Opinion: Obama shows shades of Eisenhower

January 11, 2013


— 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.  

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Paul R Getto 5 years, 3 months ago

Good points. IKE warned us about the MIC. We need to heed his words.

Brian Conrad 5 years, 3 months ago

Obama ran up more debt in 4 years than Bush in 8 ! 16.5 trillion and yes it gets our attention. Bush was bum .. Obama doubles up. hey Liberal have you checked your take home pay? Obama promised only rich would pay more . $400 a week pay went down $6 .

50YearResident 5 years, 3 months ago

Not even close! You are comparing Apples to Oranges here.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 3 months ago

The Israelis are not our friends, but they sure like our money.

parco814 5 years, 3 months ago

You might try actually reading the article, which makes some points that are critical of Obama and Ike. But that would get in the way of going rabid over what you perceive as a slobbering love affair. For you, anyone who doesn't go off like Ted Nugent must have a crush on Obama.

msezdsit 5 years, 3 months ago

Its amusing to watch all of you "just say no" to everything Obama while you flop and wine because you got "just say no" stuffed down your throat on romney. Your very unflattering to yourself when you have to eat your own bs, but none the less amusing.

WilburM 5 years, 3 months ago

Nice to see the high-quality assessment of Ignatius's arguments here. Ike would be proud.

parco814 5 years, 3 months ago

Superb editorial, based on a comparison that the President has earned and is confirming. The only insult to Dwight Eisenhower is the current Republican Party, and that's more than an insult, it's a desecration of his legacy. Thanks Ignatius and ljworld. Hope Dolph reads this one.

Uncle_Jerry 5 years, 3 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

parco814 5 years, 3 months ago

When she does that, it shows that liberal/left commentators are more likely to be fair and balanced than are those on the conservative/right shows, who are unrelenting in their hatred of and disrespect for the President and those who voted for him.

One thing that Maddow's dissent does not prove is that the President's policy on drones is wrong. That policy may be wrong, but Maddow's view has nothing to do with its rightness or wrongness. I'm pretty sure that you only take her seriously when she criticizes the President, not when she praises him. Just sayin.'

Uncle_Jerry 5 years, 3 months ago

Here is Obama's record. You can judge for yourself.

Signed the NDAA into law - making it legal to assassinate Americans w/o charge or trial.
Initiated, and personally oversees a 'Secret Kill List'.
Waged war on Libya without congressional approval.
Started a covert, drone war in Yemen.
Escalated the proxy war in Somalia.
Escalated the CIA drone war in Pakistan.
Maintained a presence in Iraq even after "ending" the war.
Sharply escalated the war in Afghanistan.
Secretly deployed US special forces to 75 countries.

Sold $30 billion of weapons to the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia.
Signed an agreement for 7 military bases in Colombia.
Opened a military base in Chile.
Opened up deepwater oil drilling, even after the BP disaster.
Did a TV commercial promoting "clean coal".
Defended body scans and pat-downs at airports.
Signed the Patriot Act extension into law.
Deported a modern-record 1.5 million immigrants.
Continued Bush's rendition program..


Uncle_Jerry 5 years, 3 months ago

Weird isn't weird when it's fact. Your refusal to acknowledge the truth is just as repulsive as the man you admire and worship.

Uncle_Jerry 5 years, 3 months ago

Drone fly - drop bomb on target - target dead. Target = 16 year old US citizen at a cook out.

My reasoning skills are in tact and fully functioning.

parco814 5 years, 3 months ago

The same folks who are howling/whining with rage over an argument comparing Obama to Ike are calling the President a dictator and describing this country as a tyranny. Not a whole lot of credibility in anything they say. I wonder what people who have endured real tyranny in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia think of such statements. If the things some folks say about Obama were said in Hitler's Germany or Stalin's USSR, those folks would never have been seen or heard from again, even if they would have had anonymous message boards. Most of the responses to Ignatius aren't opinions, they are tantrums. I've heard more cogent statements from junior high school kids and barroom drunks.

Uncle_Jerry 5 years, 3 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

headdoctor 5 years, 3 months ago

Shades of Eisenhower doesn't mean exact copy. Perhaps some of you should read Eisenhower's State of the Union address in 1960 and look at a revue of his accomplishments while in office. Then try to tell us with a straight face that his contributions didn't contain a lot of socialist programs even for that time of history. http://www.infoplease.com/t/hist/state-of-the-union/173.html

And exactly who was it that brought up the spreading of wealth from the more wealthy? Eisenhower.

Uncle_Jerry 5 years, 3 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

bearded_gnome 5 years, 3 months ago

Obama shows shades of Eisenhower =ROTFL.

Ike had more respect for the office and the american people, he'd never refer to himself as "eye candy." he'd have been a man and been honest about the truth r regarding Benghazi, even if as seems the president screwed up and led to the deaths of four good men then lied to cover it up. Ike would have been hoest about that. one recalls the paper he'd written before the dawn of June 6, 1944 taking full respnsibility for the failure of the normandy invasion, so that statement was already written in case of failure!

he wouldn't have made up a sham story about some dumb video.

Obama shows shades of Eisenhower =ROTFL!

Liberty275 5 years, 3 months ago

Shades of what would have happened to America with four more years of jimmy carter is more like it..

Commenting has been disabled for this item.