Commentary Magazine

Ike's Judgment

To the Editor:

Michael Doran’s excellent article “Is Obama Like Ike?” [October 2013] is a fascinating comparison of Eisenhower’s and Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East that in detail refutes the facile and flattering argument that Obama is Eisenhower’s intellectual heir in the practice of strategic restraint. It is particularly effective regarding the Suez Crisis. It’s hard for those of us not born when it happened to understand what a major event it was, and just how dramatically and traumatically Eisenhower demonstrated to two close allies that they were no longer major players in international relations. Not, I think, the normal definition of acting with restraint. I wish, though, that he had expanded his analysis to thoroughly consider Eisenhower’s foreign policy outside the Middle East, as this is instructive as well, and in most people’s minds, I suspect, the argument for Eisenhower’s strategic restraint rests not on the Middle East but on Vietnam. Here the difference between Obama and Eisenhower seems really striking.

It is not that Obama simply isn’t as interested in or as adept at geostrategy as Eisenhower was; it seems Eisenhower understood that the national interest was separate from the political fortunes of his administration, a distinction lacking in an administration whose every decision seems highly political. After his election, Eisenhower, who by all accounts was inclined to get involved in Vietnam, sent Matthew Ridgway, one of the most respected soldiers of his generation, to Vietnam to investigate the situation and make a recommendation. Ridgway’s analysis dissuaded Eisenhower from getting involved no matter how great the domestic political advantages of being seen to fight Communist aggression might have been. Eisenhower sent a genuine expert, with whom he had had a sometimes contentious relationship, and then he took his advice. An example of similar behavior by Barack Obama does not readily come to mind.

 Perhaps the most telling difference, though, is Eisenhower’s respect for intelligence sources and his actions during the 1960 election. Eisenhower had firsthand knowledge of how vital good intelligence is. It is not implausible to say that John F. Kennedy rode to victory in a very close election on the issue of “the missile gap.” The gap simply didn’t exist, and Eisenhower knew this from U-2 imagery and other highly sensitive sources. He let his party’s candidate for president—his own vice president—go down to defeat rather than sacrifice his intelligence sources.

The Obama administration cannot be blamed for the Snowden leaks. However, the unending stream of leaks about intelligence sources and methods prior to Snowden’s disclosures force one to conclude that Obama, unlike Eisenhower, does not put the national interest in protecting intelligence sources ahead of partisan advantage and political expediency. Mr. Doran is absolutely right to dispel the illusion of commonality and continuity between Eisenhower and Obama, but perhaps even more can be learned from considering their motivations in the actions that created this superficial similarity.

Jim Windle
Martinsville, Virginia

To the Editor:

Michael Doran writes: “Many historians now regard his [Eisenhower’s] reliance on the CIA, which toppled regimes in Iran and Guatemala, as anything but restrained.” This throwaway remark by Mr. Doran is actually quite controversial, at least with respect to Iran. Amir Taheri’s excellent 2009 book, The Persian Night, devotes a chapter to the Mossaddegh coup that was supposedly “staged” by the CIA. His conclusion: Yes, the CIA tried, but it failed miserably to launch a coup (CIA apologies notwithstanding). It was Mossaddegh’s own enemies—a confederacy of Islamists and shah supporters—who overthrew the shaky leader who, having defied the shah and dissolved parliament, cowered at home in his pajamas awaiting his fate. Must we so readily accept the conventional narrative of events?

Diane Krieger
Rolling Hills Estates, California

To the Editor:

In addition to Michael Doran’s examples of Eisenhower’s projection of power in the Middle East, there was the confrontation with Iran, where Ike mustered a huge concentration of U.S. air power in the Eastern Mediterranean, directing the whole operation from the Oval Office and almost completely out of the media’s sight. Might that episode be instructive as well?

