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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?

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Chuck Hagel, Barack Obama, and Dwight Eisenhower. (Collage Tablet Magazine; original photos Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images and AFP/Getty Images.)

When Barack Obama first came to office, the model bandied about by journalists and academics was Abraham Lincoln. The 44th president of the United States, our first African-American commander-in-chief, was the embodied legacy of the man who banished slavery and unified the country. And Obama, like Lincoln, assembled a “team of rivals”—a Cabinet not of “yes” men, but of prominent statesmen and policymakers in their own right, some of whom had a rocky history with the president, including most prominently his onetime rival, Hillary Clinton.

But now, with Obama’s second term just under way, the focus has turned to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Evan Thomas, author of a recent book on Eisenhower, suggested that Obama might look to Ike’s example for how to get out of Afghanistan and “draw down military spending.” The key lesson, wrote Thomas, is “have the confidence to be humble.” “Obama,” argued one Los Angeles Times editorial, “would do well to emulate [Eisenhower's] patient pursuit of a peaceful world and productive economy.” And Clinton even bluntly cited the 34th president as a model in the recent 60 Minutes interview with her and Obama. “I remember some of the speeches of Eisenhower,” Clinton said. “You know you’ve got to be careful, you have to be thoughtful, you can’t rush in.”

That’s the version of Ike held by the Obama Administration: humble, prudent and patient. A five-star general who led the allies to victory over the axis knew how to corral America’s friends and thrash its enemies, but warning against the “military-industrial complex,” he also knew the limits of military force.

It’s easy to see why this version of Eisenhower would appeal to the president and his new Cabinet picks—especially his nominee for secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, whom Peter Beinart called the “new Eisenhower,” and who called himself an “Eisenhower Republican.”

According to David Ignatius of the Washington Post, Hagel bought three dozen copies of a recent book about Eisenhower to distribute to Obama and top Cabinet officials, like Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Eisenhower 1956: The President’s Year of Crisis—Suez and the Brink of War, is the latest book by Eisenhower scholar David Nichols, who’s also written a book on Eisenhower and civil rights and is working on another about Ike and the supreme court. But Nichols’ recent effort, writes Ignatius, “is a useful guide to how Hagel thinks about American power in the Middle East.”

Not unlike Obama, Eisenhower came to office believing that his predecessor had tilted too heavily in favor of Israel. After all, Harry Truman, the American president who recognized the Jewish state, once boasted that he was Cyrus, the ancient Persian king who saved the Jews from annihilation. Eisenhower believed it was necessary to recalibrate America’s Middle East policy lest it alienate the Arabs and put them all in the Soviet camp. The struggle then was essentially over Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Whoever won the allegiance of the leading Arab nationalist of the day, a man who seemed to capture the collective Arab imagination stretching from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, would win the Cold War struggle for the Middle East. Seen from this perspective, siding too much with Israel was a non-starter.

Accordingly, when Israel, together with France and Great Britain, invaded the Suez Canal after Nasser had nationalized the strategically vital waterway, Eisenhower compelled the three American allies to withdraw. The United States, he believed, should never be perceived to be collaborating with the great European colonial powers, or else the Soviets could rightly portray Washington as complicit with colonialism. Eisenhower’s triumph at Suez then amounted to recognizing when the interests of U.S. allies clashed with our own and putting them in their place.

According to Ignatius, that’s the sort of strategic courage that Hagel prizes in Eisenhower. The problem, however, is that since neither London nor Paris have a position in the Middle East any longer, Hagel’s fascination with Suez—his determination that Obama’s senior decision-makers should all learn the same lesson from the same book—tends to underscore his unseemly obsession with Israel. Worse yet for the former Nebraska lawmaker, who once went out of his way to clarify that he was not an “Israeli senator,” is the fact that Eisenhower’s strategic understanding of the Middle East was long ago discredited—by none other than Ike himself.

In fact, Eisenhower came to believe that Suez had been the “biggest foreign-policy blunder of his administration.” In hindsight, it’s not hard to see why. He ruined the position of two longtime allies, effectively driving Britain out of the Middle East once and for all, and without any benefit to American interests. If Eisenhower expected Nasser to be grateful, he was sorely mistaken.

