Eisenhower’s New Fans
Barack Obama and Chuck Hagel look to the 34th president as a foreign-affairs model. But is it a willful misreading?
Chief among them, Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles believed, was the Arab-Israeli conflict. They saw the role of the United States then as playing the honest broker, mediating between Israel on one side and the Arab world on the other. If this conceit is still popular today with American policymakers, says Doran, “it’s partly because some Arab officials continue to talk this way. The idea is, to win over the Arabs we have to stop being so sympathetic to Israel.”
But in the wake of Suez, Eisenhower came to see the region through a different lens. He paid more attention to what Arab leaders actually did, rather than what they said. “Between March 1957 and July 1958, Eisenhower got the equivalent of the Arab spring,” says Doran. “It was a revolutionary wave around the region and for Ike a tutorial on Arab politics. There was upheaval after upheaval, in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and then the Iraqi revolution of 1958 that toppled an American ally. All of them were internal conflicts, tantamount to Arab civil wars, and had nothing to do with Israel. With this, Eisenhower recognized that the image he had of the Arab world had nothing to do with the political realities of the Middle East.”
In 1956, Doran says, “the Eisenhower Administration envisioned losing the Third World, from Dakar to the Philippines, if they didn’t show enough sympathy to the national aspirations of people struggling against colonialism. By 1958, Ike envisioned a loss of American power because they were not supporting friends and punishing enemies.”
In 1958, Nasser was enjoying his heyday, boosted largely by the victory in Suez that Eisenhower handed him on a silver platter. Evidence that Ike came to reject his earlier understanding of the Middle East was his decision to land the Marines in Lebanon in 1958 to protect a pro-U.S. government. “Nasser was monkeying around in Jordan and had stoked a low-level civil war in Lebanon,” says Doran. “The U.S. was aware that its allies, Camille Chamoun in Lebanon, and King Hussein in Jordan, were embattled. Eisenhower had already watched the pro-U.S. Hashemite dynasty in Iraq fall and saw it as a disaster for the West, and a victory for Nasser and the Soviet Union. He believed the U.S. had to take action in Lebanon—and had to be seen to be taking action—to ensure Washington’s position in the region.”
This Eisenhower—defending allies and vanquishing foes in order to advance American interests—squares with neither the outdated and uninformed version of Ike that Hagel promotes, nor with Hagel’s own policy prescriptions. Hagel is against sanctions on Iran and even voted against designating its Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization, and wants to engage other terror outfits, like Hamas. If some are satisfied with the prospective secretary of defense’s recent reassurances, it’s worth wondering whether, like Ike, he’s capable of actually learning from his mistakes. Because, by all indications, he has thus far been pushing an account of history more than 50 years out of date.
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