President Obama’s nomination of former Nebraska GOP Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense has encouraged the argument that Obama is committed to something like a traditional Republican foreign policy approach. One parallel favored by Obama’s supporters is with President Eisenhower – a comparison raised directly in the Washington Post by columnist David Ignatius.
According to this argument, Obama is very much like Eisenhower, who, after all, was supposedly a liberal Republican and a dovish foreign policy realist at heart, committed to reining in the U.S. military, pursuing multilateral diplomacy, and avoiding international conflict. Naturally, liberal Democrats like this argument because it supports the claim that their current international and domestic priorities would have been thoroughly agreeable to any moderate, reasonable, pragmatic Republican, of the type epitomized by Eisenhower. Conservative isolationists have their own version of this argument, which emphasizes Ike’s supposed alignment with their own desire to dismantle America’s military presence overseas. But are either of these Eisenhowers – the liberal Eisenhower, or the isolationist Eisenhower – the real Eisenhower? And does Obama resemble him in any way?
Eisenhower projected a welcome air of sensible calm. Obama has always tried very hard to do the same thing. This style, when it works, is often mistaken for moderation in substance. But the style itself says nothing as to the actual content of the policy goals pursued.
So let’s start with the fundamental policy priorities of these contrasting presidents. Eisenhower decided to run for the Republican nomination in 1952 for two main reasons: First, he believed that liberal Democratic policies on government spending, taxation, deficits, and regulation were on the verge of bankrupting the United States and undermining its traditional way of life. While he understood that the New Deal could not be simply abolished, he looked to at least halt–and if possible push back against–the trend toward what he himself called “creeping socialism.” Second, Eisenhower ran because he was a staunch internationalist, determined to uphold America’s postwar role in the world, and he was worried by the drift within the Republican Party toward a form of neo-isolationism favored by old guard figures like Senator Robert Taft of Ohio.
In other words, Ike was a strong conservative on domestic economic issues and a strong internationalist on foreign ones. Obama is neither of these things.
Obama’s overarching foreign policy priority since becoming president has been to avoid international distractions and scale back U.S. military engagement overseas where possible in order to focus on building up a series of liberal domestic policy legacies on key issues such as health care. His highest priority isn’t really foreign policy at all; it’s the preservation and expansion of the bloated welfare state against which Eisenhower warned. It’s not that Obama is a full-blown isolationist, by any means. He just doesn’t want to have to deal with foreign policy any more than is necessary, because that would interfere with becoming one of the great progressive presidents of all time. It would be difficult to imagine a greater contrast with Dwight Eisenhower on fundamentals.
Consider next the levels of military spending under each president. Liberals constantly invoke Eisenhower’s defense cutbacks, (and his famous pronouncement about “the military-industrial complex”), to justify their own current policy preferences. But what policies did Eisenhower actually favor? Go back and read Eisenhower’s farewell address, in which he coined the phrase beloved by every Noam Chomsky acolyte. It’s not a call for radical cuts in defense. It’s a call for civilian control over the military.
In terms of the defense budget, Ike believed that the amount spent by the Truman administration during the Korean War – almost 15% of America’s Gross Domestic Product by 1952 – was unsustainable over the long run. So, in the wake of that war’s end, Eisenhower looked to cap defense spending at about 10% of GDP. U.S. defense spending today is about 4% of GDP, and falling. To be sure, the USSR has since collapsed, but that doesn’t make 4% of GDP any more burdensome; Americans spend more on junk food every year.
Moreover, the proportion of GDP taken up by federal government spending on health care and social security has risen dramatically since Eisenhower’s time, in ways that he would have no doubt found appalling. The balance between guns and butter has shifted dramatically since Ike’s time in office. To get back to the proportions favored by Eisenhower himself, we would have to raise defense spending exponentially, and cut domestic spending far beyond anything proposed by the most conservative congressional Republicans today.
What about Eisenhower’s supposed commonality with Obama on issues of military intervention? It is certainly true that Eisenhower loved peace and looked to avoid war. But his technique to achieve it was rather different from Obama’s.
In a series of dangerous crises, ranging from the Taiwanese islands of Quemoy and Matsu to the city of Berlin, Ike averted war and preserved U.S. security interests at the same time by issuing credible, deadly warnings of massive military retaliation against any threat of aggression. And it worked.
U.S. adversaries balked at triggering such retaliation, and were either deterred or compelled to concede. This was coercive diplomacy in action. Obama has no such record, and no instinct for it. He gets a great deal of credit, and rightly so, for authorizing the 2011 special operations raid on Bin Laden’s secret compound. But Obama seems to have no feeling for the way in which credible threats of force must necessarily dovetail with efforts at negotiation in order to achieve diplomatic success in relation to hostile foreign governments.
His efforts with Iran form the leading example. Obama says that an Iranian bomb is unacceptable, and that the use of force is an option. But nobody takes this seriously in Tehran, so diplomacy has been unproductive. By contrast, U.S. adversaries took Eisenhower’s threats seriously.
Liberals, doves, and isolationists like to point to examples of foreign policy restraint under Eisenhower, such as his 1954 refusal to bail out French forces in Indochina, in order to claim that he was a liberal, dovish isolationist at heart. But his logic for that decision was radically different than the logic typically employed by liberals.
First, Eisenhower really did believe that the fall of Indochina to Communism would represent a very serious blow to America’s international credibility. And, in the end, of course, it did. Second, Eisenhower held from vast personal experience a special contempt for pinprick, halfway approaches on matters of military intervention. As he put it, “when you finally decide to resort to force, you should plan no limits for its use.” Under the conditions of 1954, domestic and international conditions did not allow for anything other ineffectual halfway intervention, so Ike decided against it. But he then suggested the threat of future U.S. intervention to pressure the Viet Minh and Chinese into accepting the creation of a non-Communist nation in South Vietnam, and mobilized massive U.S. aid to that nation to help keep it independent. These were neither the actions nor the techniques of a foreign policy dove, and they form an interesting comparison with patterns of U.S. military intervention under Obama, who, from Libya to Afghanistan, seems to prefer halfway approaches almost on principle.
According to what might be called the theory of dead Republican presidents, it is permitted for liberals to admire a GOP commander-in-chief, but only if he has retired, or better yet, passed on. Liberals today speak wistfully of the time when reasonable Republicans like Ronald Reagan dominated the GOP scene, as opposed to today’s “ideological extremists.” Of course during the 1980s Reagan was also denounced by liberals as an ideological extremist.
Ike is in a similar category. When he was president, Eisenhower was regularly described by liberals as a dopey grandfatherly figure who preferred golf to policy execution. Archival study over the years has completely disqualified that image. It turns out that Ike was, behind the scenes, a politically crafty, highly intelligent, and diligent chief executive. So the only thing left for liberals is to appropriate him as one of their own. But he wasn’t.
He was a genuine foreign policy hawk and a staunch internationalist who promoted and protected U.S. interests overseas with unusual toughness and skill. He was a conservative who believed that welfare liberalism had eroded Americans traditions of limited government, and tried to do something about it. In other words, he was nothing like Barack Obama. But we could certainly use more like him.