Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Presidents: history may not repeat but it certainly rhymes

The presidential candidate campaigned on a variety of themes: change, a persona that rose above partisan politics, and a commitment to restore a country exhausted by crises at home and abroad. Even though the predecessor was not on the ballot, he was so unpopular by the time of the election that his shadow seemed to ...

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

The presidential candidate campaigned on a variety of themes: change, a persona that rose above partisan politics, and a commitment to restore a country exhausted by crises at home and abroad. Even though the predecessor was not on the ballot, he was so unpopular by the time of the election that his shadow seemed to dominate the campaign. The winner won in part because he was seen as his predecessor's antithesis.

In foreign policy, the contrast was sharp. The country was mired in a bloody stalemate, the result, apparently, of initial intelligence errors compounded by gross mismanagement and toxic civil-military discord. Of greater concern, this war seemed a side-show from the larger conflict, which the challenger also claimed had been mismanaged so severely that the United States was now generally thought to be falling further behind, far less secure even than when the conflict began. The winning candidate promised to end the stalemate in the "side-show" quickly, and refocus on the larger conflict, putting the United States back on the offensive and rolling back the gains of the enemy with a bold new strategy that would restore American credibility throughout the world.

Once elected, the new president went about his business methodically. He commissioned a major review and devoted an extraordinary amount of his time and his senior staff's time to considering a range of apparently sharply drawn options. Prominent in the review was the budgetary concern: the United States simply could not afford to continue to spend money on national security at the rate it had been without piling up a crushing debt. However, as the review unfolded, the various clear-cut alternatives got blurred, and in the end the president chose a compromise option even though his staff argued, not unpersuasively, that the president was blending mutually exclusive alternatives in an incoherent strategy. There was also an embarrassing inconvenient truth: while there were enough new features to be able to spin it as a new look, in fact the new strategy resembled more the strategy of the predecessor than anything touted during the campaign.

The presidential candidate campaigned on a variety of themes: change, a persona that rose above partisan politics, and a commitment to restore a country exhausted by crises at home and abroad. Even though the predecessor was not on the ballot, he was so unpopular by the time of the election that his shadow seemed to dominate the campaign. The winner won in part because he was seen as his predecessor’s antithesis.

In foreign policy, the contrast was sharp. The country was mired in a bloody stalemate, the result, apparently, of initial intelligence errors compounded by gross mismanagement and toxic civil-military discord. Of greater concern, this war seemed a side-show from the larger conflict, which the challenger also claimed had been mismanaged so severely that the United States was now generally thought to be falling further behind, far less secure even than when the conflict began. The winning candidate promised to end the stalemate in the "side-show" quickly, and refocus on the larger conflict, putting the United States back on the offensive and rolling back the gains of the enemy with a bold new strategy that would restore American credibility throughout the world.

Once elected, the new president went about his business methodically. He commissioned a major review and devoted an extraordinary amount of his time and his senior staff’s time to considering a range of apparently sharply drawn options. Prominent in the review was the budgetary concern: the United States simply could not afford to continue to spend money on national security at the rate it had been without piling up a crushing debt. However, as the review unfolded, the various clear-cut alternatives got blurred, and in the end the president chose a compromise option even though his staff argued, not unpersuasively, that the president was blending mutually exclusive alternatives in an incoherent strategy. There was also an embarrassing inconvenient truth: while there were enough new features to be able to spin it as a new look, in fact the new strategy resembled more the strategy of the predecessor than anything touted during the campaign.

Those new features did not really endure very long. They rested on premises that seemed increasingly implausible in the rapidly shifting international environment. Respected senior military voices warned that the strategy put American national security at risk and pushed back against it in an eventually successful effort to nudge the president in their direction. In the process, the president looked weak and feckless; some acid-tongued critics even claimed the president was more interested in playing golf than in shouldering his commander-in-chief duties. The president and his staff railed privately and then ultimately publicly against the power of the military and its political allies to resist presidential direction.

I could go on in this vein for some time, but by now it should be obvious that I am referring to President Eisenhower, the campaign of 1952, and his famous Project Solarium, which produced the New Look strategy. In preparing for my seminar in American Grand Strategy this week (guess what is the topic), I was struck once again by how history may not repeat itself but it often rhymes.

Of course, President Bush and his staff saw many parallels to President Truman back during some of the bleak periods of the second term. I would say those parallels look even more plausible today. But what I find especially interesting are the parallels between the first couple years of the Obama administration and the Eisenhower administration (and there are more I could have developed, like Ike’s "I will go to Korea" vs. Obama’s "I will talk with Ahmadinejad," and so on). Like Ike, Obama has retreated rather substantially (at least in the national security arena) from the bold change language of the campaign; this happens after every election, but the climb down in 1953-1954 was extraordinarily large, as was the climb-down in 2009-2010. Like Ike, Obama launched a remarkably labor-intensive strategic review that ended up splitting staff differences and producing a compromise that everyone could like or hate in equal measure. And like Ike, Obama is presiding over stormy civil-military relations.

Of course, no analogy is perfect. No president since Grant had a more impressive national security resume, whereas arguably no president ever had as weak a national security resume as Obama. The scales of the wars, Korea/Cold War vs. Iraq/War on Terror, are very different. Even the economic burden posed by defense spending is qualitatively different; Eisenhower was wrestling with a defense budget that was north of 13 percent of GDP whereas Obama’s is less than 5 percent. And while I am not much of a fan of the Solarium exercise, I think it looks better in retrospect than Obama’s Afghan strategy review looks today.

But some of these assessments will shift as we learn more about what actually happened and as outcomes allow us to better evaluate the strategic bets that President Obama took. Perhaps President Obama may even come to benefit as President Eisenhower benefitted from historical perspective. Once the honeymoon period was over, Eisenhower was widely criticized by his contemporaries for an ineffectual national security process. He is generally well-regarded on exactly those terms now. Perhaps President Obama will enjoy a similar revisionist revival. In the meantime, the historical perspective invites caution and humility on all sides, both for those on the playing field and those of us in the stands (or the classroom).

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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