Obama's Second Term: Will He Channel His Inner Eisenhower?

According to Peter Beinart, Obama is Eisenhower. I agree. But whereas Beinart really likes Ike, I think this is terrible news. Beinart’s argument is based almost entirely on the premise that Eisenhower managed to spend eight years in office without ever having "lost a soldier." But this argument completely ignores the effects of Eisenhower’s legacy — one of which was to draw us into three wars in the Middle East half a century after the Republican left office.

This isn’t to say that we could have avoided conflict in the Middle East if we had had a President Adlai Stevenson (or President Truman for another term), but there is no question that for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to take place as they did, an Eisenhower administration was a necessary condition.

This may seem paradoxical, since Eisenhower is often touted by some libertarian authors as the best that president post-war America had to offer. It is true that Eisenhower avoided expensive conflicts abroad, largely due to his having been to war (as Beinart points out). But Eisenhower was no isolationist. He was just a man who preferred to operate behind the scenes.

Beinart doesn’t seem to have a problem with this. In praise of Eisenhower’s efforts in Vietnam, he writes: “he refused Paris’ request for an air strike that would have drawn the United States into [the war].” But the United States was drawn into the Vietnam War. Beinart blames this on the Truman administration’s containment policy, but it was as much a legacy of the Eisenhower administration’s domino theory.

Beinart also doesn’t consider that getting drawn in to the war in 1954 — when the communists were less organized and did not have an established government in Hanoi — might have had less disastrous results than getting drawn in to the war in 1964. Nor is it a foregone conclusion that it would have drawn the United States into the war — the United States’s 1986 bombing of Libya demonstrates that sometimes an air strike is just an air strike. Had an air strike been successful, the French might have emerged victorious at Dien Bien Phu and may very well have been able to set up an autonomous Vietnamese government more amenable to Western interests, as the British did in Malaysia.

This wasn’t what was most pernicious about Eisenhower’s legacy, but that legacy was based on the same assumptions. Because Eisenhower understood how nasty war was, his administration came to rely on paramilitary organizations trained by American intelligence officers. The CIA may have been born in 1947, but it was during the Eisenhower Administration — under the auspices of the Dulles brothers — that it finally grew up. The Bay of Pigs Invasion had the administration’s fingerprints all over it, but it was in Iran that the greatest disaster occurred.

At the time, the Suez Crisis and Truman’s almost unconditional support for Israeli independence had done very little to endear the United States to the British Empire. Furthermore, the Truman administration had sided with Iran’s President Mosaddegh on the control of Iranian oil fields, but when Eisenhower set foot in the Oval Office, he got to work trying to realign American and British interests in the region.

The result was Operation Ajax, the CIA’s first coup d’etat, establishing the authoritarian regime of Shah Mohammed Reza and setting the groundwork for the Islamist revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini 26 years later. Mohammed Mosaddegh may very well have failed in his attempt to modernize Iran, but, given the current state of Iranian politics — made possible by an Islamist rebellion against the client state that Eisenhower had established — it is hard to say that Mossadegh could have been much worse. The nationalist movements in the Middle East, of which dictators like Nasser and Hussein were the faces, proved less dangerous than the theocratic regimes that spread from Iran to Afghanistan, and gave rise to organizations like the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Today, it appears that Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Mali might be catching the Islamist fever as well, the latter two largely because Obama has followed Eisenhower’s manual and attempted to control events like a puppeteer instead of a commander. Clandestine operations used to be carried out by military advisors and propaganda campaigns. Today, they are defined by drone strikes.

Obama wants to prove as hawkish as his predecessor, but has grown so averse to putting troops on the ground — or even hiring contractors for surgical operations — that an entire generation from the deserts of North Africa to the mountains of Pakistan may come of age knowing Americans as nothing other than the robots that drop the bombs. No doubt, many of these strikes are effective; they probably should be part of all military engagements in the future. But alone they are only a half measure, and in certain areas are probably worse than no measure at all.

Al-Qaeda makes no secrets of its goals; its existence anywhere is a threat to America everywhere. But intervening in Libya, where no intervention was necessary, has enabled them to establish a base of operations to the south (and make incursions into Algeria). Already, the negative second and third order effects of the Obama administration’s policies in North Africa are coming to light.

No soldier died as a result of the Eisenhower administration’s policies while the former general was still in office. It was their grandsons who suffered for the administration’s legacy in the decade of war that has followed the September 11 attacks. Obama has already made the same mistake in Libya as Eisenhower did in Iran. Will we suffer from this legacy in the same way? Maybe our grandchildren will have to answer that.