Is Obama Like Eisenhower?

“I remember some of the speeches of Eisenhower,” Hillary Clinton said during a joint interview with President Obama in January. “You know, you’ve got to be careful, you have to be thoughtful, you can’t rush in.” It seems likely her memories were jogged by the reviews of Evan Thomas’s recent book, Ike’s Bluff, which argued that Eisenhower’s experience as a soldier and general taught him the limitations of exercising power. That book and a spate of other recent studies have established Ike firmly in the public mind as the very embodiment of presidential prudence.

They have also turned him into a posthumous adviser to the Obama administration. Before becoming secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel bought three dozen copies of David A. Nichols’s study of the Suez Crisis and distributed them to (among others) the president, Hillary Clinton, and Leon Panetta, his predecessor as secretary of defense. At Suez, Ike refused to support Britain and France when they (in collusion with Israel) invaded Egypt, and he effectively killed the intervention. Hagel’s lesson was clear: Don’t let allies drag you into ill-advised military adventures.

In an influential essay published last year in Time entitled “On Foreign Policy, Why Barack Is Like Ike,” Fareed Zakaria argued that when the president showed a wariness to intervene in places like Syria, he was displaying an uncanny resemblance to Eisenhower. The key quality that the two share, Zakaria argued, is “strategic restraint.” In his recent book, Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era (Princeton University Press, 200 pages), Joseph S. Nye of Harvard takes the argument even one step further. Nye claims Eisenhower was actually an early practitioner of what an Obama aide, speaking of the administration’s role in the ouster of the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya, notoriously called “leading from behind.”

A cursory examination of Eisenhower’s actual Middle East policies reveals the hollowness of both this thesis and the notion that Eisenhower, as president, followed a strategy of restraint—especially as regards the Middle East. To be sure, he frequently exercised prudence in military affairs. He ended the war in Korea and did not intervene in 1956 when the Hungarians rose in revolt against their Soviet masters. Most notable of all, he refrained from intervention in Vietnam. But military prudence should not be confused with global strategy. Modern-day “restraintists” are quick to cite Eisenhower’s warning, in his farewell address, regarding the dangers of “the military industrial complex.” They typically forget, however, to quote his justification for it: “We face a hostile ideology—global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration.” Eisenhower, in other words, zealously prosecuted the Cold War. Indeed, contemporary critics diagnosed his administration as suffering from “pactomania,” an irresistible urge to organize alliances against Communism. Many historians now regard his reliance on the CIA, which toppled regimes in Iran and Guatemala, as anything but restrained. And there are also more public examples of Eisenhower flexing his presidential muscles.

There was Syria, for one. Then, as now, the country was at the center of a regional power struggle. In the summer of 1956, when the Syrian government began to drift toward the Soviet Union, Eisenhower instructed the CIA to topple it. By summer 1957, the spy agency had attempted to stage two coups, both of which failed. No sooner had Syrian counterintelligence rolled up the second plot than Eisenhower formulated another plan: fomenting jihad. He instructed the CIA to position itself in order to stir up violent disturbances along Syria’s borders. The goal was to present these incidents to the world as a threat—a Syrian threat—to the peace and security of the region. Syria’s neighbors would then use the unrest as a pretext to invade and topple the government in Damascus.

The trickiest part of the plan was convincing the Arab states to invade. In the hope that Saudi Arabia would help, Eisenhower wrote to King Saud. The letter expressed alarm over the “serious danger that Syria will become a Soviet Communist satellite.” It affirmed that “any country that was attacked by a Syria which was itself dominated by International Communism” could count on the United States for support. And then it closed with an appeal to Islam: “In view of the special position of Your Majesty as Keeper of the Holy Places of Islam, I trust that you will exert your great influence to the end that the atheistic creed of Communism will not become entrenched at a key position in the Moslem world.” The letter missed its mark. “Saud,” as the historian Salim Yaqub wrote, “had little interest in Eisenhower’s jihad.”

