In an effort to refurbish President Obama’s tattered reputation on foreign and security policies, a number of well-respected pundits and commentators have sought to make the argument that his policies are similar to those of other residents of the White House. Apparently unable to find a fitting Democratic president with whom to compare him, these writers descended like a plague on poor Dwight Eisenhower. I presume that some observers see this as having the added benefit of providing some shielding for President Obama from the increasingly harsh attacks by Republicans for everything from the failed reset with Russia, the weak response to Putin’s moves against Ukraine, the collapsing Syrian chemical demilitarization, a resurgent Al Qaeda, Beijing’s aggressive moves in the Far East, Pyongyang’s belligerent actions and mismanagement of the NSA to gutting the defense budget.
The arguments in favor of the “Obama as Eisenhower” thesis boil down to three points. The first is that they both ended unpopular wars and then reduced defense spending. The second is that they avoided war with the Soviet Union/Russia. The third is that they sought to limit U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts. In each case, the “Obamites” cherry pick the facts to make their guy look more centrist and even Republican.
Eisenhower ended the Korean War as soon as he could. The armistice was signed within six months of his taking office. Obama managed to keep the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan going as long as possible. U.S. forces will have been in Afghanistan over the entire eight years of the Obama presidency, helping make it the longest war in American history. Moreover, the U.S. defense of and commitment to the Republic of Korea has paid this nation dividends many times over. Can the same be said for Obama’s strategy with respect to Afghanistan?
Yes, Eisenhower did reduce defense budgets from the unsustainable 15 percent of GDP that the Truman Administration had been spending to a sustainable 10 percent. However, after that he kept the defense budget stable. More important, under Secretary of Defense Wilson, the U.S. military was transformed. The new Department of Defense invested in a host of transformational military capabilities including satellites, long-range rockets for all the services, the first nuclear attack submarine, the first ballistic missile submarine, the Forrestal-class super carrier, the B-47, 52 and 58 bombers, the F-102, 104, 105, 106, F-4 and F-8 fighters, the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, the S-2 submarine tracker, the C-130 transport, the KC-135 tanker, M-60 tank and the Nike family of anti-ballistic missiles. He also oversaw the creation of a powerful nuclear arsenal that became the centerpiece of U.S. deterrence strategy for almost half a century. Compare this record with the dozens of programs cancelled and truncated by the Obama Administration.
Eisenhower was deeply concerned about avoiding war with a nuclear-armed Soviet Union. This was the primary reason he eschewed any involvement in the tragic Hungarian uprising of 1956. More important, however, was Eisenhower’s steadfast adherence to the strategy of containment. Remember Massive Retaliation? He worked hard to support NATO and to develop a series of alliances in the Middle East and Pacific to surround the Soviet Union. His support for the French in Indochina and for an independent South Vietnam were the basis for the later involvement by the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon Administrations. Eisenhower believed in drawing red lines and sticking to them. That was why he was willing to stare down Khrushchev in 1958 over Berlin. In his last few years as president, Eisenhower did attempt a version of a reset with Moscow. But he did so from a position of strength, not weakness.
When it comes to the Eisenhower Administration’s record on foreign involvement, the proponents of the “he’s like Ike” theory forget their history. The unwillingness to back the Franco-British-Israeli operation against Nasser was about anti-colonialism not non-intervention. The Eisenhower Administration was certainly willing to involve itself in other country’s affairs when it mattered, particularly when it was part of the struggle against global communism. There were overt or covert interventions in Lebanon, Guatemala and Iran in addition to long-standing activities in southeast and northeast Asia. Let’s remember which administration planned and organized the Bay of Pigs operation. Compare Eisenhower’s policy on Castro and Cuba with that of Obama on Venezuela.
The misuse of history by outsiders will not help the credibility of an administration beset by foreign policy problems but desperately yearning to be free of its great power responsibilities. If the commentators and pundits are so enamored of Ike then they should wish that their President acted a bit more like him.
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