“From Nasser’s perspective, he played the superpowers against each other and came out the winner,” says Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “What Ike thought he was doing was laying the groundwork for a new order in the Middle East, a third course between the re-imposition of European colonialism and the Soviet Union. But all Eisenhower did was strengthen Nasser and destabilize the region.”

Doran, a former George W. Bush Administration National Security Council staffer in charge of the Middle East, is finishing a book about Eisenhower and the Middle East that looks at how Eisenhower’s understanding of the region changed over time. “Eisenhower slammed his allies and aided his enemies at Suez,” Doran explains, “because his policy was based on certain key assumptions of how the Arab world worked. The most important of these was the notion of Arab unity. He believed they would respond as a bloc to certain stimuli.”

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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Lee, this cries out for a follow up story on Eisenhower’s decision to oust Mossadegh in Iran in the coup that installed the Shah. How can anyone portray Eisenhower as averse to intervening in the affairs of Middle Eastern states given his role as kingmaker in Iran, an act every bit as consequential and as lasting in its impact on foreign policy as the recognition of Israel?

PhillipNagle says:

I am always puzzled by the claim of Truman supporters that he was a great supporter of Israel. During the Israeli war for independence Truman imposed an arms embargo on the Jews while the British were supplying modern arms to their client states in Egypt and Jordan. What the Liberals don’t want to talk about is Viet Nam. When Eisenhower left office there were fewer than a thousand US military personel (they really were advisers) in South Viet Nam. Within his first year Kennedy had the total over 20,000 and the US was at war. As for Israel, when the Six Day War occured in 1967 they were flying French jets. The first US president who was a freind of Israel in deeds instead of lip service was the much hated Richard Nixon.

joelgol says:

Until 1967, American-Israel relations at best could be described as formally correct. The IDF tanks were for the most part British (and some American), their rifles were Belgian and their jets were French.

Anytime the Obama Administration singles out some historical figure to compare themselves to, you’re looking at the perversion of historical facts. President Obama would compare poorly with any past president in our history. It isn’t that he makes mistakes, they all did. He deliberately chooses actions that are inconsistent with who we are and what we believe. I liked Ike when he was a general and when he was President, I liked Ike period. President Obama is the most confounding decision ever made by the voters in my (75 years) lifetime.

“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’s flaws are real, but it’s also true that he voted for every US military intervention that went down while he was in the Senate, even going so far as to back putting American ground troops in Kosovo, which no one else of note did.

Further, if there’s an America – to – Israel military aid package that Hagel opposed in his senate career, I can’t find it.

So Hagel’s policy prescriptions seem to be, like Ike’s, a mixed bag, and it can be argued that the thing Hagel wants people to take out of the Ike/Suez tilt is that, at a given moment, America sometimes doesn’t sync up with a key ally. That can change as the facts on the ground change.

Look, I oppose the Hagel nomination for different reasons. But the guy’s not dumb, and it’s hard to see how the votes I mentioned reveal the weird pacifist/Ron Paul type Mr. Smith is suggesting.

Kevin Hudson says:

RE: “I remember some of the speeches of Eisenhower,” Clinton (born October 26, 1947) said.

Color me doubtful that the unnamed ( still waiting on Sir Edmund to top Everest so her parents could name her) precocious five year old was sitting around soaking up Ike’s foreign policy speeches.

Eisenhower’s Mideast policy left much to be desired His talking about the military complex and its power does not apply for today we had the smallest percent of our budget to the military since 1924 and I for one don’t feel more safe and I believe Pres. Obama’s Mideast policy has been a major disaster in our grandchildren will pay for this. As we are paying for Jimmy Carter’s Iran policies

Hemlockroid says:

Ike said ‘Domino Effect’ to Kennedy.

Obama has only “yes People”, is way to arrogant to be compared to decent presidents like Lincoln or Ike. He also has no were near the experience of Ike. Simple!!!

pkbrandon says:

Note that that ‘small percentage of our budget’ is more than the rest of the world combined. It’s hard to see how even more would change the results.

pkbrandon says:

Maybe she knows how to read ;-)

That it was Nixon that who was Israel’s greatest friend is not saying very much good for Israel.

