Commentary Magazine


Topic: realism

Will Hagel Learn from Eisenhower’s Mistakes?

Many of Senator Chuck Hagel’s most vocal advocates like to compare Hagel to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Like Eisenhower, Hagel views Israel through a realist prism and believes it would be in America’s interest to cultivate much closer ties to Arab states and the broader Muslim Middle East. There are 22 states in the Arab League (including Palestine and Syria, even if the latter is suspended), and that doesn’t include Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and the many non-Arab Muslim states who dislike Israel’s existence.

When Eisenhower entered office, he sought to rectify the damage—at least as he saw it—caused by President Harry S. Truman’s recognition of Israel. He immediately moved to cast his lot with Israel’s Arab opponents. In 1956, when France, the United Kingdom, and Israel responded militarily to Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdul Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, Eisenhower sided with Nasser and forced France, the United Kingdom, and Israel to terminate hostility and withdraw. Nasser’s “victory” in the Suez Crisis—the successful consolidation of Egyptian control over the Suez Canal—was the greatest victory Arab nationalists won. Nasser became a household name throughout the region. Arab nationalists got a burst of adrenalin, which they used to bring down the Iraqi monarchy, the Yemeni imamate, and the Libyan monarchy, replacing each with radical states. That might be all well and good to realists, so long as these Arab nationalist states paid heed to U.S. national security interests. Alas, that was not to be. Even though Eisenhower courted Nasser and gave him the greatest gift of his career, Nasser and his fellow-travelers turned their backs almost immediately on the United States. As David Verbeteen, then a doctoral candidate at King’s College, London, explains:

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Many of Senator Chuck Hagel’s most vocal advocates like to compare Hagel to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Like Eisenhower, Hagel views Israel through a realist prism and believes it would be in America’s interest to cultivate much closer ties to Arab states and the broader Muslim Middle East. There are 22 states in the Arab League (including Palestine and Syria, even if the latter is suspended), and that doesn’t include Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and the many non-Arab Muslim states who dislike Israel’s existence.

When Eisenhower entered office, he sought to rectify the damage—at least as he saw it—caused by President Harry S. Truman’s recognition of Israel. He immediately moved to cast his lot with Israel’s Arab opponents. In 1956, when France, the United Kingdom, and Israel responded militarily to Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdul Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, Eisenhower sided with Nasser and forced France, the United Kingdom, and Israel to terminate hostility and withdraw. Nasser’s “victory” in the Suez Crisis—the successful consolidation of Egyptian control over the Suez Canal—was the greatest victory Arab nationalists won. Nasser became a household name throughout the region. Arab nationalists got a burst of adrenalin, which they used to bring down the Iraqi monarchy, the Yemeni imamate, and the Libyan monarchy, replacing each with radical states. That might be all well and good to realists, so long as these Arab nationalist states paid heed to U.S. national security interests. Alas, that was not to be. Even though Eisenhower courted Nasser and gave him the greatest gift of his career, Nasser and his fellow-travelers turned their backs almost immediately on the United States. As David Verbeteen, then a doctoral candidate at King’s College, London, explains:

The Eisenhower administration bent over backwards to avoid any policy that might vindicate the Arabs’ almost paranoid perception of U.S. favoritism toward Israel. Washington denied Israel arms and threatened the Jewish state with economic sanctions in 1953 because of its water crisis with Syria and its military reprisals in Sinai against Egyptian raids. The State Department expected Israel to make sweeping border adjustments in the framework of the Alpha and Gamma plans, which called for Israel to cede Negev territory in order to enable a land bridge between Egypt and Jordan. Further, the White House condemned Israel in 1956 for participating in the Anglo-French Suez campaign and forced it to retreat from the Sinai in 1957. Kenen’s objections to Eisenhower administration policies fell on deaf ears…

Why, then, did an exclusive U.S.-Arab alliance not solidify into a permanent fixture of U.S. policy? Simply put, reality intervened. Arab priorities were not those of Washington. While U.S. officials saw resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a precondition for a U.S.-Arab alliance against the Soviet Union, such a grouping was not to be. Arab leaders were unreliable and did not share the U.S. vision of international, let alone regional, security. Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad grew closer to Moscow. These Arab nationalist and revolutionary regimes sought to undermine pro-Western governments in Lebanon and Jordan. The Middle East operated—and continues to operate—according to internal dynamics that are not easily channeled by external forces. Inter-Arab rivalries surfaced.

