Learning From Ike

What a Republican realist could teach George Bush

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Why Like Ike?
If the 1950s seem in hindsight a dully safe and stable time, that in itself is the greatest of testimonials to Eisenhower's success, for his eight years in the White House were in fact a period of immense challenge and danger. In some respects, the situation he found on taking office resembles what President Bush's successor will face. Ike succeeded an unpopular president; he had to wind down a failing war of choice in a volatile neighborhood where the United States was pushing back against an ideological rival with global pretensions; anti-Americanism was on the rise in Latin America and the Arab world; the United States' unrivaled postwar dominance had joltingly given way to the prospect of a long and tense conflict.

There was more. Stalin's death in 1953 heralded a potentially perilous transition, all the more so because the Russians had just ended the United States' H-bomb monopoly. China was flexing its muscles in Asia. NATO was embryonic, lacking West Germany, its linchpin. In 1957, the Soviets' launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile and then Sputnik announced that the American homeland itself was susceptible to annihilation. "Public opinion panicked," Goodpaster later remarked to the historian John Newhouse. "The age of long-range nuclear missiles was upon us. It was a new chapter and brought with it concerns about vulnerability and security."

Entering office, Eisenhower showed his realism immediately. He ended the Korean War by accepting stalemate. He embraced the principle of containment, double-crossing Republican hawks who demanded the "rollback" of Communism and to whom his campaign had pandered. (Vice President Nixon had denounced Adlai Stevenson, the 1952 Democratic nominee, as a graduate of the Cowardly College of Communist Containment.) From then on, Eisenhower's unsentimental realism rarely wavered. Sometimes it expressed itself in actions of which history has taken a dim view, notably Eisenhower's enthusiasm for covert operations against regimes in Guatemala and Iran.

More important than what Ike did, however, is what he did not do. At least three times in his first term -- by his biographer Stephen E. Ambrose's count, five times in 1954 alone -- leaders within or outside the administration urged him to use nuclear weapons against China. Eisenhower steadfastly refused. He did muse publicly that nuclear bombs were as usable as "a bullet or anything else," but talking was as far as he would go. As Communist insurgents besieged and then defeated the French in Vietnam, Eisenhower, despite intense pressure, resolutely kept U.S. forces out. In 1956, when Britain and France conspired with Israel to invade Egypt and seize the Suez Canal, Eisenhower unceremoniously pulled the plug on them. Friendship, in his view, could not justify an adventure that seemed militarily harebrained, that invited Russian intervention, and that defied what he (correctly) judged to be an irreversible anti-colonialist tide.

No less important was his rhetorical restraint. Bush has at every turn played up warnings of danger and reminded the country it is at war. Eisenhower, in more-dangerous times, did the opposite. At a press conference in December 1954, responding to a particularly nettlesome Chinese provocation at an especially tense moment, he explained why. "The world is in an ideological struggle," he began, "and we are on one side and the Iron Curtain countries are on the other." He urged avoiding even the appearance of appeasement, "but we must, on the other hand, be steady and refuse to be goaded into actions that would be unwise." And then he cautioned against stirring up a wartime mentality:

In many ways the easy course for a president ... is to adopt a truculent, publicly bold, almost insulting attitude.... That would be the easy way, for this reason: Those actions lead toward war. Now, let us think of war for a second. When this nation goes to war, there occurs automatically a unification of our people. Traditionally, if we get into trouble that involves war, the nation closes ranks behind the leader. The job to do becomes simply understood -- it is to win the war. There is a real fervor developed throughout the nation that you can feel everywhere you go. There is practically an exhilaration about the affair.

This attitude, he warned, breeds impulsiveness and hubris. "The hard way," he continued, "is to have the courage to be patient." As for himself, he stated: "So far as I am concerned, if ever we come to a place that I feel that a step of war is necessary, it is going to be brought about not by any impulsive individualistic act of my own."

Idealistic hawks of the era spoke of freeing the world with American muscle and values. Eisenhower spoke instead of "progressing a little bit, even if by little steps, toward a true or real peace." He dismissed the idea that the world was a democracy waiting to be liberated. Americans must not, he said, "assume that our standard of values is shared by all other humans in the world. We are not sufficiently informed." Eisenhower was a staunch enemy of communism; and this man who spoke of willingness, in a conflict, to use nuclear weapons as "bullets" was certainly no peacenik. But he understood the limits of power, and that when a superpower pushes, the world pushes back.

