Obama and the Lessons of Eisenhower

President Barack Obama and Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr., superintendent at the U.S. Military Academy, stand for the national anthem during a graduation and commissioning ceremony at the academy, Wednesday, May 28, 2014, in West Point, N.Y.

Mike Groll/AP

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President Barack Obama and Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr., superintendent at the U.S. Military Academy, stand for the national anthem during a graduation and commissioning ceremony at the academy, Wednesday, May 28, 2014, in West Point, N.Y.

After his West Point speech, Obama's model is clear: End costly, unwinnable wars, don’t start new ones, and rebuild the economic foundation of American power. There will be opposition. By Peter Beinart

The debate between President Obama and his hawkish critics comes down to this. Obama is—as he said yesterday at West Point—“haunted” by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His hawkish critics are haunted by the fact that he’s haunted.

From this core divide comes a fundamentally different reading of the history of American foreign policy. For hawks, the story of the last 75 years goes something like this: From Franklin Roosevelt through Harry Truman through John F. Kennedy, the United States pursued a muscular, internationalist and moral foreign policy. Then, because of Vietnam, America’s leaders lost faith in American might and American ideals. As a result, the Soviet Union began to win the Cold War, until Ronald Reagan rebuilt American power and American pride, and the Cold War was won. Now, as a result of Afghanistan and Iraq, another American leader—Obama—is losing faith in American power. The enemies of freedom are again gaining strength. And they will keep gaining strength until a new Reagan saves the day.

In this narrative, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan don’t matter much in and of themselves. They were either winnable wars lost through a failure of will or honest mistakes that say nothing important about the limits or fallibility of American power. The problem isn’t the wars themselves. It’s the way American leaders reacted to them. Jimmy Carter’s sin was to believe that Vietnam called into question the wisdom of intervening militarily against communist movements. Obama’s sin is to believe that Iraq and Afghanistan call into question the wisdom of intervening militarily against terrorist movements and anti-American dictators.

For Obama, by contrast, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are not aberrations. They reveal a recurring pattern of American hubris. “Since World War II,” he told the cadets, “some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.” For Obama, that hubris stems from an excessive fear of America’s enemies, who America can generally defeat by building alliances and harnessing our democratic legitimacy and economic strength, as the United States is doing in Ukraine. And it stems from an excessive faith in war, which once unleashed often spirals out of America’s control. 

It’s no surprise that at West Point, Obama yet again quoted Dwight Eisenhower. Like Obama, Eisenhower spent much of his presidency arguing against critics who claimed that the United States needed to spend more on defense, or intervene more militarily, because America’s enemies were gaining ground. Ike never believed that. He worried less that the Soviet Union would vanquish the U.S. militarily than that it would provoke an overreaction that bankrupted America economically. The Soviets, he argued, “have hoped to force upon America and the free world an unbearable security burden leading to economic disaster.”

Eisenhower feared that by endorsing NSC-68, the document that committed America to spend virtually unlimited sums battling global communism, the Truman administration was giving the Soviets exactly what they wanted. He fought back by ensuring that his secretary of the treasury and budget director sat in on all National Security Council meetings. (Obama did something similar when he conspicuously brought Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag into meetings on the Afghan surge). Ike worked so hard to keep the defense budget low that three army chiefs of staff quit. He ended the Korean War, although many in his party wanted to escalate it. And he refused to intervene to save the French in Vietnam.

That’s clearly Obama’s model: End costly, unwinnable wars, don’t start new ones, and rebuild the economic foundation of American power. I suspect Obama takes comfort in the fact that for the past several decades, many historians have applauded Eisenhower’s foreign policy. One influential academic essay even calls him a foreign-policy “genius.”

The bad news is that by the end of his presidency, Eisenhower was widely derided as passive and weak, a practitioner, in the words of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., of “the politics of fatigue.” Behold the Eisenhower doll, went a joke at the time: Wind it up and it does nothing for eight years.

Eisenhower’s problem was that his foreign policy was not heroic. He was content, in Obama’s words, to “hit singles.” He had, after all, seen more than enough bloodstained heroism on the beaches and meadows of Europe. At West Point, Obama quoted him as calling war “mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly.” The idea—so common in today’s foreign-policy discourse—that an inclination to use military force represents “idealism” would have struck Ike as beneath contempt.

I suspect Obama feels the same way. “I am haunted by those deaths,” he said about the cadets who died in the Afghan surge. “I am haunted by those wounds.”

Thank goodness. Obama should be haunted. We should all be, because there was nothing in Iraq, or in the fight against the Taliban (as opposed to al-Qaeda) worth sending young men and women to die for. And we should be extremely wary of letting people who have still not reckoned with their role in those catastrophes push the United States toward military action in places about which they are equally ignorant.

At West Point, Obama said he would not be pushed. Ike would be proud.

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