In praise of Ike’s pacific record, Zakaria notes that “from the end of the Korean War to the end of his presidency, not one American soldier died in combat.” The statistic is striking, but it creates a misleading impression. In truth, Eisenhower had the one quality all successful leaders have: He was lucky. Any number of his policies could easily have backfired, producing a much less impressive statistic. The Syrian crisis of 1957 is a case in point. While Eisenhower was attempting to generate a jihad, the Turkish government amassed 50,000 troops on the Syrian border. The move provoked the Soviets. In an interview with the New York Times, Nikita Khrushchev, then the Soviet premier, publicly accused the United States of fomenting the crisis and issued a warning to the Turks: “If the rifles fire,” he said bluntly, “the rockets will start flying.” Secretary of State John Foster Dulles immediately came to the aid of the Turks: “If there is an attack on Turkey by the Soviet Union,” he said, “it would not mean a purely defensive operation by the United States, with the Soviet Union a privileged sanctuary from which to attack Turkey.” In such tense circumstances, a miscalculation by a Turkish, Syrian, or Soviet commander could have dragged the United States into an extremely ugly conflict. History, in that case, would have produced less impressive statistics.

Zakaria also happens to be factually wrong. A number of soldiers did die on Eisenhower’s watch—three, to be exact. One fell to an enemy sniper; the other two to friendly fire. All of them died in Lebanon during the 1958 intervention. Zero or three—either way the record is remarkable, but the fallen Marines should remind us of an important fact: Eisenhower, when the situation required, did not shrink from entering a messy conflict.

In the first half of 1958, Camille Chamoun, the Lebanese president, was battling an insurgency and strongly urged Eisenhower to come to his assistance. The insurgents were receiving support from Syria, which by this time had merged with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt to form the United Arab Republic. Eisenhower feared a quagmire and resisted calls to intervene. But overnight, his calculus changed.

When Eisenhower went to bed on Sunday, July 13, Iraq was an ally—“the country,” he wrote in his memoirs, “that we were counting on heavily as a bulwark of stability and progress in the region.” By the time he woke on Monday, the bulwark had collapsed. In the early morning hours, renegade army officers staged a successful coup, destroying Iraq’s Hashemite monarchy and replacing it with an Arab nationalist republic that Eisenhower feared might align with the United Arab Republic and its Soviet patron. In a mere instant, a Cold War ally had disappeared.

Fearing a push by Nasser and the Soviet Union against all Western-leaning states of the region, a number of American allies—including the Lebanese, Saudis, and Jordanians—called for immediate intervention by the United States. Cairo and Moscow, they argued, must be put on notice that the Americans would not let their remaining friends go the way of the Iraqi monarchy. If the United States failed to intervene, the Saudi king informed Eisenhower, it would be “finished” as a power in the region. Eisenhower sprung to action with remarkable speed. Within a few hours, he gave the order to send in the Marines to bolster the resolve of allies and reinvigorating the deterrent capability of the United States.

Almost immediately, Eisenhower invited a bipartisan group of congressional leaders to the White House for a briefing. Sam Rayburn, the speaker of the House, expressed concerns: “If we go in and intervene and our operation does not succeed, what do we do then?” He also worried that “the Russians would threaten general war.” Eisenhower replied that it was impossible “to prophesy the exact course of events. If we do or if we don’t go in, the consequences will be bad.” He calculated, however, that it was crucial to take “a strong position rather than a Munich-type position, if we are to avoid the crumbling of our whole security structure.” Rayburn also believed that “intervention would intensify resentment against us throughout the area.” Eisenhower shared his fear.

The Lebanon intervention, we now know, went as cleanly as any such operation in history. At the moment of decision, however, Eisenhower regarded the venture as highly risky—so dangerous, in fact, that it reminded him of giving the go order on D-Day, the most momentous event of his life. “Despite the disparity in the size of the two operations,” he wrote in his memoirs, “the possible consequences in each case, if things went wrong, were chilling.” What, in particular, made the intervention so dangerous? “In Lebanon, the question was whether it would be better to incur the deep resentment of nearly all of the Arab world (and some of the rest of the Free world) and in doing so to risk general war with the Soviet Union or to do something worse—which was to do nothing.”

Over the last year, a parade of America’s Middle Eastern allies have made their way through the White House, raising the alarm of Syria, and urging Obama to organize a more robust international response. Unlike Ike, Obama calculated that doing nothing was preferable to taking actions that have uncertain outcomes. As a result, when Obama finally decided that some response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons was necessary, he found himself almost bereft of allies.

And what about Nye’s favorable comparison of Obama’s foreign policy with Eisenhower’s? “An incautious comment by a midlevel White House official characterized the Libya policy as ‘leading from behind,’ and this became a target for political criticism,” Nye writes, but adds that “Eisenhower was a great exemplar of knowing that sometimes it is most effective to keep a low profile and to lead from behind.”

