A Nixon Quote Explains the Root of So Many U.S. Foreign Policy Blunders

Giving war a chance
Giving war a chance

W.J. Astore

On 30 April 1970, 45 years ago this month, President Richard M. Nixon ordered an invasion into Cambodia.  Explaining his reasoning for widening the war in Southeast Asia, Nixon declared:

If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions.” [Emphasis added]

So much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, then and now, is frightfully worried about appearing weak, helpless, impotent.  The solution, then and now, is military action.  They all want to be Caesars, if only in their own besotted minds.  As Shakespeare had Cassius say about Caesar:

he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a colossus, and we petty men/Walk under his huge legs and peep about/To find ourselves dishonorable graves.

America, to its image-conscious imperators like Nixon, must bestride the world like a well-hung giant, while little foreigners gasp in awe at the shadow cast, especially when aroused.

Think about John McCain’s fervent desire to bomb Iran, as Dan White deconstructed here. Think about George W. Bush’s transparent desire to play the conquering hero in the Middle East, ending Saddam Hussein’s reign once and for all in Iraq in 2003.  Recall here the words of Henry Kissinger when he was asked about why he supported the invasion of Iraq, when it was clear that country bore no responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. “Because [attacks on] Afghanistan wasn’t enough,” Kissinger replied.  Radical Islam had humiliated the U.S. at 9/11, and now it was our turn to strike back harder and to humiliate them. That simple.

As America’s foreign policy establishment continues to struggle with radical Islam and instability in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere, don’t expect any strategic retreats or retrenchment.  Don’t expect wisdom.  Don’t expect a containment policy that might allow radical Islam to burn itself out.  No.  Expect more military strikes, more troops, more weapons, more impassioned speeches about holding the line against barbarians determined to end our way of life.

Why?  In part because it’s far easier for insecure men to lash out as a way of compensating for their impotence and growing irrelevance.  Acting tough is the easier path.  Having patience, demonstrating forbearance, knowing when to sheath the sword, requires a quieter strength and a more confident sense of self.

You would think the “most powerful nation on the planet” with “the world’s best military in all of history” would have such quiet strength and confidence.  But remember that Nixon quote: No matter how big and strong we are, we can’t afford to look tiny and weak.

Bombs away.

9 thoughts on “A Nixon Quote Explains the Root of So Many U.S. Foreign Policy Blunders

  1. And if the nation was to elect “Libertarian” Rand Paul or a cookie-cutter copy thereof, what would become of US foreign/military policy? “Shrink government! Return to the principles of the Constitution!” Prediction (this isn’t a prediction Paul will be next POTUS): our bold “Libertarian” would be sat down by the generals and admirals and they would explain “how things really work.” In contemporary USA it is literally impossible that a genuine reformer of the Military-Industrial Complex can be elected. And I don’t believe for a moment that the likes of Paul are sincere in their claimed beliefs, anyway. These guys are peddlers of old-fashioned snake oil.


    1. The military is often far more reticent to use force than the political class is. Check out Zenko’s work at the CFR, he is the best at making this case.


    2. You’re both right. Greg is right in arguing that the Military-Industrial Complex will always fight for its prerogatives. It will fight to defend its budgetary slice of the pie, with internecine warfare among the services being more intense at times than that against foreign enemies. Ben is right in arguing that the military is often more reticent about using its power than various political leaders are. Look at U.S. political leaders today, clamoring for bombing attacks against Iran.

      And there’s the rub. The military fights for money and resources, and in that fight, the military must sell itself as being necessary, as offering decision. So it’s of little surprise that politicians, in confronting world problems, look to the military — for that is the way the military has sold itself.

      As Madeline Albright famously said to Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” And there you have it.


  2. “Why? In part because it’s far easier for insecure men to lash out as a way of compensating for their impotence and growing irrelevance.”
    It might also be because it’s good for business, particularly the military/weapons business.


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