In a post-9/11 era, platitudes sell. The mere name of our current conflict, the “war on terror,” betrays a dangerous lack focus by the current Administration. Terrorism, after all, is military tactic. But amidst all the crusading and slogan mongering, our future president will do well in remembering Richard Nixon’s approach to international politics, which, while often callous, was focused on clear end-goals for our nation.

President Bush’s vague outlook has led to some memorable blunders. Iran’s constructive role in rebuilding Afghanistan was answered by Bush’s 2002 “axis of evil” label on the Islamic Republic. And the now famous 2003 Iranian memo, which offered the United States comprehensive talks on its nuclear program and support for anti-Israeli terror groups, was met with silence.

Had we been more focused on our war against al-Qaeda, rather than a conflict against the very tactic of terrorism, we might be in a different place today in regards to both Iraq and Afghanistan. When dealing with Iran, at least, we can learn a lot from Nixon.

Starting in 1971, President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger began forging historic diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China, a Stalinist nation that was not only anti-American in its rhetoric, but had actually fought U.S. forces in Korea two decades earlier. Nixon and Kissinger thought it more prudent to stifle the Soviet Union geopolitically, than to follow a no-holds-barred ideological battle against all communist powers at once.

To be sure, Nixon’s diplomatic policies had some detractors. In his memoirs, Kissinger writes that by “depicting the diplomatic strategy of the Nixon and Ford administrations as a form of appeasement … the neoconservatives undercut the real foreign policy debate.” Just as they do today, the neoconservatives felt that so long as America wasn’t aggressively on the offensive, America was losing.

Today, we find parallels between Nixon’s China policy and potential openings for dialogue with Iran. The anti-American murals that dot the streets of Tehran have been part of a domestic and regional struggle to define the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979, and not a literal declaration of foreign policy. For Ayatollah Khomeini’s emerging Islamic Republic, anti-Americanism was a way to tell supporters from detractors, and little more. In this regard Iran is not unlike China of the 1970s.

During Nixon’s historic 1972 visit, writes Kissinger, Mao made light of the harsh, anti-imperialist rhetoric that had made infamous his Cultural Revolution: “He laughed uproariously at the implication that anyone might be taking seriously a slogan which had been scrawled for decades on placards and on the walls of public buildings all over China.” But Kissinger understood that “Mao’s geopolitical, single-minded, and essentially non-ideological foreign policy stood in stark contrast to the dominant role he assigned to ideology at home.”

To suggest today that Iran’s elite, wealthy mullahs are somehow more ideologically driven than Mao had been, as some neoconservatives might lead us to think, is a contradiction of Iran’s observed behavior. The Islamic Republic has worked constructively with the “Great Satan” America in charting the political future of Afghanistan following the 2001 invasion, and has made it repeatedly clear that it is ready for dialogue.

In electing our next commander-in-chief, we must find a leader who doesn’t shy away from nuance. We don’t elect a president to fight an ideology, a military tactic, or to promote democracy by sheer force. Nixon certainly didn’t. Instead, a president must be able to properly gauge, communicate, and pursue our long-term interests in this dangerous and complicated world. In achieving this, a little thoughtfulness will go a long way.

Nathan Gonzalez is the author of Engaging Iran: The Rise of a Middle East Powerhouse and America's Strategic Choice (Praeger, 2007), the founder of and an analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus.

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