Foreign Policy and Domestic Scandal

Foreign Policy and Domestic Scandal

Mini Teaser: Nixon's extreme case illustrates the variety of potential problems that can arise in a scandal-weakened presidency. President Clinton seems to have dodged the bullet on the face of it; the November 3 election results demonstrated his remarkable po

by Author(s): Peter W. Rodman

On October 20, 1973, an Arab-Israeli war was still raging in the Middle East when the "Saturday night massacre" occurred in Washington. President Nixon's firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox precipitated the resignation of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, and accelerated the impeachment process that ten months later drove Nixon to resign. The domestic uproar over the "Saturday night massacre", in turn, was still raging four days later when the Soviet Union threatened to intervene unilaterally in the Arab-Israeli war, leading the United States to place its armed forces on a dramatic worldwide alert. That wasn't all: the total Arab oil embargo against the United States was declared on the very Saturday of the "Saturday night massacre." In addition, Washington was still reeling from the unprecedented resignation-under-a-cloud of Vice President Spiro Agnew on October 10--four days after the Arab-Israeli war began.

It was a busy time, and it carried an important lesson: that foreign challenges do not necessarily ease up to allow the United States to play out its domestic dramas. Today, with the Cold War behind us, the stakes may not be as high. Nevertheless, the international challenges we now face--whether the spreading world economic crisis, Iraq, Kosovo, or North Korea--still cry out for American leadership, and domestic preoccupation with a scandal cannot but have consequences.

Nixon's extreme case--which I had the misfortune to witness at close hand--illustrates the variety of potential problems that can arise in a scandal-weakened presidency. President Clinton seems to have dodged the bullet on the face of it; the November 3 election results demonstrated his remarkable political resilience. Yet the scandals dogging him and the impeachment process have (at this writing) not entirely run their course--and there has already been a discernible impact on foreign policy.

The problems, or potential problems, arise in four categories: foreign perceptions, distortions of U.S. policy-making, presidential distraction, and executive-legislative relations. Let us take them in turn.

Foreign Perceptions

The first key question that has to be asked is how do foreign leaders, adversaries and friends alike, assess a scandal-weakened president, and how are their actions affected by their perception?

First of all, adversaries: are they more tempted to challenge a president in such circumstances? In the case of the October 1973 alert, I think not--though some of the participants in the U.S. decision definitely feared it at the time. In retrospect, it is more likely that the Soviet threat to intervene was triggered by Mideast events--specifically, the desperate plight of the surrounded Egyptian Third Army--than by a Watergate temptation. The Soviet leadership, indeed, retained a healthy respect for Nixon until virtually the end of his presidency. Nixon had earned a reputation for being fierce, gutsy, and unpredictable: in May 1972 he had resumed the bombing of North Vietnam--the biggest American escalation of the Vietnam War--two weeks before a scheduled summit in Moscow. The Soviets never really understood what Watergate meant (constitutional government not being their forte, for one thing), and they had a hard time believing Nixon was as weak as he really was. To a great extent, the United States was bluffing it through the last year and a half of Nixon's tenure.

Another factor that Nixon had going for him was a heavyweight team. In October 1973 Henry Kissinger was his secretary of state and national security adviser, James Schlesinger his secretary of defense, Brent Scowcroft the deputy national security adviser, and Alexander Haig the White House chief of staff. Throughout the October 1973 Middle East War, American policy retained its decisiveness. At times, it was Nixon himself who took the lead (he decided boldly on the U.S. airlift to Israel, for example); at other times, as in the deliberations that produced the alert, the team developed a strong policy which Nixon approved.

The reader can judge whether President Clinton had a reputation for being formidable in foreign policy before Monica Lewinsky burst on the scene, and whether his national security team is of comparable quality. Some observers noted that Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin seemed to have some of the requisite prestige to play such a role in the international financial crisis. Long before Monica, however, concerns had been raised about the administration's strategic seriousness and its track record as a failed experiment in Wilsonianism. This administration has displayed several disturbing tendencies--for example, a temptation to indiscriminate humanitarian military intervention coupled with Vietnam-era inhibitions about using force decisively, and a habit of deference to an international consensus rather than a confident assertion and pursuit of American strategic interests.

Thus much of its stumbling when faced with classical hard-ball challenges--Somalia, Iraq, North Korea--has been a matter of philosophy, not just bad luck. And in the past year, it cannot be excluded that adversaries like Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Kim Jong Il judged the President to be further weakened and shaped their policies accordingly. This could well have been a factor in Saddam's decision to escalate his assault on the UN inspection regime, in Milosevic's decision to crack down in Kosovo, and in North Korea's lobbing of missiles over Japan and threats to scuttle the 1994 nuclear agreement.

