During an animated lunchtime conversation about God and politics today, my Nixon buddy Hugh Hewitt graciously invited me to appear on his radio show to talk about what 37 would do about Egypt.
I demurred -- and then thought about it the rest of the afternoon.
It's hard to take leaders out of their eras and contexts. Nixon's lacked today's broadening intellectual and political consensus against Arab dictatorship. It's not that anybody ever loved it, but ready alternatives used to seem well out of reach. Remember that until the 1980s democracies were the exception to the rule, as scarce in Asia and Latin America as they are in the Middle East today.
Besides, during the Cold War there were worse devils than ordinary tin horns. Neocons and other fervent anti-communists, including Nixon, insisted on the moral distinction between authoritarian regimes such as Hosni Mubarak's and the totalitarianism emanating from Moscow and Beijing. If an imperfect regime like Egypt's joined us in the anti-Soviet coalition, it was golden. In Nixon's time, the U.S. Egypt policy would probably have added up to little more than assuming that Mubarak would do what was necessary to reestablish order or even goosing him to do so.
It wouldn't just be White House or State department realists encouraging tyrants to keep their jack boots polished. Even the media sometimes agreed. When I was performing counterjournalism for Nixon as his chief of staff in 1987, I tried to get Raymond Bonner and the New York Times to withdraw the false charge that Nixon had authorized Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos to declare martial law in 1972. The irony was that nobody would probably have looked askance if Nixon actually had done so. The Times itself had run an editorial portraying Marcos's move as an unfortunate but necessary means of restoring order amid acts of anti-regime terrorism.
With democracy now far more prevalent, an Obama-era Nixon would have less latitude to encourage an autocratic regime to maintain order in the face of a popular uprising -- not that Nixon would naturally side against the people. When it came to June 1989's doomed rising against the Chinese dictatorship, Nixon didn't hesitate to speak truth to power, the escalating importance of the Sino-U.S. relationship notwithstanding. After Tienanmen Square, the first Bush administration sent a secret delegation to Beijing that resulted in a photo of U.S. officials smiling and clinking glasses with the hardliners. Then Henry Kissinger was reported as telling paramount Chinese leader Deng Xiaopeng that a great power couldn't permit demonstrators to clog the center of its capital indefinitely without taking steps.
It fell to the disgraced former president to denounce the Chinese leaders to their faces (I was along), saying that U.S. differences with the Chinese over the crackdown -- in which hundreds and perhaps over a thousand had been killed -- were "huge and unbridgeable."
And yet a hypothetical 98-year-old Nixon probably wouldn't have been as quick as Obama to build a bridge to the crowds clogging Tahrir Square. His first concern would be geopolitics -- back in the day, the implications for the U.S.-Soviet relationship, in our day the struggle against militant Islamists. In this dimension, the 2011 Nixon would be a statesman out of time. The attacks of Sept. 11 notwithstanding, it's hard to believe he would've considered terrorism as comprehensive a threat to the United States as Soviet communism. But having perched restively on the sidelines when the Carter administration was equivocating in its support for the shah of Iran, Nixon would've taken pains to avoid saying anything that would make Mubarak's life more difficult.
In 1979, Nixon considered the shah's fall a lost battle in the Cold War. His worry today, as Obama's must be, would be the danger that Mubarak's successor would equivocate on Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. He'd scoff at Kai Bird and others who claim that a less friendly Egypt would increase the chances that Israel will make peace with the Palestinians. Since losing Egypt and Jordan could set the peace process back for a generation, Nixon would be dumbfounded by Obama critics who accuse him of favoring a regime that would be less friendly to U.S. interests, including Israel. If that happens, all is probably lost in his pursuit of the signature achievement of a Palestinian state.
Only after gauging the Egyptian revolution's strategic and regional implications would Nixon give in to the Wilsonian aspect of his nature and consider the interests of the Egyptian people. Even here, it's by no means certain that he would've considered popular democracy the ideal outcome, at least in the short term. The White House tapes reveal his archaic predilection for ranking the world's peoples and their readiness for political freedom. There's also the matter of Egyptians' simultaneous devotion to democracy as well as savage, medieval practices that are irreconcilable with it. One can imagine Nixon telling aides, "For God's sake, four out of five of them want to stone you for adultery and converting to Christianity. You really want to give them the vote right now?" Nixon would've wished Mubarak had done a better job for his people. But right now he'd be rooting for the next Mubarak.