Whenever a major political figure mangles history, I’m there to fight back, as I did this week at New York when Vivek Ramaswamy said some very strange things:
In the first Republican presidential debate, Nikki Haley got in a good jab at Vivek Ramaswamy, the tech tyro who was presenting his strange views on world affairs: “You have no foreign-policy experience, and it shows.” Never mind that Haley’s foreign-policy experience as Donald Trump’s mouthpiece at the United Nations hardly makes her Henry Kissinger. She’s right about Ramaswamy. His erratic suggestions for selling out Ukraine and Taiwan as part of some Risk-style geopolitical maneuver have now been revealed as reflecting a factually undernourished version of U.S. foreign policy that the candidate explained in a manifesto at The American Conservative.
It’s no surprise that Ramaswamy brands his proposed “doctrine” as president with the MAGA (and pre-Pearl Harbor isolationist) battle cry of “America First.” It also figures that he’d trace his hostility to “entangling alliances” back to George Washington, who famously warned against such invitations to the dominant European powers of his era to send wooden warships across the Atlantic (a relatively low threat today). I’d also give the boy wonder credit for touting the Monroe Doctrine as providing a loophole by which even enemies of U.S. troop deployments in Europe or Asia can nonetheless rattle sabers at Mexico.
But the identity of Ramaswamy’s real foreign-policy hero was indeed a surprise: “Though I often pay tribute to George Washington, when it comes to foreign policy, the president I most admire is Richard Nixon.”
Ramaswamy is famously a millennial; he was born 11 years and one day after Nixon was forced from office in disgrace. And his judgement about modern Republican chief executives is reflected by his description of Trump in the aforementioned debate as “the best president of the 21st century.”
Still, Ramaswamy’s extended shout-out to the Tricky Dick is so weird that you wonder if he’s just trolling old boomers like me for whom Nixon represented a low point in the presidency and a threat to democracy exceeded only by you-know-who. Here’s what he says about the 37th president (the only one to resign):
“Against the chaotic backdrop of the 1960s, where battles over ideas spilled into the streets, Nixon asserted a cold and sober realism. He formulated peace in the Middle East, while maintaining only the lightest-possible military footprint there. … He got us out of Vietnam.”
In fact, the “cold and sober” realist Nixon’s approach to war and peace was encapsulated by his determination not to become “the first American president to lose a war.” He was coerced by Congress and public opinion to end the Vietnam War five years after he became president. Fully a third of U.S. casualties in Vietnam occurred on his watch. And while he did gradually shift ground-forces responsibilities to a South Vietnamese government he helped turn into a corrupt U.S. puppet regime, he escalated the U.S. air assault on North Vietnam and launched U.S. troops into Cambodia in an expansion of the war that destabilized that country and opened the door to the Khmer Rouge genocide.
As for the Middle East, the “lightest-possible military footprint” included unprecedented U.S. military assistance (at its time more dramatic than today’s U.S. assistance to Ukraine, which Ramaswamy opposes) and the only DEFCON alert (placing the U.S. nuclear arsenal on a war-readiness footing) between the Cuban Missile Crisis and 9/11.
Another egregious Ramaswamy offense to the Nixon legacy involves his claim that the old Cold Warrior despised sweeping ideological claims in foreign policy:
“In his day, many useful idiots populated the foreign-policy establishment, and he rejected their influence. Under Nixon’s leadership, the engines of state were turned from universalist language to, as he put it, driving local actors to take the “primary responsibility of providing the manpower for [their] defense.”
Actually Nixon’s own role model in foreign policy was the virtual inventor of liberal internationalism, Woodrow Wilson, as the University of Virginia’s Miller Center observes:
“Richard Nixon recognized the power of Wilson’s legacy when he returned Wilson’s desk to the Oval Office in 1969. Nixon saw himself as the president who would establish a new, Wilsonian world order of stability and collective security to replace the Cold War confrontations of the 1950s and 1960s.”
If Nixon shrank from direct U.S. responsibility for molding a world in America’s image, it was mostly because of domestic opposition and the profound unpopularity of troop deployments.
Now even if you don’t mind the many liberties Ramaswamy has taken with Nixon’s foreign-policy legacy, the question must be asked: What is the man thinking? He can call himself an outsider and entrepreneur all he wants; right now he is a politician playing the political game at the highest level. Of all the many figures in U.S. history he could cite as exemplifying the foreign-policy values he offers the country, why would he choose a man mostly known for amoral abuses of power and betraying his oath of office? Yes, Ramaswamy adores the president who makes Nixon look like a piker in this respect. But even Trump knows enough to choose a former president as his own foreign-policy exemplar whose sins are conveniently very distant from our own time, and who was known in his own time simply as “the Hero,” Andrew Jackson.
Even Richard Nixon’s admirers wouldn’t call him heroic, so we are left with the impression that Ramaswamy is being pointlessly provocative. After the Republican debate, Congresswoman Madeleine Dean quoted Succession character Logan Roy’s words to his squabbling children: “You are not serious people.” If Ramawamy wants to be thought of as a serious candidate for president, he’d best stop talking about foreign policy for a while.