This is an act of rhetorical legerdemain. Nye’s use of the term gives the impression that two very different things are actually one and the same. With respect to Obama, “leading from behind” describes his administration’s policy toward Libyan intervention. With respect to Ike, it describes his management style, which Fred Greenstein famously called “the hidden-hand presidency.”

In Eisenhower’s day, intellectuals almost universally regarded him as an amiable dolt, more golfer than strategist. Before Greenstein (together with Stephen Ambrose and others) set the record straight in the 1980s, it was widely assumed that John Foster Dulles was the man who actually ran American foreign policy. Using declassified documents, Greenstein and his cohort showed that Eisenhower was resolutely in charge, a master of detail, fully in command of strategy and tactics. Eisenhower might have put Dulles out front and center stage, but he was always guiding him with a “hidden hand.”

The diary of Jock Colville, Winston Churchill’s right-hand man, provides a vivid example of Eisenhower’s skills at “gentle persuasion,” to use Nye’s phrase. After Stalin died in March 1953, Churchill, then in his final term as prime minister, perceived signs of moderation in Moscow. He began a campaign to convince Eisenhower to convene a summit with the USSR on the model of the great wartime conferences. Ike repeatedly rebuffed Churchill, who eventually made his differences with Eisenhower publicly known. Tensions came to a head in Bermuda in December 1953 at a conference attended by the leaders of the United States, Britain, and France. During one of the opening meetings, Churchill immediately delivered an eloquent appeal for engaging the new Soviet leaders. Eisenhower, Colville writes, was enraged. He reacted with “a short, very violent statement, in the coarsest terms,” likening the Soviet Union to “a whore” whom the United States would drive off the main streets. Colville was shocked by Eisenhower’s profanity. “I doubt,” he noted, “if such language has ever been heard at an international conference.”

Now consider: The Islamic Republic of Iran recently elected a new president, Hassan Rouhani, whom many observers regard as a moderate. Those observers have beenurging Obama to engage with him directly, just as Churchill urged Ike. Imagine a conference between Obama and a delegation of European leaders who argue eloquently for reaching out to Rouhani. Obama springs up, enraged. The veins in his forehead pop out, throbbing. He launches into a profanity-laced tirade. “Iran,” he thunders, “is a whore and we are going to drive her off the streets of the Middle East.”

If Obama were truly like Ike in foreign policy, this thought experiment would not be a fanciful one.

The popular association of the Eisenhower administration with “strategic restraint” is itself he product of historical revisionism. It was not the contemporary view. Until the 1980s, most pundits believed the opposite. Their view was perfectly distilled in Townsend Hoopes’s The Devil and John Foster Dulles (1973). The unstated goal of the book was to saddle the Republicans with responsibility for the Vietnam War—no mean feat, given that Democrats Kennedy and Johnson had made the key decisions to intervene. Nevertheless, Hoopes found an ingenious method to lay the responsibility squarely on Eisenhower’s shoulders—or, more precisely, on the shoulders of his secretary of state.

John Foster Dulles’s influence, Hoopes explains, was so immense that it extended beyond the Republican Party. Dulles managed to shape the zeitgeist by establishing in the broad culture the unassailable sanctity of “America’s posture of categorical anti-Communism and limitless strategic concern.” Once he successfully stamped the culture with anti-Communist zealotry, the Democrats had no choice but to follow its inexorable logic, which led to imperial overreach in Vietnam. “In early 1968,” Hoopes writes, “when the Tet offensive and Lyndon Johnson’s withdrawal from further political combat tore away the final veil hiding the misperception and failure of America’s freedom-defending and nation-building in South Vietnam, I faced, along with many others, the dawning of the realization that an era in American foreign policy had ended.”

This was hysterically overwrought, obviously, but in its day, intellectuals took the argument seriously. It’s worth considering why. Caricature, of course, exaggerates recognizable aspects of reality. In the 1970s, the very real anti-Communism of the Eisenhower era was still a part of living memory. “Mutual Assured Destruction,” “the domino theory,” “brinkmanship”—these 1950s catchphrases reverberated, testifying to the fact that Ike, even while steering clear of military adventures, took the fight to the enemy. By contrast, contemporary audiences know Ike only from history books such as Greenstein’s, which emphasizes Eisenhower’s pragmatism precisely in order to supplant the prevailing caricature of his stupidity.

