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.


Liberty275 1 year, 3 months ago

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


bearded_gnome 1 year, 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!


Ray Parker 1 year, 3 months ago

Retired four-star admiral James Lyons is now claiming that Barack Obama intentionally conspired with America's enemies to stage a bogus attack and the kidnapping of an American ambassador in Libya so he could "negotiate" the release of a "hostage" and bolster his mediocre approval ratings just prior to the election. The bungled abduction was to be the first stage of an international prisoner exchange that would have ensured the release of Omar Abdel Rahman, the terrorist Blind Sheik. Although the Obama Administration intentionally gutted security at the consulate prior to the staged kidnapping, former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty disobeyed direct orders to stand down, saved American lives, single-handedly killed scores of attackers...and the attackers, believing that the Obama had betrayed them, tortured Ambassador Chris Stevens and dragged his body through the streets. Perhaps the White House repeatedly ordered available military defense and rescue to stand down during the 7-hour attack so that all the American witnesses would be dead. The American survivors have so far been cut off from any interviews, even by congressmen inquiring as to the medical care of the wounded. And more than a rigged attempt to sucker voters with a phony ambassador rescue that fell through, WHY did the Mombasa Marxist regime conspire to recruit and arm violent Muslim terrorists to take over northern Africa and Syria? What happened to all the shoulder-fired missiles in Libya? What ELSE is he hiding?

Benghaze denial

Benghaze denial by parkay


irtnog2001 1 year, 3 months ago

I don't see much comparison between the two and certainly don't recall Ike ruling by executive order fiat.


donttreadonme 1 year, 3 months ago

There are many similarities between the policies of Presidents Obama and Eisenhower.

Ike, who I greatly admire, would be shunned by the deranged, emotional, and reactionary base of todays GOP.

Unfortunately, the GOP has come to resemble a pack of monkeys who can do nothing but call names and frott in anger.


headdoctor 1 year, 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.

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


parco814 1 year, 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.


parco814 1 year, 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.


disappointed_regressive 1 year, 3 months ago

Comparing Obama, a community organizer who hung out with communists and domestic terrorists, to a WWII decorated general, who was instrumental in winning that terrific war, is in and of itself, a complete insult to Eisenhower and his entire family....and to all Americans. I can understand left-wing extremists would get all excited by this comparison, however.


WristTwister 1 year, 3 months ago

Comparing the current Dictator-In-Chief to Ike is utter nonsense!


WilburM 1 year, 3 months ago

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


disappointed_regressive 1 year, 3 months ago

Oh brother! The slobbering love affair is more slobbery than ever! At least we know (in spite of how bad things will be in four years) that this "Eisenhower" -ish president will never be president again. That is the consolation to be taken referencing President "Executive Order" Obama.



Milton Bland 1 year, 3 months ago

Unbelievable! To even consider comparing Obama to Eisenhower is totally absurb! Obama is determined to institute socialism regardless of the cost to the country, and he is doing a damn good job of doing so. Ike must be turning over in his grave watching what is happening to the country he fought so hard to save. This article makes me puke!


Laus_Deo 1 year, 3 months ago

Duckpin did have diversity problems as the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W. does.

...and, all this time, I thought Dobama(the D is silent) was like Abe Lincoln? Now, the fawning media is promoting him like he is a military man like Duckpin? lol

Furthermore, and most importantly, Duckpin stood on the "right" side of a golf ball.


Paul R Getto 1 year, 3 months ago

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


50YearResident 1 year, 3 months ago

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


observant 1 year, 3 months ago

Somebody needs to tell the jewish lobby that this countries interests are our first concern, not their mindless support of a terrorist nation.


rockchalk1977 1 year, 3 months ago

Leading from behind and governing by indirection describes Obama perfectly. But unlike Eisenhower, Obama will never be ranked as one of the top ten U.S. Presidents. Unless we are talking about the national debt.


Paul R Getto 1 year, 3 months ago

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


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