Madman in the White House

Why looking crazy can be an asset when you’re staring down the Russians.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

On the afternoon of April 19, 1972, seated in the Oval Office, President Richard Nixon instructed Henry Kissinger on what message he wanted the national security advisor to convey to his counterparts in the Soviet Union. In a few hours’ time, Kissinger would be aboard a red-eye flight to Moscow for a tense set of secret negotiations on the interrelated issues of the Vietnam War and nuclear disarmament. Unbeknownst even to the flight crew at Andrews Air Force Base, Kissinger was to be joined by a most important — and unusual — passenger: Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin. Nixon wanted to make sure the flight time wasn’t wasted on small talk.

"Henry, we must not miss this chance," the president said, his taping system silently recording the session. "I’m going to destroy the goddamn country [North Vietnam], believe me, I mean destroy it, if necessary. And let me say, even [use] the nuclear weapon if necessary. It isn’t necessary," Nixon hastened to add, "but, you know, what I mean is, that shows you the extent to which I’m willing to go."

Nixon wanted to impress upon the Soviets that the president of the United States was, in a word, mad: unstable, erratic in his decision-making, and capable of anything. The American commander-in-chief wanted the Kremlin to know that he was willing to escalate even localized conventional military conflicts to the nuclear level. Kissinger understood: "I’ll tell [the Soviets] tomorrow night," he vowed. The national security advisor even rehearsed for the president specific lines from the good cop/bad cop routine he intended to put on. "The more we do now," he would tell his Soviet interlocutor, "the better." He was akin to saying: On the shoulders of reasonable men, like you and me, rests the responsibility of preventing a madman, like Nixon, from taking things too far.

It wasn’t the first time the national security advisor had been exposed to the strategic potential of madness. The concept had originated, amid the nuclear anxieties of the 1950s, in the academic circles Kissinger had formerly inhabited. It was a product of game theory, a mathematic discipline — often applied to national security policymaking — that can be used to assess competitive situations and predict actors’ choices, based on prior actions by their competitors. Kissinger himself had endorsed the concept in his writings, as a professor of international relations at Harvard, a full decade before he came to the White House. "The more reckless we appear [the better]," he told Nixon that afternoon, "because after all, Mr. President, what we’re trying to convince them of is that we are ready to go all the way."

In his post-Watergate memoir The Ends of Power, former White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman wrote that his boss’s use of the strategy was hardly unconscious. "I call it the Madman Theory," Haldeman recalled the president telling him. "I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button,’ and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace."

It didn’t play out quite that effortlessly: A number of very costly and destructive military operations would need to be executed, from the mining of Haiphong Harbor in May 1972 to the devastating "Christmas bombing" that December, before the North Vietnamese, badly weakened and with the assent of their Soviet masters, would return to the bargaining table in earnest. But return they did. 

Fast-forward four decades and much has changed since the Nixon-Kissinger era: most notably, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of non-state actors in international affairs, and warp-speed advances in the fields of computing technology, satellite imagery, and data flow. But as always, much remains the same. In President Vladimir Putin, the former KGB colonel who once characterized the demise of the Soviet Union as "a major geopolitical disaster of the century," the West is confronted with a Russian leader whose unrelenting quest to project strength makes him not altogether dissimilar from his Cold War predecessors.

Indeed, the idea has gained wide currency that the president of the Russian Federation — with his determination to restore his country to superpower status, his frequent dismissals of American exceptionalism, and his track record of checking American influence wherever he can — is determinedly immersed in an East-West struggle that bears striking similarities to the one that defined post-World War II history. "I hate to say it," lamented a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who recently returned from a congressional delegation’s visit to Ukraine, "but Vladimir Putin is engaged in his own Cold War with us."

Speaking at a summit of North American leaders in Mexico last month, Obama derided those who see the Ukraine crisis, Syria, or other contexts in which Washington and Moscow are presently clashing, as "some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia." Yet the president’s own national security advisor, Susan Rice, would later tell reporters following Crimea’s formal annexation: "Our interest is not in seeing the situation escalate and devolve into hot conflict." Obama’s sarcasm notwithstanding, Rice’s comments betrayed that the United States has little choice but to see itself as engaged in a "cold" conflict.

