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 Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).