John Schuh
Lake Dallas, Texas

To the Editor:

I wish my parents were alive to read Michael Doran’s article. They were born in the years 1910 and 1915, and developed the deepest respect and affection for President Eisenhower. They never forgot the confidence he gave them that we would prevail in Europe, and his ability to deal with the likes of Generals Patton and Montgomery. They didn’t know all the behind-the-scenes actions he took as president, knowing only that he got us out of Korea, refused to bail out the French in Indochina without British support, and kept “our boys”—as Mom put it—out of war. (My brother and I ended up in Vietnam in the Army and Marines, respectively, in the service of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.) It would have deeply pleased them to learn through your article the extent to which he was willing to stand up to both the Soviets and the old colonial powers that my father always thought had dragged us into two world wars. My parents were hard-working, thoughtful, practical Americans who saw through the criticisms of Ike, criticisms your essay eloquently rebuts. Thank you for setting the record straight. I look forward to reading your book.

Philip Burton
Arlington, Virginia

Michael Doran writes:

I am grateful to COMMENTARY’s readers for submitting such informed and thoughtful responses to my article. Jim Windle rightly notes that Eisenhower had a greater respect for professional expertise than President Obama. Ike described his basic approach in a letter to his brother Milton. “I go on the theory,” he wrote, “that the Executive of this nation must depend upon the finest set of brains he can mobilize around him. By and large, he must follow the advice of these people or, in the long run, he will so discourage them as to make them useless in a pinch.”

Obama, who had no experience in running complex organizations prior to becoming president, adopted the opposite approach. He sidelined his professional staff and relied almost exclusively on the judgment of a small coterie of trusted political advisers. This management style was a winner when things were going well, because all of the credit for success accrued directly to the president himself. But now that things have gone south, as a result of the ObamaCare debacle, the president finds himself in just the kind of pinch that Ike mentioned. Responsibility for the failure is falling directly on his shoulders, and fewer and fewer people are stepping forward to help.

While I agree with most of Mr. Windle’s specific insights, I can’t quite accept his claim, more generally, that President Obama is pursuing a partisan agenda at the expense of the national interest. While I’m certainly willing to accept that the president’s definition of “national interest” is often informed by assumptions that are inherently ideological, I’m not at all convinced that the president himself would regard them as such. The fact is that many foreign-policy professionals fully agree with Obama’s major decisions.

On the basis of the available evidence, therefore, I see no reason to doubt the president’s sincerity when he depicts himself, as he frequently does, as a rational and pragmatic actor beset by ideologically motivated opponents.

Diane Krieger and John Schuh caught me hiding behind the conventional wisdom regarding the Mossaddegh coup. My personal views about the American role in the events of 1953 are closer to Ms. Krieger’s than I let on in the article. In fact, I did consciously skirt the debate about the event. My goal in doing so, however, was not to endorse the common wisdom. I simply sought to avoid getting sidetracked from my argument about “strategic restraint.”

Even if I accept Ms. Krieger’s analysis, I don’t think it changes my main thesis. The mere fact that Eisenhower decided to support a coup demonstrated a willingness to take risks in order to push back against the Soviet enemy, as Mr. Schuh suggests. The particulars of the coup itself, it seems to me, are not directly relevant to this particular discussion.

Like Philip Burton’s parents, my father also had the deepest affection for Eisenhower, which, I now realize, planted a seed in my mind. As I conducted my research, that seed only grew. When I started the book on Eisenhower I have just completed, I actually intended it to be more of a critique—and I still have deep reservations about some of Ike’s Middle East policies. But after immersing myself in the documents, I could not but be impressed by his wisdom, experience, and leadership style. He had a unique combination of contradictory qualities: deep-seated values and Machiavellianism; steely resolve and political suppleness; transparency and stealth.

Somehow the average voter sensed that this mix added up, in total, to competence. During his first term, Eisenhower had a Gallup average monthly approval rating of 70 percent. In the second term it was 60 percent. It is a virtual certainty that Obama will never come close to this record. Reagan’s numbers, by point of comparison, were 50 percent and 55 percent, respectively. Eisenhower was, in short, extremely popular. He was the first president to be prohibited from seeking a third term in office, but there seems little doubt that, had be been permitted to run, he would have trounced Kennedy.

Yet the intellectuals did not share the general perception of him as a competent chief executive. They unanimously regarded him as so far out of his depth as to be almost unfit for office. Today, thankfully, the intellectuals have fallen in line with the people. Few now doubt that Ike was a man of talent, ability, and sound judgment. But the debate is hardly settled as to the meaning of his legacy.

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