Through Reptilian Eyes
Realism is a lens, not a road map. Though it proffers no single course, it does suggest a way of looking at things. Looking at Iraq, doves have insisted that the United States should "end the war" -- meaning, of course, end U.S. involvement in the war. For doves, military force causes war, much as guns cause crime. No U.S. troops, no war -- or, at least, less war. Hawks see, by contrast, a test of wills. They see a staring contest in which the first side to blink loses. America could win, or at least avoid losing, merely by hanging in. Indeed, given its conventional military superiority, the United States can't lose the military war in Iraq; the true danger, the hawks believe, is that America will lose the psychological war at home.

Reptiles looking at Iraq see something more like a guy with his finger in a dike as the concrete cracks and water sloshes over the top. "We're unable to protect the population from each other," Luttwak said in an interview earlier this year, "but we are preventing the emergence of a natural equilibrium." One way or another, Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis need to come to terms, and this can happen only when one side or the other wins, or when both accept some kind of standoff. From this point of view, the American effort to stop sectarian warfare is worse than futile. A better approach, says Luttwak, would be for the United States to disengage from Iraq's sectarian warfare, use its forces, plus vigorous diplomacy, to contain the conflict, and -- classic realism here -- play Sunnis and Shiites against each other, both within Iraq and around the region, to foster and exploit a sustainable balance.

Looking at Iran, everybody sees a problem, but not quite the same problem. Hawks see a potential Hitler in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the radical Iranian president (who is not, however, the country's supreme leader). They insist on stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons by any means necessary, including preventive war. Doves believe that U.S. threats against Tehran are the bigger problem, and that military action would be the biggest problem of all.

Realists see a rising regional power that the United States has little choice but to deal with. Giving a talk in Washington not long ago, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser in the Carter administration and who is something of an eminence grise among realists, guessed that Iran wants to be a threshold nuclear power like Japan -- "not an unreasonable ambition" for a country facing nuclear weapons in the U.S., Israel, and Pakistan, among others. America, he said, may need to accept Iranian nuclear weapons capability, in exchange for nonproliferation inspections and other measures that deter Tehran's development of actual weapons. In other words: Respect Iran's power, acknowledge its interests, but contain its ambitions and counter its influence.

Realism's sharpest break with current policy, arguably, is in the war on terrorism. Looking at terrorism, doves see a form of crime, a variety of political protest, or both. Hawks, of course, see a war against the United States and its interests. Reptiles see merit in both views (terrorists are obviously criminals, and Al Qaeda has declared war on America), but they also see something best treated like a stubborn but containable epidemic. Prevent outbreaks, treat victims, but also understand that a certain amount of terrorism is inevitable, and so strive not to let panic and overreaction magnify its effects.

Consider the odds. "Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count," writes John Mueller in his recent book, "Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them," "the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began its accounting) is about the same as the number killed over the same period by lightning, or by accident-causing deer, or by severe allergic reactions to peanuts. In almost all years, the total number of people worldwide who die at the hands of international terrorists is not much more than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States." The 9/11 attacks were horrific, yet the country easily withstood them, and Mueller persuasively argues that it can readily withstand any force that terrorists are likely to muster. "To deem the threat an 'existential' one," he writes, "is somewhere between extravagant and absurd."

Obviously, terrorism fatalities are tragic. Every life counts. But that is precisely why putting an astronomical premium on lives lost to terrorism is, for Mueller and other realists, pure sentimentalism, and of a counterproductive sort. Reptilian logic fully supports vigorous efforts to safeguard nuclear materials, disrupt specific terrorist activities and threats, and mitigate whatever damage terrorists manage to do. But trying to harden the whole country against terrorism wastes large amounts of effort and money on a random, quixotic effort to eliminate a modest threat. Worse, the terrorism obsession warps the country's thinking by perpetuating a siege mentality far out of proportion to any danger. Worst of all, placing terrorism at the center of U.S. foreign policy vastly amplifies Osama bin Laden's influence, a point that bin Laden himself has gleefully made.

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