Responses to Michael Doran's “Is Obama Like Ike?”
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.
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?
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?
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.
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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Must-Reads from Magazine
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.