But what about friendly countries: how do they react to a weakened president? The Clinton administration's successful mediation in both Northern Ireland and Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy in 1998 was obviously not prevented by the scandal. But in the prolonged Middle East mediation, before its successful completion at the Wye Plantation, some distortion was apparent. A number of (contradictory) concerns were frequently expressed: Would the President be too weak to put the necessary pressure on the parties (particularly Israel)? Would he, conversely, put more pressure on the parties (again, particularly Israel) because he was desperate for a diplomatic success? Or would the Mideast leaders, once the President's personal prestige was so engaged at Wye, be less willing to cross him, or more willing to accommodate him, given his precarious condition? Mr. Clinton's own calculation is impossible to assess, but the responses of the Mideast parties can be inferred. Friendly countries have a stake in the United States and are usually not eager to weaken it. Nor are friendly leaders in the habit of distancing themselves from a president unless he looks truly terminal. Nixon made a successful visit to Middle East capitals as late as June 1974. (Kissinger is of the view, though, that our North Atlantic allies were wary of Nixon from late 1973 onward and that this complicated a European-American initiative that the administration had launched.)

Clinton was also buoyed in September by a remarkable standing ovation at the UN General Assembly. While this was a vote of confidence of some sort, it may in fact have been a more complex phenomenon. Many leaders in the audience, understandably fearful of a further weakening of American foreign policy, may have accepted his interpretation that he was America's champion of sophistication and internationalism under fierce assault by Republican Yahoos and isolationists. (If so, it was a crude caricature of the American political scene--an almost anti-American reason for applauding an American president.) Some leaders in the audience also may have found rather disturbing the quaint American notion that a head of government is accountable under the law just as any other citizen.

In any case, as noted, Nixon too was widely respected by world leaders--probably more so than Clinton.

American Policy-Making

A second set of issues has to do with how such a domestic crisis can distort American policy-making. One paradigm of this is the "Wag the Dog" phenomenon, referring to the Hollywood movie--released around the turn of last year coincidentally with the Monica Lewinsky revelations--about a president who manufactures a war in order to divert attention from a sex scandal. No American president, including Nixon and Clinton, has been guilty of such an offense, but it is a useful rubric for a number of different but related problems.

The 1973 Mideast alert, again, provides examples. One of the motivations of the alert, in the minds of some of the Americans involved in the decision, was self-consciously to demonstrate to all and sundry that the United States was not weakened by Watergate and was still capable of acting firmly. The alert was fully justified on its merits as a response to a bald Soviet threat, but policymakers were fearful that American credibility might be in question. This constituted an element of distortion in the equation even if in this case the policy decision was objectively correct.

The dilemma was compounded by the cynicism of the media. The day after the alert, Secretary Kissinger held a news conference to explain the dramatic events of the night before. A battery of questions zeroed in on the theme: How do we know this wasn't a stunt to divert attention from Watergate? In a poisoned political climate, the preoccupation of the press corps makes such a reaction almost inevitable. Similar press questions were raised in 1998 with respect to the cruise-missile strikes of August 20 against terrorist targets in Afghanistan and the Sudan.

Thus, a domestic crisis can whipsaw an administration: perhaps adding to its inhibitions about strong action on the one hand, while simultaneously fueling credibility problems abroad that might indeed seem to call for extra boldness to demonstrate U.S. resolve. It is complicated, agonizing, and not at all healthy.

A Distracted President

A third (and related) category of problem is how much of a president's attention and energy is in fact distracted, if not drained, by having to deal with a domestic scandal. Some such effect is inevitable. Nixon, as noted, was stalwart in 1973 in deciding on a U.S. airlift to Israel but he was quite preoccupied during the aforementioned alert, which came only four days after the "Saturday night massacre." The team of his senior advisers met in the White House Situation Room, while the White House chief of staff left the room periodically to speak to the President and to get his approval for key decisions.

Indochina provides the most consequential example. The Paris Agreement on Vietnam was signed in January 1973; within about a week, North Vietnam was blatantly violating the agreement by resuming transport of men and materiel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In March Nixon was on the verge of ordering a military retaliation, in the form of a four to five-day bombing campaign against the Ho Chi Minh Trail to demonstrate that the United States took the agreement's obligations seriously and would enforce them. But the retaliation never took place. Nixon, for the first time, lost his nerve. John Dean had just been in the Oval Office threatening, in effect, to blow his presidency sky-high, and E. Howard Hunt was demanding hush money. This retaliation-that-never-happened was one of the most important events in the history of the Vietnam conflict. It was the dog that didn't wag.

So while the Soviets did not challenge Nixon, the North Vietnamese did--testing both him and his successor Gerald Ford over the next two years, only to discover that, indeed, a weakened presidency meant they were home free.