By the end of Eisenhower’s term, even Eisenhower realists understood that the reason why Washington needed Jerusalem was simply because Israel was a much better ally. As would be demonstrated repeatedly through the remainder of the Cold War, the United States got as much if not more from its relationship with Israel as Israel got from its relationship with the United States.

Perhaps in his confirmation hearings, Hagel can explain why he thinks Eisenhower’s assumptions about the Middle East fell flat. Let us hope he is aware of the history. Nasser’s expansionism with radio propaganda and conventional arms posed a formidable challenge and, indeed, led to destabilizing wars in the region. More than half a century later, it is a potentially nuclear-capable Islamic Republic of Iran that Hagel seeks to appease. The question is whether U.S. national security can now afford to re-learn Eisenhower’s mistakes.

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In Egypt, Up from “Realism”

Western analysts and political scientists will be learning lessons from the Arab Spring for a long time. But among the most important and immediate was the revelation that the cynical core assumptions of realist foreign policy were disastrous for the region and the West. The mirage of stability lured president after president, all the while helping to stifle democracy, education, and women’s rights. The inevitable and violent end of that “stability”–which of course was anything but–has finally reset the Western outlook on dealing with the newly emerging regional power brokers.

Or has it? Freedom House’s David Kramer and Charles Dunne aren’t so sure the West isn’t about to relapse. Egypt’s foreign policy, under its new Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, is adapting to new realities—and so should Washington’s, they write in the American Interest:

First, bedrock principles should guide U.S. policy, and we need to be clear in public and in private what those principles are, stressing the importance of institutions versus personalities.  The United States must stand firmly on the side of basic human rights, especially those of the most vulnerable, including women and religious minorities, and uphold freedom of the press, expression and association. It is particularly important that the United States press the Egyptian government to liberalize the environment for civil society and end its prosecution of international non-government organizations for their efforts to help Egyptians as they work toward democracy; investigations into domestic NGOs should also be ended. There must be rewards for advancing the political transition and real consequences for pushing it back.

The United States must also engage broader segments of Egyptian society and politics. The temptation is to pay too much attention to traditional political elites as well as President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood as they seek to consolidate power, but that is a mistake. The U.S. needs to reach out consistently to young activists and liberal and secular parties; however feckless they might seem now, their ideas on democracy and governance were the ideological underpinnings of the revolution against Mubarak and have been broadly, if tacitly, accepted by wide swaths of the Egyptian body politic, including the Muslim Brotherhood. They will continue to play a significant role in Egyptian politics.

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Western analysts and political scientists will be learning lessons from the Arab Spring for a long time. But among the most important and immediate was the revelation that the cynical core assumptions of realist foreign policy were disastrous for the region and the West. The mirage of stability lured president after president, all the while helping to stifle democracy, education, and women’s rights. The inevitable and violent end of that “stability”–which of course was anything but–has finally reset the Western outlook on dealing with the newly emerging regional power brokers.

Or has it? Freedom House’s David Kramer and Charles Dunne aren’t so sure the West isn’t about to relapse. Egypt’s foreign policy, under its new Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, is adapting to new realities—and so should Washington’s, they write in the American Interest:

First, bedrock principles should guide U.S. policy, and we need to be clear in public and in private what those principles are, stressing the importance of institutions versus personalities.  The United States must stand firmly on the side of basic human rights, especially those of the most vulnerable, including women and religious minorities, and uphold freedom of the press, expression and association. It is particularly important that the United States press the Egyptian government to liberalize the environment for civil society and end its prosecution of international non-government organizations for their efforts to help Egyptians as they work toward democracy; investigations into domestic NGOs should also be ended. There must be rewards for advancing the political transition and real consequences for pushing it back.