Still, there was more than just a grain of truth to Hoopes’s presentation. Ike operated in a specific ideological context. To detach “Ike the pragmatist” entirely from it is to draw a caricature every bit as distorted as “Dulles the zealot.”

Zakaria sees Ike and Obama as uncannily similar for exhibiting “strategic restraint” in their Middle East policies. That Obama has been restrained is undeniable. In what way, however, is his reluctance to use military force “strategic”? What larger plan does the policy serve? The best answer came last March from Tom Donilon, his former national-security adviser. The Obama administration, he explained in an interview, had determined that the United States was “over-invested in our military efforts in South Asia and in the Middle East.” At the same time, it was “dramatically under-invested” in Asia, which was “the most economically dynamic region in the world.” Therefore, it was “rebalancing” to Asia.

So Obama, the global strategist, pores over a huge map spread out on the table before him. Using his pointer stick like a croupier, he slides pieces from the Middle East to Asia. That’s all well and good on the global level, but what about the Middle East? The region is undergoing an epochal transformation. Where does the president see it headed? What is the American role in guiding it there?

In May 2011, a few months after the Arab Spring first broke out, Obama identified a powerful movement toward freedom and democracy and reached out his hand in partnership. “The question before us,” Obama said at the time “is what role America will play as this story unfolds.” He answered with clarity: “There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity.” Only two years later, he struck a less hopeful note. In the Middle East, he said, “there are ancient sectarian differences, and the hopes of the Arab Spring have unleashed forces of change that are going to take many years to resolve. And that’s why we’re not contemplating putting our troops in the middle of someone else’s war.”

Where Obama was nurturing democracy two years ago, he is now arguing for quarantining sectarian violence. This blatant shift raises even more questions. Will this sectarianism burn itself out, or will the conflagration grow? What security structures will best contain it? How will the “rebalancing” to Asia help build them? One suspects that there are no answers to any of these questions, because the decision to pull back was disconnected from a larger vision of the Middle East. “Strategic restraint,” when applied to Obama’s policies, is synonymous with “strategic neglect.”

That was not true of Eisenhower’s policies. His eight years in office also coincided with a revolutionary wave. The old imperial and colonial order was crumbling. A new one, dominated by secular pan-Arab nationalism, was taking its place. Eisenhower saw it plainly and formulated a strategy to deal with it. His goal was to channel the nationalism of the region away from the Soviet bloc and toward the West by offering security and economic assistance. The United States was engaged in a delicate balancing act, supporting its European allies against the Soviet Union while simultaneously facilitating the rise of the independent nations of the Middle East, which were hostile to the Europeans.

It is impossible to understand any of Ike’s major moves without reference to this vision. Take, for instance, the Suez Crisis, which Zakaria cites as a prime example of “strategic restraint” and which Hagel holds up as a model for Obama. When Eisenhower turned against his allies, he did not do so out of any overarching commitment to “restraint.” He simply believed Britain and France were alienating Arab nationalists and destroying the prospect for a strategic accommodation between the Arab states and the West. He therefore shunted the Europeans aside—in what was actually the most dramatic assertion of American primacy of the Cold War.

In the midst of the crisis, he announced the Eisenhower Doctrine, a unilateral American commitment to defend the entire Middle East. His doctrine put the world on formal notice that the United States was replacing Britain as the dominant power in the region. The result of Ike’s “strategic restraint” was a massive increase in the global responsibilities of the United States. Obama’s restraint represents an attempt to shed those responsibilities.

The Ike–Obama analogy creates an illusion of commonality and historic continuity where none exists. It is bad history, because it depicts Eisenhower as a two-dimensional figure, entirely detached from his key associates and their core beliefs. At the same time, the analogy presents us with a distorted view of Obama. The Eisenhower Doctrine asserted American primacy in the Middle East, and every president since has regarded it a vital American interest to shape the international order of the region. Every president, that is, except the present one.

The old order in the Middle East is crumbling. The enemies and rivals of the United States—Russia, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda—are working assiduously to mold the new order that benefits them. Their efforts, which are often in conflict, have ignited a great fire. Unlike his predecessors, Barack Obama has determined that the United States is best served by hanging back. This is a sharp break with the past—especially with Eisenhower. Those desperately looking to burnish Obama’s reputation when it comes to foreign policy by associating it with that of a successful presidency will have to look elsewhere.

This article originally appeared in Commentary Magazine.