[guest post by JVW]
Via Powerline comes a remarkable letter published in the Wall Street Journal and written “Eyes Only” by Richard Nixon to President Bill Clinton on the first day of spring in 1994 (the thirty-seventh President would die just 32 days later). Nearly thirty years on, the letter has been declassified and made available to the public. No matter what you think of Richard Milhous Nixon — whether you think he was an unrepentant warmonger, a dark lord authoritarian, a closet liberal who fell for some of the worst economic ideas of the academic left, or a mixture of one or more of the above — it is undeniable through the man’s voluminous writings that he was a deep-thinker, a shrewd analyst, and an insightful strategist. And what he wrote to the forty-second President, (past) disgraced leader to (future) disgraced leader, resonates with many of the issues vexing us today.
The letter was written by Mr. Nixon shortly after returning from a European jaunt which had taken him to Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and London. He wastes no time with small-talk or idle flattery with his most recent successor, immediately informing the current Chief Executive that “I learned during my years in the White House that the best decisions I made, such as the one to go to China in 1972, were made over the objections of or without the approval of most foreign service officers.” Having set the table, he continues with a warning of Washington’s foreign policy establishment that rings true today:
If you have not already done so, you will find that foreign service officers are seldom ignorant, but almost always arrogant. When they see a report from an outsider, they invariably react by saying, “We knew that. There’s nothing new in it.” Or, at the other extreme, “This is interesting, but we want to study it” … which they proceed to do until it is forgotten. I would urge you always to remember that foreign service officers get to the top by not getting into trouble. They are therefore more interested in covering their asses than in protecting yours.
But the crux of Tricky Dick’s advice to Bubba pertained to Russia. The dissolution of the Soviet Union had been finalized just twenty-seven months earlier, and in the past three years Moscow had seen a coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev come from an old-school communist faction led by Gennady Yanayev and Anatoly Lukyanov; the break-up of the Soviet Union into fifteen separate states; and the devolving of power as the President Gorbachev of the Soviet Union gave way to a new President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin. Mere months before Mr. Nixon’s visit, Russia had undergone a constitutional crisis when President Yeltsin had attempted to dissolve the Russian parliament and in turn had been impeached, all of which had brought protesters on both sides into the streets resulting in a death toll which ranged from official estimates of 187 to unofficial estimates of up to 2000. Mr. Nixon delivered a grim assessment of the ability of the Russian President to maintain control:
As one of Yeltsin’s first supporters in this country and as one who continues to admire him for his leadership in the past; I have reluctantly concluded that his situation has rapidly deteriorated since the elections in December, and that the days of his unquestioned leadership of Russia are numbered. [German Chancellor Helmut] Kohl is the only one I met who disagrees with this view. This speaks more for Kohl’s loyalty to an old friend than it does to his usually brilliant political judgment.
Since the December elections, Yeltsin is a changed man. His drinking bouts are longer and his periods of depression are more frequent. Most troublesome, he can no longer deliver on his commitments to you and other Western leaders in an increasingly anti-American environment in the Duma and in the country. I expected this among opposition leaders like Zhirinovskiy, Rutskoi, and Zuganov, but I found the same attitude among middle-of-the-road and liberal supporters of Yeltsin’s economic and political reforms. He is still the elected head of our most important strategic partner. But those who rely on his commitments will soon find that he no longer has the political strength to deliver.
Though Boris Yeltsin would somehow hang on to office until the final day of the last millennium, proving Chancellor Kohl to be the wiser seer, he never could get a handle on the endemic corruption that permeated Russian society (in fact, he benefitted from it) and his relationship with the U.S. soured when NATO decided to intervene in the Balkan War being waged by Russian ally Slobodan Milošević, another ex-commie leading a basket case of a state. When President Yeltsin stepped down on New Year’s Eve 1999 he was replaced by his hand-picked successor, ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin.