Today, Iraq is the closest analogy. The Clinton administration's unwillingness in early 1998 to fight for the UN inspection regime had all the earmarks of a government that had no stomach for a crisis--either a crisis with Saddam, a crisis with our allies, or a new controversy at home. The administration took the line of least resistance--allowing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to broker a "compromise", and then backing away from "provocative" inspections. The result was the hobbling of the UN inspection regime--an ominous turning point in the world community's long-running struggle with Saddam Hussein. The belated bestirring of U.S. resolve in November produced a tactical success, but the status quo ante of 1997 is irretrievable. The weakening of our grip over Saddam in 1998 is perhaps the most serious price paid for Monica Lewinsky.

Congress and the President

The fourth, and potentially the most lasting, consequence of a domestic crisis is the impact it can have on the balance of power between Congress and the president. This is the most important bullet Mr. Clinton has dodged. In Nixon's case, this impact doomed Indochina, gave impetus to an era of congressional ascendancy in foreign affairs from which we have still not fully recovered, and even undermined our policy toward the Soviet Union.

Indochina was definitely a casualty. Nixon had won re-election in November 1972 with one of the biggest landslides in American history, and had done so moreover in an election fought over Vietnam policy above all other issues. Yet by the spring of 1973, the administration began losing anti-war votes on various resolutions and appropriations bills in Congress that it had always won previously. Certainly there are other possible explanations for the legislative setbacks--cumulative public fatigue over Vietnam; the failure of Nixon's coat-tails to ensure him a supportive Congress in 1972--but Watergate was crucial. In mid-June 1973 the Senate Watergate Committee heard from John Dean, in days of televised hearings that transfixed the nation. Nixon's political position was crumbling. In late June, Congress imposed on Nixon a complete ban on any future U.S. military action "in, near, or over" Indochina--prohibiting not only any future attempts to enforce the Paris Agreement but also the continuation of U.S. assistance to Cambodia in that country's desperate resistance to the Khmer Rouge. In November 1973 the War Powers Resolution became law over Nixon's veto. He had lost his clout.

As for Nixon's Soviet policy, I will try not to reopen the hoary "dŽtente" controversy, except to note that Nixon had had a national consensus behind him during 1971-72 when his policy toward Moscow was at its high point (a Berlin agreement, the China breakthrough, much-applauded arms control agreements, and the first-ever Moscow summit). But in his second term, challenges emerged to arms control, and East-West trade was linked to human rights, while the U.S. defense budget continued to be cut by a liberal Congress and Indochina was abandoned. Thus, both the carrots and sticks of U.S. policy toward the communist world were being eliminated by a congressional assault. (The abandonment of Angola came in 1975, under Ford.) The Left turned against the attempt to improve East-West relations over the issue of human rights; the Right launched the assault on arms control while refusing to back a conservative administration against the challenges from the Left.

Whatever one's view of the policies, it is clear that Nixon had dominated all these contradictory forces in his first term. He had held his conservative base and moved successfully to the center. In his second term, he lost his grip as he was engulfed from both directions. With the carrots and sticks of his strategy gone, in an important sense it was no longer his Soviet policy that was being carried out. One of the most brilliant masters of the political game ever to hold the highest office, Nixon had lost control over his own foreign policy, and over events. These, too, were the wages of Watergate.

In Mr. Clinton's case, the November 3 election results obviously show no such impact--except to the perverse degree that the Republicans' mishandling of the scandals backfired against them. The balance of power between the President and Congress remains essentially unchanged. But that status quo is a Congress controlled by the opposition. As Mr. Clinton slides into lame-duckhood, his clout is likely to weaken further, compounded by whatever residue of the scandals remains. Remember that some of the scandals have a foreign policy connection, such as the illegal foreign campaign contributions and the House and Senate investigations of compromising technology transfers to China. The Republicans will not be shy about pressing their national security agenda, especially on major issues like China and Iraq. There is also a range of other contentious issues--intervention in Kosovo and Bosnia; North Korea; Russia policy; UN arrears; treaties that the Senate has opposed (Kyoto, Comprehensive Test Ban, ABM Treaty amendments); trade and IMF; missile defenses; and more. An administration that is accident-prone because of fundamental flaws in its approach to the world is likely to face growing congressional pressures, scandal or no.

As acknowledged at the outset, the stakes today are not as high as during the Cold War. There is no Vietnam to lose. But there is a difference in philosophy between the two parties--not internationalism versus isolationism, as some would have it, but the Republicans' more geopolitical view versus the administration's Wilsonianism. Whose vision will prevail? What would be the consequences of a prolonged stalemate between the two branches?

Monica Lewinsky wanted to influence education reform. Whether or not she achieved that, she has had an impact on our foreign policy.

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