‘Eisenhower’ doesn’t quite rhyme with ‘Obama’

‘Eisenhower’ doesn’t quite rhyme with ‘Obama’

My Shadow Government co-conspirator Peter Feaver’s post below on the similarities between the Eisenhower administration and the Obama administration probably elicited some smiles over at the White House. After almost two years of trying to fend off persistent-but-unwelcome comparisons with the Carter and Johnson administrations, the Obama team no doubt would find the Eisenhower analogy a welcome change. Eisenhower is, after all, regarded as a near-great president for his prudent Cold War posture and careful stewardship of the American economy during a decade of postwar growth and innovation.

The Eisenhower-Obama similarities that Peter identifies in his first few paragraphs are intriguing. However, the parallels are not unique; for example, Peter’s first two paragraphs could easily have described the Nixon administration’s early years in office following LBJ. The more important question in testing the analogy is how it does as a net assessment — that is, while there may be similarities between the Eisenhower and Obama administrations, are they outweighed by the differences? This was one of the cardinal tenets developed by the late Harvard historian Ernest May for how scholars and policymakers should approach historical analogies. Identify the similarities, yes, but be sure to list the differences as well. [Insert obligatory academic joke here about political scientists playing in historians’ sandboxes].

Taking the examples cited by Peter, a number of substantial differences emerge between the Eisenhower and Obama administrations:

  • While both Eisenhower and Obama took office promising to end unpopular wars (Korea and Iraq, respectively), Eisenhower brought the Korean War to an end on terms consistent with America’s original strategic goals: preserving South Korea as a secure, independent state and sending a signal of deterrent resolve against further communist aggression. Eisenhower was helped in accomplishing this by Stalin’s death and an explicit American threat of a nuclear strike against China; these game-changers for North Korea’s two superpower patrons enabled Eisenhower to secure a truce within six months of taking office. On Iraq, the Obama campaign emphasized ending the U.S. troop presence rather than securing America’s original strategic goals. Once in office the administration modified its drawdown schedule, but almost two years later still remains ambivalent between contrived declarations of the "end" of the combat mission and maintaining an adequate American security presence. Left uncertain is the administration’s commitment to the strategic goals of preserving a stable and free Iraq, while Iraq remains in the crucible of political and security vulnerability. As Jackson Diehl points out today, if the timetable-obsessed Obama administration sticks to its rigid December 2011 date for complete withdrawal from Iraq, it "will put the nascent U.S. ‘strategic partnership’ with Iraq’s new regime at risk — and hand an advantage to Iran." In short, Eisenhower used timetables in the service of strategic goals, whereas the Obama administration too often seems to subsume strategic goals to timetables.
  • While both presidents commissioned major strategic reviews upon taking office, Eisenhower’s "Project Solarium" assessed the U.S. grand strategy for the entire global Cold War, in contrast to Obama’s strategic review(s) of just one theater: Afghanistan-Pakistan. An accurate analogy would be if the Obama White House had done such a strategic review of the entire Global War on Terror (other than just giving it a new acronym). The Obama administration instead largely adopted wholesale the Bush administration’s strategic framework for the war on jihadist terrorism: pre-emptive attacks, holding states accountable for terrorist actions, renditions, law-of-war detainees, support for reformist and peaceful Muslim leaders, and promoting governance and development as long-term antidotes to Islamist ideology.
  • Yes, both Eisenhower and Obama (along with every other president since FDR) noted the connection between America’s domestic economy and international strength. But here the comparison ends. During his two terms, Eisenhower oversaw a remarkable 40 percent expansion of the U.S. economy, encouraged private-sector growth and job-creation, and balanced the federal budget by his fourth year in office, all the while maintaining a vigorous national defense and a robust strategic posture abroad. President Obama, in contrast, has indulged in a deluge of deficit-spending such as the stimulus and health care bills, adding unprecedented trillions to the federal debt while stifling economic recovery and squeezing America’s defense and diplomacy budgets. In short, it is not a program out of the Eisenhower playbook.

There are other interesting differences. For example, the Eisenhower administration engineered a dubious regime change in Iran in 1953 against the popular will, whereas (perhaps partly in overreaction to the Eisenhower legacy) the Obama administration has been too reluctant to support the popular will of Iranians themselves calling for a change in their regime. Or on nuclear weapons; Eisenhower’s "New Look" expanded the nation’s nuclear arsenal and made the option of their use (asymmetric response) central to U.S. strategy, whereas President Obama seeks to further minimize, if not abolish outright, the role of nukes in the United States’ force posture. To be fair, there are other similarities between the two presidents as well, whether difficulties with Israel, or efforts to improve U.S.-Russian relations based on the perceived appeal of a new Russian leader, or even the time that both spent at Columbia University trying to ascertain their future calling.

Yet in the net assessment, while I share the hope that the Obama administration will follow the best of the lessons from Eisenhower, thus far the disparities between the two presidencies are more substantial. And if the Obama administration does change course and start following more of an Eisenhower model, perhaps as Peter suggests the parallels between Truman and Bush will further sharpen as well.