Even though Mr. Nixon didn’t expect Mr. Yeltsin to last as long as he did, he urged President Clinton to separate his personal regard for his Russian counterpart from a clear-eyed assessment of his utility, and he was not adverse to including a criticism of his former Ambassador to the UN and Republican National Committee Chairman:
All this means not that you should discontinue the positive “Boris-Bill relationship,” which has been widely reported in the media, but that you recognize that Yeltsin plays an increasingly weak hand and that it is necessary to reach out to others who have some power now and may have all of the power sooner than we might like.
Bush made a mistake in sticking too long to Gorbachev because of his close personal relationship. You must avoid making that same mistake in your very good personal relationship with Yeltsin.
Richard Nixon being Richard Nixon, he also gave a pretty blunt assessment of the Clinton Administration’s Russian policy thus far:
Understandably, you might have reservations about any criticism of your Administration in the Wall Street Journal. However, the article on foreign aid to which you referred in our telephone conversation is unfortunately on target. The entire foreign aid program to Russia is a mess. This ranges from the IMF’s stubbornness and stupidity in continuing to treat Russia like Upper Volta (which no longer exists, incidentally). [. . .]
And he issued a timeless reminder of what happens when you send money into a thieves’ den like Russia, including a dig at an egocentric economist who happened to be a notorious Friend of Bill:
American and Russian businessmen are ripping off the aid programs shamelessly. In the past two years, Russians have sent over $25 billion to Switzerland and other safe havens. This money will not come back until there is a better climate for investment in Russia. The quick answer from those like Jeffrey Sachs that what is needed is an increase in government aid is irrelevant. [. . .]
He also addressed the rise of China, suggesting that another self-regarding Clinton ally (even one whom Mr. Nixon purported to respect) might not be suited for tasks beyond his portfolio:
As you know, China has by far the highest growth rate of any major country in the world. This has been accomplished with hardly any government foreign aid whatsoever. We face the ironic fact that a communist capitalist economy in China is more attractive for foreign investment than a democratic capitalist economy in Russia.
This brings me to a very painful recommendation. As I am sure you know, I share your respect and affection for Strobe Talbott. This goes back to the time when I totally supported his then controversial view about Israeli-Arab relations. He is an outstanding political officer. His strong suit, however, is not economics. What we need now is a new program, such as the one we had during the Marshall Plan, where aid is administered by a topflight businessman reporting directly to the President. Strobe has to be big enough to accept this idea and not to insist that everything go through him and his staff.
It has been my experience that foreign service officers are very good on political issues but economics is not their strong suit. Like most politicians, they know very little about economics and much of what they do know is wrong. [. . .]
And finally, after a couple of paragraphs worrying that Ukraine is even more hopeless as a hotbed of political dysfunction and corruption than Russia is, and a warning that our embassy in Kyiv is inadequately staffed and poorly led since all of the best diplomats seek out cushy posts in places like Paris, Rome, and London when they are in fact needed in “combat zones like Ukraine,” Mr. Nixon warns the President about being very careful where he chooses to allocate precious funding:
You will be urged to scatter the available aid money all over the former Soviet Union. This would be a mistake. You have very limited funds. All the other nations in the near abroad are important. But Ukraine is in a different class — it is indispensable.
This post is way long, but there is so much more to this interesting letter: some thoughts on which Russian he thinks would be a good successor to Boris Yeltsin (as previously mentioned, Mr. Yeltsin would somehow hang on for nearly six more years; in March 1994 Vladimir Putin had just been appointed a deputy chairman in the local government of St. Petersburg and thus was on nobody’s radar screen) and his overall impressions of Helmut Kohl (positive). It’s a long letter, but it’s a fascinating glimpse into the workings of a very facile and shrewd mind. Mr. Nixon obviously relished the opportunity to be seen as an elder statesman, and no doubt some of his impetus for writing was motivated by personal ambition and vanity, but overall the letter struck me as a largely sincere effort for an old warhorse to give helpful advice to a young Chief Executive, even one who had started off his political career in virulent opposition to him. Perhaps that was Mr. Nixon’s way of getting even, by co-opting the snotty Baby Boomer at a point when the job was seemingly overwhelming him. In any case, Bill Clinton later said the letter was the best foreign policy analysis he had ever read.
Give it a read if you’re nostalgic for a day when Presidents could actually hold complex ideas and think strategically.