President Barack Obama was received in adulation on the heels of his much-anticipated speech to the “Muslim world” at Cairo University Thursday. President Obama follows a succession of presidents to visit Cairo, but administration officials and the President’s supporters are calling his speech an innovative break with conventional Middle East policy. Slate’s Fred Kaplan called the speech “impressive,” Mother Jones’ David Corn called it a “tour de force,” Talking Points Memo’s M.J. Rosenberg called it the “antithesis of colonial” and therefore a “profoundly different American voice.”
But the Cairo visit and innovation in Middle East policy are hardly unique to Obama’s position in presidential history. Richard Nixon started this diplomatic tradition 35 years ago.
In his post-presidential memoirs, President Nixon said that Egypt is “the key to the Arab world.” The 37th president arrived in Cairo on June 12,1974 after extensive preparations and tactful “shuttle diplomacy” by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with Arab and Israeli leaders. Greeted at the capitol’s airport by President Anwar Sadat and his wife, a Time article published less than two weeks later called the arrival a “triumph of sorts” with the “huzzas and hosannas” falling “like sweet rain.” Nixon was overwhelmed describing that he received the “the most tumultuous welcome any American President has received anywhere in the world.” Over a million packed the streets and city squares, holding signs that read “We Trust Nixon” chanting “Nik-son, Nik-son, Nik-son.” The Time article quotes DePaul law school’s Cherif Bassiouni – an Egyptian and international legal scholar – on Nixon’s visit and the Arab penchant for personal charm: “gestures reflect emotions, and to the Arab psyche such gestures have a greater impact than anything else the U.S. could have done.”
Nixon went on to visit Saudi Arabia, Syria, Israel and Jordan unapologetically conferring American prestige and power over the Middle East peace process.
According to historian and newly nominated Israeli Ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, author of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to Present, the Nixon-Kissinger diplomatic strategy for Arab-Israeli peace was based on the more pertinent concern for “Cold War exigencies.” The “subordinate” conflict in the Middle East would therefore be “embarked on a proactive and calculating course.” Nixon described his goal in contrast with the Soviets: “We want peace. They want the Middle East.”
Accordingly, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat — because of his displeasure with Soviet avarice — was eager to re-enter the American fold. Reciprocally, Nixon wanted to strengthen Sadat’s position and influence in Middle East negotiations. Sadat would ultimately re-open the Suez Canal and recognize its borders with Israel. To the pleasure of the United States, Sadat also expelled 15,000 Soviet agents.
Nixon’s approach to the Middle East peace process would thus be multi-lateral. His memoirs note in conversations with Israelis he expressed “sympathy for their military needs” but he also recognized the exigent circumstances for a stable and permanent peace with the Arabs. In Nixon’s mind, the surrounding Arab majority was like a hydra that would overcome their failures in the 1967 Six-Day War and “would learn to fight.”
Nixon and Kissinger believed that the alliance with Israel was a positive relationship that gave America a cooperative ally — in exchange for security guarantees — in negotiations with the Arabs. According to Oren, though the Soviets could endlessly supply Israel’s enemies, America had the authority and trust from Israelis to gain peace for what the Arab states wanted: the territories captured in the 1967 war.
In Cold War terms, previous American relations with Israel also had their negative effects. The Time article notes Abba Eban, then Israel’s foreign minister as saying that the relationship was essentially a “see saw” effect that “if you go up with Israel, you go down with the Arabs.” With Nixon, Eban saw the “see saw” rising in a “spectacular paradox” that didn’t see one-side’s gain as another’s loss.
After Egypt, Nixon landed in Saudi Arabia where he met with the ardently anti-Communist King Faisal. Similar to today’s circumstances, the Saudis weren’t directly involved with negotiations, but according to Nixon, Faisal’s prestige and treasure were pivotal “in maintaining the momentum towards peace” because of the country’s impact on oil prices and the aid dispersed to Israel’s enemies in the 1973 Yom Kippur War: Egypt and Syria.
During his visit to Damascus, the Syrians greeted the President with open arms back-dropped by “American flags flying for the first time in seven years.” According to Nixon, Syrian President Hafez Assad took the hardest line in public, but the diplomatic overtures made by Kissinger and the President in light of Syrian and Egyptian disaffection with the Soviets neutralized the anti-American tone throughout the country. Though the peace was far from perfect, Syrian-Israeli disengagement following the 1973 war lead to a cease-fire based on UN Resolution 338. At the conclusion of the President’s visit, Nixon and Assad announced a “resumption of diplomatic relations.”
Unlike Obama, Nixon’s overtures to the Arab world couldn’t have been made without visiting America’s most reliable ally in the region: Israel. There Nixon re-assured Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin that he “would not waver” in his support for “Israel’s security.” But in a formal toast to Israel’s then retired Prime Minister Golda Meir, the President advocated for a non-military solution. For “Israel’s survival,” Nixon contended “the way of statesmanship” not “continuous war” would lead to the desired outcome of “a permanent, just, and durable peace.”
Nixon’s final stop in Jordan was capped and symbolized by his words to King Hussein: “I do not tell you where this journey will end. I cannot tell you when it will end. The important thing is that it has begun.”
Like the challenges Nixon faced in the Middle East in the backdrop of the Cold War, America currently faces challenges to its global power. President Obama is a skilled politician and orator whose recent gestures to the Middle East may prove fruitful. But he is also tasked with somewhat of an unprecedented burden in winding down two insurgencies, dealing with a nuclear-armed North Korea, and preventing a nuclear armed Iran. Add to this heap a global economic crisis, and the economic and political costs of not conferring American power and prestige become quite steeper. With that said, the costs of unleashing this burden are even higher.
To Nixon the recent events would be an awesome responsibility and the greatest honor history can bestow: “the title of peacemaker.”