Washington It’s telling that one of Chuck Hagel’s favorite gifts to friends recently has been a biography of President Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero whose skepticism toward the military is a model for Hagel’s own.
Thinking about Eisenhower’s presidency helps clarify the challenges and dilemmas of Barack Obama’s second term. Like Ike, Obama wants to pull the nation back from the overextension of global wars of the previous decade. Like Ike, he wants to trim defense spending and reduce the national debt.
This back-to-the-future theme is visible, too, in Obama’s appointment of John Brennan as the new CIA director. A 25-year CIA veteran, Brennan wants to rebalance the agency back toward its traditional intelligence-gathering function, and away from the recent emphasis on paramilitary covert action. More trench coats, less body armor, in other words. If Eisenhower is a model for Hagel, perhaps the superspies of the 1950s, Allen Dulles and Richard Helms, will be similar icons for Brennan.
But there’s a darker side to foreign policy in the Eisenhower years, too. And it’s worth examining these issues now, as the administration floats what might be called its “team of allies” in foreign policy — Hagel at Defense, Brennan at CIA and Sen. John Kerry at State — to replace the so-called “team of rivals” of the first term. The new teammates may have bonded successfully with the president, but as 2013 unfolds, they will begin facing security threats of the sort that rattled even the stolid, war-hardened Eisenhower and his advisers.
In thinking about the Eisenhower parallel, readers should turn to Evan Thomas’ fine new book, “Ike’s Bluff,” as well as Jean Edward Smith’s excellent biography “Eisenhower in War and Peace.” They explain how Eisenhower became, in Thomas’ words, “a great peacekeeper in a dangerous era.”
Here are some of the complicated parts of Ike’s legacy:
l Eisenhower managed what Thomas calls “a bluff of epic proportions” against the Soviet Union. To deter Moscow’s expansion, he had to make the Soviet leaders believe he was ready to use nuclear weapons to stop their advance in Europe and around the world. In frightening the Soviets with the danger of Armageddon, Ike had to scare the American people too, and as Thomas says, “public terror was a price” the nation paid to avoid war.
Obama has a similar challenge with Iran. To press Tehran to negotiate an agreement that it won’t build nuclear weapons, he needs to convince Iranian leaders that he’s not bluffing — that Iran risks economic, military and political destruction if it refuses to make a deal. Hagel’s well-known aversion to a war with Iran could make this messaging harder in the beginning. But if Hagel decides that negotiations are deadlocked — and that military options really are urgently necessary — this transformation will get Tehran’s attention.
l Eisenhower made an open break with Israel in 1956 during the Suez crisis. He knew this was politically risky, but Thomas notes his frustration with Israeli military threats, quoting speechwriter Emmett Hughes: “The whole Middle Eastern scene obviously leaves him dismayed, baffled and fearful of great stupidity about to assert itself.”
I’d guess Obama has similar worries about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s threat to take unilateral military action against Iran, and his reluctance to make peace with the Palestinians. Are these two headed for a 1956-style break? That would be bad for both sides, but the atmosphere is poisonous. A bitter nomination battle over Hagel won’t help.
l Eisenhower didn’t want to fight more land wars, and neither does Obama. But each faces continuing global threats — in Ike’s case from an expansionist Soviet Union, in Obama’s case from a still potent al-Qaida — that require some way to project power. “Eisenhower preferred small-scale covert action over grand military maneuvers,” notes Thomas.
Obama, too, has been at his toughest as a covert commander in chief — in his use of drone strikes and his attack on Osama bin Laden. But these covert-action tools are precisely what Brennan hopes the CIA will use less of in the future, as it re-emphasizes old-fashioned spying. If “kinetic” action is needed to kill adversaries, Brennan is said to believe the default choice should be military power. But if you cut back both military and paramilitary commitments, what’s left? That’s another hidden dilemma of the second term.
One final thing about Eisenhower: He makes caution look good, even the dreaded “leading from behind” variety. “Eisenhower governed by indirection,” explains Thomas. So, too, does Obama.