The United States must also engage broader segments of Egyptian society and politics. The temptation is to pay too much attention to traditional political elites as well as President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood as they seek to consolidate power, but that is a mistake. The U.S. needs to reach out consistently to young activists and liberal and secular parties; however feckless they might seem now, their ideas on democracy and governance were the ideological underpinnings of the revolution against Mubarak and have been broadly, if tacitly, accepted by wide swaths of the Egyptian body politic, including the Muslim Brotherhood. They will continue to play a significant role in Egyptian politics.

They have more suggestions as well, so read the whole thing. Lately, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been throwing brushback pitches at her old friend Leon Panetta, the secretary of defense, in the everlasting turf war between State and Defense. Clinton’s tenure thus far at State has been mostly unremarkable, but managing diplomatic relations with the new Egypt is going to give her the chance to forge a legacy.

Though she won’t be at State much longer, the first diplomatic moves with any new government tend to set the course, since Foggy Bottom’s inclination is to change direction only when absolutely necessary. The Arab Spring and the crumbling of the realist gambit have given Clinton the ability to lead down a different path, one that would finally give Arab liberals a voice and help create the institutions that could lead to real stability—one that relies on, instead of subjugates, the people.

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Betrayal of Dissidents at Core of Realism

Alana Goodman is absolutely correct that the Obama administration’s treatment of Chen Guangcheng is abominable. But the betrayal of dissidents is simply the bread-and-butter both of realists and the UN’s breed of internationalists, both philosophies to which Obama aspires.

In the 1970s, realists sought to kill the Jackson-Vanik Amendment which tied relations with the Soviet Union to freedom of emigration. Realists claimed that emigration—predominantly by Soviet Jewry—was not a core U.S. interest and that congressional meddling risked rapprochement with the Soviet Union. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union that dissidents and ex-communist officials both testified as to how Jackson-Vanik de-legitimized the Soviet Union and shook it to its core. Alas, few realists are students of history. As Sen. John Kerry auditions for a second-term Obama administration secretary of state appointment, he burnishes his credentials by undercutting any attempt to tie U.S. relations with Russia to human rights. Indeed, when it comes to the Magnitsky bill, it is clear he was for it before he was against it.

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Alana Goodman is absolutely correct that the Obama administration’s treatment of Chen Guangcheng is abominable. But the betrayal of dissidents is simply the bread-and-butter both of realists and the UN’s breed of internationalists, both philosophies to which Obama aspires.

In the 1970s, realists sought to kill the Jackson-Vanik Amendment which tied relations with the Soviet Union to freedom of emigration. Realists claimed that emigration—predominantly by Soviet Jewry—was not a core U.S. interest and that congressional meddling risked rapprochement with the Soviet Union. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union that dissidents and ex-communist officials both testified as to how Jackson-Vanik de-legitimized the Soviet Union and shook it to its core. Alas, few realists are students of history. As Sen. John Kerry auditions for a second-term Obama administration secretary of state appointment, he burnishes his credentials by undercutting any attempt to tie U.S. relations with Russia to human rights. Indeed, when it comes to the Magnitsky bill, it is clear he was for it before he was against it.

The UN is little better. It is tragic that this incident from nearly a decade ago has long since disappeared from public consciousness:

“On January 25, 2003, an Iraqi man stopped a UN-marked Land Cruiser right outside the UN compound in Baghdad, pleading, ‘Save me! Save me!’ According to a CNN report of the incident, the unarmed man then boarded the UN car and refused to get out. Appearing agitated and frightened, the young man, with a closely trimmed beard and a mustache, sat inside the white UN-marked SUB for 10 minutes, the Associated Press reported. Then, according to CNN, an Iraqi guard struggled to pull him out, while an unfazed UN inspector watched from the passenger seat.”

The UN handed the man over to Saddam Hussein’s security forces; he has never been seen again. Kofi Annan did not care. For Kofi, Saddam was a man he could do business with (literally), and he wanted nothing to get in the way.

Realists will always find an excuse to ignore dissidents and dismiss their fight for freedom and liberty. Unfortunately, what these realists see as sophistication not only is amoral, but actively undercuts long-term U.S. security.

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