One word in President Obama’s speech announcing his campaign against the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) brought to mind President Eisenhower’s sly behavior during the Dien Bien Phu crisis of 1954.
I’ll get to that word in a minute, but let’s first recall that Dien Bien Phu was a fortified French outpost in the northwest corner of Vietnam, on the Laos border. In March 1954, the communist Vietnamese laid siege to it, and quickly gained advantage. If the French were to lose, a good portion of Vietnam would inevitably fall to communism. As awareness of French vulnerability grew, the key question was whether the United States would intervene to save the Western position. It was at this moment, in early April, that Eisenhower delivered a speech referencing what would soon become known as “the domino theory”—the idea that if Vietnam were to fall, the rest of countries of Southeast Asia would follow like a chain of dominoes.
Such rhetoric led listeners to believe that Eisenhower regarded a victory against communism as a vital American interest. The reference to falling dominoes, however, was actually a massive head fake—quintessential Ike. “Privately,” the historian Jean Edward Smith writes, “Eisenhower was setting out the conditions for American involvement in such a way so as to ensure that it did not happen.” The president had a strong political incentive to dissimulate: a French victory in Vietnam would require a massive American investment in men and material, yet Eisenhower had been elected to end a war in Asia, not start a new one.
Obama is a self-professed fan of Eisenhower’s efforts to avoid military intervention in Viet Nam. And like Ike, he sees himself as a president who was elected to end old wars in Asia, not to start new ones. On the face of it, then, the decision to launch a military campaign against IS represents a repudiation of the president’s opposition to military intervention. In truth, however, Obama’s newfound aggressiveness contains more than a smidgen of Eisenhower-style dissimulation.
Which brings me to the magic word. Obama announced that his strategy would “degrade and ultimately destroy” the enemy. The word “ultimately” deserves special attention. Obama has left us with the strong impression that he is dedicated to defeating IS, but the method that he has adopted – air strikes – will not do the job. Therefore, Obama has pushed the actual hour of defeat to some hazy point in the distant future. How distant? John Kerry recently said that it would take three years to defeat IS. In other words, Obama has decided to hand off the last and decisive stage of the war – the part where we actually win – to the next administration.
It would be uncharitable to call the new policy a head fake. Obama has definitely changed course in very real and significant way. However, it is also true that he has yet to overcome his reluctance to define what victory would look like and to develop a strategy that will actually achieve it. Keeping the Middle East at arm’s length remains the defining characteristic of his policy.