This time, however, it is the Russians, not the Americans, who find value in the strategic use of "madness." Following a telephone call with Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is said to have confided that she was not sure the Russian leader was in touch with reality; "in another world" is how she reportedly described her interlocutor. And in the diplomatic volleys that followed Russia’s military seizure of Crimea, it was Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov who, in a radio interview with the Voice of Russia, warned that the Kremlin might respond to additional sanctions by the United States and its European allies with "asymmetric measures."

What did he mean, exactly? In post-9/11 parlance, of course, "asymmetric" is usually used in conjunction with "warfare," and typically refers to the tactics that rogue regimes and non-state actors, like North Korea and al Qaeda, respectively, have deployed against conventional powers: cyberwarfare and terrorism, chiefly. However, it is more likely that Ryabkov, channeling Nixon and Kissinger, was seeking to exploit existing fears about such terminology, and meant to signal that Russia intends, should the crisis deepen, to bypass the traditional practice of tit-for-tat responses.

That, so far, is what Moscow has been confronted with — a tit-for-tat approach — and it shows that the Obama administration has ignored two critical lessons from the Cold War. The first is the value of projecting unpredictability — or in Nixon and Kissinger’s case, even madness. Whereas Nixon once instructed his national security advisor to tell Dobrynin, "I am sorry, Mr. Ambassador, but he [Nixon] is out of control," Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have sought continually to impress upon the Kremlin their supreme reasonableness. "We would like to see this de-escalated," Kerry said during his dramatic visit to Kiev earlier this month. "We are not looking for some major confrontation." The president’s advisors have maintained, pro forma, that all options remain on the table, but Obama explicitly removed the most potent of them: "We are not," he told San Diego’s KNSD-TV, "going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine."

What’s more, the Obama administration has purposefully embarked on a course that the United States trod, with little success, during its Vietnam-era confrontations with the Soviets: the gradual escalation of punishments intended to produce changes in enemy behavior. After six fruitless hours of talks in London with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, aimed at staving off the Crimean referendum that ultimately proceeded apace, Kerry told reporters that if Putin makes a decision "that’s negative," then the Western allied response "would be calibrated accordingly." This "calibrated" response from Washington continued after the referendum, and after the formal annexation of Crimea, as manifested in Obama’s serial announcements of new sanctions on a list of senior Russian officials that expanded marginally each time.

The danger in this approach is twofold. First, it cedes all initiative to Putin — or, as Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said on Fox News immediately following Mr. Obama’s latest announcement of sanctions: "Mr. Putin, again, is controlling the battlefield, so to speak, and we’re reacting."

Second, it fails to administer the lesson that President Lyndon B. Johnson learned, at such great cost, in Vietnam: namely, the perils of gradualism. If the idea is to apply pain — or "costs," to use the Obama administration’s preferred language in this case — to an adversary, in order to compel it to do something or to cease doing something, the application of the pain in gradual, incremental doses will only enable the adversary to acclimate to these marginal increases in pain, which in each instance will not feel markedly different from the last set of imposed "costs." It’s no surprise that Vladimir Putin will more readily accept incremental increases in pain than risk a form of retaliation that is massive and debilitating.

If the Obama administration assesses that the fate of Ukraine is not a vital enough national security interest to make it worthwhile to inflict massive and debilitating costs on Russia, then the administration’s next best option would be to sow doubt in the minds of Putin and his advisors about American intentions. Even though Washington may privately know itself to be unwilling to escalate the crisis, projecting the opposite could carry tangible benefits, both diplomatically and on the ground in Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, the president and his secretary of state have discarded that option, as well.

With six years in the Oval Office under his belt, Obama can be expected to have grasped these basic precepts of game theory as they apply to negotiations, or confrontations, with adversaries on the world stage. Richard Nixon learned them during what amounted to an extended apprenticeship for the presidency: his eight-year tenure as vice president. He took particular note of the leadership style of one of the era’s dominant geopolitical figures, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, with whom Nixon had come face-to-face during their heralded "kitchen debate," in Moscow in 1959. And the future president, having narrowly lost the 1960 election, watched keenly as the burly Russian battered the youthful, inexperienced President John F. Kennedy, when the two met in Vienna, in 1961.

Looking back on his career in 1985, settled into an armchair in his Manhattan office, Nixon judged Khrushchev "the most brilliant world leader I have ever met." Asked why, America’s only ex-president said simply: "He scared the hell out of people."

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