Foreign Policy and Domestic Scandal

By Rodman, Peter W. | The National Interest, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Foreign Policy and Domestic Scandal


Rodman, Peter W., The National Interest


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.(1) 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. …

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