavrentiy Beria, and rehabilitated millions of Stalin’s victims.

In foreign policy, Khrushchev, his swashbuckling style notwithstanding, accepted the new architecture of stability in Cold War Europe based on NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Kennedy, Johnson and, later, Nixon and President Gerald Ford had to respond positively.

In the late1980s, the USSR offered other positive evolutions through Glasnost and Perestroika and final withdrawal from Afghanistan under Mikhail Gorbachev. Again, Reagan and President George Bush (the father) had to respond positively.

In the case of China we have already noted the end of the Cultural Revolution. But China also agreed to help the US find a way to end the Vietnam War. Beijing stopped its almost daily provocations against Taiwan and agreed that the issue of the island-nation issue be kicked into the long grass. Within a decade, under Deng Xiaoping, China went even further by adopting capitalism as its economic system.

There is one other difference between the cases of the USSR and China in the 1960s to 1990s and that of the Khomeinist regime in Tehran today.

The USSR had been an ally of the United States during the Second World War and its partner in setting up the United Nations in 1945. Although rivals and adversaries, the two nations also knew when to work together when their mutual interests warranted it.

The same was true of the Chinese Communist Party which had been an ally of the US and its Chinese client the Kuomintang during the war against Japanese occupation when Edgar Snow was able to describe Mao Zedong as “America’s staunchest ally against the Japanese Empire.” In the 1970s, Washington and Beijing did not find it strange to cooperate in containing the USSR, their common rival-cum-adversary as they had done when countering Japan.

In the case of the Islamic Republic there is no sign of any positive change and certainly no history of even tactical alliance with the US.

Unless he knows something that we do not, Obama is responding positively to his own illusions.