Netanyahu’s suspicious and paranoid character does though eerily remind me of Nixon.

PhillipNagle says:

The ones who it is not saying much good about is the stupid people who claim to be freinds of Israel and pretend that Truman was a great supporter of Israel and Nixon wasn’t. Besides if you took the time to read I said Nixon was first not greatest, but certain narrow minded people don’t even take the time to read what thhey are answering.

herbcaen says:

I think it is carter, rather than Eisenhower, who Obama and Hagel are modeling themselves after. It is a sad specatcle to see our state and defense departments pursuing the mullahs like dogs in heat

This Carter—defending foes and vanquishing allies

herbcaen says:

your postings remind me of otto weininger

I care very little what the rest of world spends on defense. It’s his safety and security of the United States that think. We did not have enough troops to handle Afghanistan and Iraq at the same time to dinky little places are Navy is getting ridiculously small

pkbrandon says:

Trying to sort through your scrambled grammar, you seem to assume that spending more money on the navy would have changed the outcome in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some wars are not winnable — that’s why Afghanistan is known as ‘the graveyard of empires’ — just ask the British (read your Kipling) and the Russians.

And I think that if you measured the size of the navy in total tonnage, or in weapons carried, you would find that it has increased, not decreased.

Got into an argument one time with someone when I said that if Dewey had got elected it would have been better for Israel

I guess it’s a good thing Hagel will be in charge of implementing foreign policy, not making it. The only policy over which he will have control will be that of women and gays in the miliary. Everything else is just a tempest in a teapot.

pkbrandon, my grammar is indeed disgusting, but that is because I have to use Dragon speak at all times do to an old injury. But my points do get across.

I did not say the Navy would’ve made a difference in Afghanistan and Iraq. We did not have enough troops to be in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time. Iran will soon have nuclear weapons if Israel or America do not stop them. North Korea does have nuclear weapons and soon will have the missiles to deliver them and for money they will sell that technology to Iran. Islamist Looney Tunes are in charge of most of North Africa. We are assisting in the fight against Looney Tune Muslims from Yemen and Africa to the Philippines. The Muslim brotherhood controls Egypt. There is an Islamic president in Turkey. China today is threatening our allies the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea with territorial disputes and the building up of their Navy. Just a thought, what it costs for one American sailor you could probably get ten or more Chinese sailors.

This is the result of a long string of political blunders which stretch back unbroken to when President Carter pushed out the pro-American government in Iran and we are paying for it in American and Israeli blood to this day. The Carter administration, in their infinite wisdom, said that the new government of Iran was made up of religious people and we had nothing to fear.

It would appear that the world is not looking so good.

Not Carter’s by Eisenhower’s Iran policy is what we are dealing with. His administration destabilized the duly elected government to put in place the Shah.

Kate HA says:

Well said Hannah. Your points do indeed “get across”; for me, that is because you deal in plain/pure logic. If memory serves, I think (from your posts on other topics) that you have been observing objectively for more years than many of your critics. That you are an American of what was once termed ‘the old school’ of patriotic decency; that you do not deal in euphemism. Keep going please, I agree with much of your thinking. Regards, Kate

mgbmdmph says:

Thank you Brady Moss for talking sense. I don’t LIKE Hagel either for many reasons but I do consider him a reasonable choice for the job.

Iran will acquire nuclear weapons no matter what course we take. We need to strengthen the U.S so we can help strengthen Israel. The FORMER is what President Obama swore to do – just like EVERY other American president. No American President can or will place Israel first.

Lee Smith is a hopelessly ignorant Neocon who has learned NOTHING from our Middle Eastern mistakes. Eisenhower at least had a brain in his head – as do Obama and Hagel.

I don’t have to LIKE them to think that they are considering a sound course for the United States and THEREFORE for our relationship with Israel. I like Netanyanu even LESS and he is full of beans (and full of himself).

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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?

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