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Eisenhower, it seems reasonable to guess, would have responded forcefully to the 9/11 attacks. But it also seems fair to guess that he would have counseled patience and prudence; that he would have developed alternatives to a preventive war against a second-tier adversary posing an over-the-horizon threat; that he would have abjured grandiose and unsustainable claims of unilateral executive power; that he would have toned down wartime rhetoric; and that he would have urged a measured view of the terrorist threat -- which is, after all, puny by comparison with the Communist threat that he faced so calmly.
Bush's Best Hope
But is realism realistic? Eisenhower could exude equanimity at the height of the Cold War because he was the supreme allied commander who won World War II. He could warn against the "military-industrial complex" because he was the country's most trusted general. Maybe you have to be Eisenhower to be Eisenhower.
Today's world offers a further challenge to his brand of realism, in the form of recurrent outcries for humanitarian interventions. In 2007, atrocities are broadcast around the world in real time, and there is no Soviet Union to stay interventionists' hand. Realists may not oppose all humanitarian interpositions of U.S. troops between local thugs and their victims, but they will oppose most of them. In a place such as Darfur today, or in Rwanda and Bosnia in the mid-1990s, realists are inclined to hide behind the United Nations and buck the problem to regional powers. Evasion or indirect action may indeed be smarter than direct intervention, but that doesn't make it easy to defend.
Realism's flaw is not that it is wrong -- in some sense, it is always right -- but that in a pious, warm-blooded world, it is as unpalatable as atheism. The real-world flaw of the realist prescription for Iraq is its assumption that American forces in or near the country could stand off while ethnic cleansers and terrorist provocateurs committed atrocities. At the moment, doves and reptiles are aligned in common reaction against hawkish excess, but they would split with the crack of cleaved wood if genocide somewhere were to supplant Iraq as the leading crisis of the day.
Still, we know a few things that make Eisenhower's legacy more relevant than it has been in years. We know that the American people are feeling burned by hawks but lack confidence in doves. We know that a blunt realist can win the presidency, because one recently did -- in 2000. Recall Bush's pre-9/11 support for a "humble" foreign policy that would not stir fear or resentment abroad: "I just don't think it's the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, 'We do it this way; so should you.' " He warned against overstretching the military. He opposed nation-building. He said -- something few dare to say -- that the Clinton administration had been right not to intervene in the Rwandan genocide. In the pre-9/11 Bush, Eisenhower would have recognized something of himself.
And in February we heard Rudy Giuliani, a top-tier Republican presidential candidate, tell a conservative audience that national leaders (that would be Bush) had fallen into an "analytical warp" by defining the battle as a war on terrorism when it really should be spoken of as a "war of the terrorists against us." Giuliani said, "We have to say to the rest of the world, 'America doesn't like war.' America is not a military country. We've never been a militaristic country."
If anyone today enjoys Eisenhowerian standing in the war on terrorism, it would be Giuliani, "America's mayor" during the 9/11 crisis. That he felt at liberty to talk down the terror war suggested that the country might embrace a quieter brand of leadership. It may also be noteworthy that Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, an independent-minded Republican with a high profile, is a realist who makes a point of invoking Eisenhower.
Harry Truman left office with the United States bogged down in the Korean War, Europe and Japan still struggling, NATO a fledgling experiment, and the Cold War's sustainability questionable. Truman's good fortune was to have Eisenhower as his successor. When Ike left office, the country was at peace, free Europe and Japan were thriving, NATO was firmly rooted, and a Cold War modus vivendi was established on terms that proved decisively favorable to the United States. It was Ike who stabilized and ultimately redeemed Truman's legacy.
With two great secretaries of state at his side, Truman ran a more creative and competent foreign policy than Bush has managed to do; but Bush, like Truman, has visionary qualities as well as impulsive and simplistic ones. So far, Bush's presidency looks like four years of impulsive overreach followed by two of desperate improvisation, but recall that Truman was unpopular and widely regarded as a failure when he left office. In 2009, something akin to Eisenhower's brand of calm, cold realism may offer the best hope of rebuilding the country's foreign policy. And George W. Bush's reputation.
© Copyright 2007 National Journal
Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to Reason. The article was originally published by National Journal.