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Obama’s Not Carter — He’s Eisenhower

And he's prepared to let Putin win the battle, knowing that the West will win the war.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

On Nov. 4, 1956, Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest after Hungarian authorities announced that they would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. A last, desperate teletype message from Hungarian insurgents read, "They just brought us a rumor that the American troops will be here within one or two hours.… We are well and fighting." Troops were not on the way. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, who had vowed to roll back Soviet control of Eastern Europe, did nothing, and the Hungarian uprising was crushed. Leaders of both U.S. parties accused Eisenhower of kowtowing to the Soviets. Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for president, alleged that the incumbent had "brought the coalition of the free nations to a point where even its survival has been threatened."

Russia has invaded a border nation once again, and once again the American president stands accused of vacillation. Barack Obama is not the former supreme commander of Allied forces, so the darts fired his way penetrate much deeper than they did into Eisenhower, who coasted to re-election. Obama’s cautious response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Ukrainian region of Crimea has confirmed his growing reputation as a weak-willed figure whose faltering leadership has sent a message of impunity to the world’s bullies. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham recently tweeted that Obama’s failure to attack the Libyans who killed U.S. diplomat Chris Stevens in 2012 invited "this type of aggression." Graham has a partisan ax to grind, but much of the commentariat has followed suit. My colleague David Rothkopf, straining for terms of abuse sufficient to the moment, has written that comparing Obama to Jimmy Carter, the gold standard for presidential weakness, may be "unfair to Carter."

There is an implicit analogy here to the world of human relations. Since the only language a bully understands is intimidation, he can be deterred only if he knows in advance that he’ll pay an intolerable price for his behavior: beat up my little brother and you’ll answer to me. In the realm of foreign relations, this logic dictates Donald Rumsfeld’s famous truism, "Weakness is provocative." Rumsfeld believed that the U.S. invasion of Iraq would serve as a demonstration project for bullies all over the Middle East, who would now think twice before testing American resolve. That experience taught many people, though not the former defense secretary, that bellicosity can be even more provocative than weakness.

The impulse to chestiness is hard to resist, whether in life or in foreign affairs. There is something glamorous and enviable about the freedom of action a bully enjoys. He swaggers, while lesser souls cower. We yearn to emulate that freedom without indulging in that cruelty — thus our Walter Mitty fantasies. Bullying behavior seems even more intolerable when, like the United States, you’re the most powerful kid on the playground. We thrill at the big brother who balls up his fist in the name of justice. Ronald Reagan got vastly more credit with the American people for crying, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!" than his successor George H.W. Bush did for helping Mikhail Gorbachev end the Soviet empire peacefully. But the world owes Bush a much greater debt of gratitude.

Eisenhower understood that bullies often cannot be deterred without threatening a response that would be catastrophic for one and all. This is especially the case when the aggressor cares much more about the victim than we do. Nikita Khrushchev could not afford to lose Hungary, just as Putin believes that he cannot afford to lose Crimea to a Western-oriented Ukrainian government. That’s no secret. Crimea was historically Russian, serves as the home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and satisfies Moscow’s age-old drive for warm-water ports. A thug like Putin responds to a threat of this magnitude the only way he knows how — with brute force. The idea that a more resolute American president would have made Putin stay his hand seems fanciful, on the order of "Who lost China?" or all the other places weak-willed American leaders are said to have lost to the communists. Today’s version is "Who lost Benghazi?" — or Syria.

Eisenhower felt confident that, in the end, the Soviets would not dance on the grave of the West, but that it would turn out the other way around. I suspect that Obama thinks about Putin in much the same way. Those who sneer at Obama now laud Putin as a strategic mastermind, playing Risk, as FP contributing editor Will Inboden puts it, while Obama plays Candy Land. Yet Putin has turned Russia into Saudi Arabia with nukes, a petrostate incapable of exporting anything that doesn’t come out of the ground. He’s playing with a switchblade while the rest of the world learns how to operate a laser.

As a foreign-policy president, Obama deserves to be compared to Eisenhower at least as much as he does to Carter. Like Obama, Eisenhower inherited a vast military budget that he viewed as an unsustainable burden on the national economy. He tried, not always successfully, to do more, or as much, with less. (In Maximalist, Stephen Sestanovich describes both as "retrenchment" presidents.) Obama’s great goal in foreign policy is to wind down inherited conflicts — including the war on terror, as I wrote last week — in order to give his activist domestic agenda a fighting chance.

The besetting flaw of Obama’s foreign policy is not that it’s irresolute but rather that it has become so single-mindedly, unimaginatively subtractive. Obama entered office with great hopes of reorganizing the world order around global issues like nuclear nonproliferation and climate change. But he learned over time that he could not wish away the intractable conflicts he had inherited and that the American people had little appetite for his transformative vision, and so his enthusiasm sagged and his horizons contracted. He chose instead to make sure that America wasn’t singed by the world’s conflagrations — above all in Syria, where he seems quite content to make empathic gestures in the face of the worst atrocities in a generation.

That’s bad enough, of course. The distance between the hopes Obama once raised and the comfort zone he has chosen to occupy is far greater than was the gap between Eisenhower’s rhetorical anti-communism and his pragmatic accommodations. Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress, which functions as the White House’s think tank, recently commented that Obama has stopped telling Americans why the world matters. He may have concluded that he can’t win the argument.

My point, then, is not that Obama’s detractors don’t realize what a fine job he’s doing, but that his failures are not failures of nerve. Had he followed a more confrontational policy toward Russia from the outset, as conservative critics wish he had, he might not have gained the cooperation he got on arms control, Afghanistan, and Iran — and he would have played into Putin’s fantasy of a battle of equals between the two countries, which in turn would have helped him gin up even more vociferous Russian nationalism in the face of unacceptable threats like the incorporation of Ukraine into Europe. I dearly wish that Obama had agreed two years ago to train, fund, and equip the Syrian rebels, and I believe his failure to intervene there will be a lasting stain on his presidency. But I wish he had done so to rescue the Syrian people from a monster, not to create a demonstration project for Putin.

Obama will now do what he can to isolate Russia through some combination of sanctions and the cancellation of events like the G-8 meeting scheduled for Sochi in June. None of that will have much of an effect so long as Putin’s cult of personality continues to transfix ordinary Russian citizens; isolation will probably only strengthen his standing. A new era of East-West confrontation may loom, though if so it would be a much more lopsided one in which Russia has neither allies nor a legitimating ideology. Even more than the last time around, therefore, the West can afford to be steady and patient, secure in the knowledge that the future lies with the liberal democracies.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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