Learning From Ike

What a Republican realist could teach George Bush


Dwight Eisenhower, for all his rambling amiability, was capable of vehemence. He showed it memorably at a news conference on August 11, 1954. Ray L. Scherer of NBC asked him about "increasing suggestions that we should embark on a preventive war with the Communist world, some of these suggestions by people in high places." Scherer was talking about Red China, which was rattling its sabers at Taiwan (then called Formosa) and would soon begin shelling Taiwanese forces in what would rapidly become a full-fledged crisis.

In those days, Communist China was the closest thing to today's Iran: a rising regional power, radical, ideological, antagonistic, and increasingly bold. Ike's secretary of State called the Chinese "an acute and imminent threat," and compared their "aggressive fanaticism" to Hitler's. Hawks clamored for action, saying that if the U.S. failed to defend Formosa, it would have to defend San Francisco later.

That was the climate in which Ike said:

All of us have heard this term "preventive war" since the earliest days of Hitler. I recall that is about the first time I heard it…. I would say a preventive war, if words mean anything, is to wage some sort of quick police action in order that you might avoid a terrific cataclysm of destruction later. A preventive war, to my mind, is an impossibility today…. I don't believe there is such a thing, and, frankly, I wouldn't even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing.

Eisenhower's attitude put him at odds with the hawks of both his time and ours; anyone speaking as categorically against preventive war today as he did in 1954 would be derided by mainstream Republicans as a "defeatocrat," waiting for America's enemies to gather strength and strike first. But the victor of World War II was assuredly no dove. He made clear his theoretical willingness to use nuclear weapons, he sent U.S. marines to Lebanon, and he said, "We do not escape war by surrendering on the installment plan." The best way to see Eisenhower is as neither hawk nor dove but, so to speak, as a reptile: a cold-blooded realist.

In his day, realism dominated the councils of Washington. Today it is notably underappreciated, underrepresented, and misunderstood. When politicians reach for foreign-policy models, they cite practically every president except Eisenhower. That is a pity. The brand of realism he practiced, with its studied under-reaction and its easygoing unsentimentality, has never been more relevant than it will be in the post-Bush cleanup that is about to begin.

Cold-Blooded Creatures
Realism, in its Eisenhowerian form, is not a doctrine or a policy prescription. Any roomful of realists, if you can find a roomful, will contain as many policy opinions as there are people. A better way to think of realism is as an attitude grounded in a theory. The attitude emphasizes restraint, indirection, and suspicion of sentimentality and idealism. The theory is about where peace comes from.

In today's America, hawks think that peace comes from American strength, deployed vigorously to deter adversaries and pre-empt threats. Doves think that peace comes from international cooperation, in which the United States must play a leading role. Reptiles are all for strength and diplomacy, but they believe that peace ultimately comes from something else: equilibrium.

In their view, competition and conflict on the world scene, like converging floodwaters, seek a natural balance that outsiders can ride or resist, can channel or manipulate or temporarily hold back, but usually cannot do very much to change. From a reptile's point of view, doves and hawks, different as they are politically, share a misguided sentimentality: doves about the power of global cooperation and sensible diplomacy to end conflict, hawks about the power of American force to ensure security.

The classic modern reptilian manifesto is a bewitchingly Machiavellian article published in Foreign Affairs in 1999 by Edward N. Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Perhaps because of his European accent (he is Transylvanian-born) and his penchant for caustic pronouncements (he observed recently that the Transportation Security Administration can find a bomb only "if you attach it to a pair of nail clippers"), Luttwak has something of a Strangelovian reputation in foreign-policy circles, though no one disputes his brilliance. Characteristically, he titled his article "Give War a Chance."

War, he argued, is a great evil, but it has one indispensable virtue: It brings peace. Too often, well-meaning diplomats or peacekeepers interpose themselves in conflicts that should be left to burn themselves out. Alas, cease-fires and peacekeepers "artificially freeze conflict and perpetuate a state of war indefinitely by shielding the weaker side from the consequences of refusing to make concessions for peace," he wrote. "The final result is to prevent the emergence of a coherent outcome, which requires an imbalance of strength sufficient to end the fighting." In other words, war ends in a stable peace only when one side loses, and understands it has lost. "If the United Nations helped the strong defeat the weak faster and more decisively," Luttwak wrote mischievously, "it would actually enhance the peacemaking potential of war."

In a complicated and unpredictable world, realists, or at least intelligent realists, do not pretend to have prefabricated answers. They can and do disagree about where equilibrium lies and how—sometimes even whether—to get there. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a vexing case in point. One realist school regards America's attachment to Israel as sentimental and thus counterproductive; better to scale back the special relationship, treating Israel with more objectivity by leaning further toward the Arabs. Another school believes that, to the contrary, the United States should firmly support Israel until Palestinian militants understand that they can never win; until then, peacemaking is premature and only encourages Arab rejectionism. Yet others believe that the United States has little real-world choice but to muddle on with diplomatic efforts to calm the situation. (Luttwak is in this last camp.)

Realism is not rigidly anti-interventionist or passive; by definition, it is not rigidly anything. Nor does it ignore human rights, although it balances them against other priorities. Nor does it mindlessly defend the status quo in the name of stability, although it never takes stability for granted. Nor does it forswear using U.S. influence to alter prevailing power balances, although it does insist on a healthy respect for the world's contrariness. And few realists are quite as Machiavellian as Luttwak.

What realism does hold is that pushing against a natural equilibrium is a high-cost, high-risk proposition—sustainable for a while, but exhausting and likely to prove futile, or worse. For realists, when Vice President Cheney reportedly said, "We don't negotiate with evil, we defeat it," he got the answer wrong. If we hope to succeed, we manage evil. We minimize, mitigate, and manipulate evil. But efforts to pre-emptively eliminate evil are prone to end in overreaction and destabilization, with consequences that are often worse than the original problem.

Eisenhower understood these risks. He dismissed the idea of a preventive attack on China, "pointing out that it would be a long time before China could threaten the United States," writes the historian Frederick W. Marks III, "by which time the configuration of world power might well have shifted." Eisenhower's staff secretary and closest aide, Gen. Andrew Goodpaster, once said of his boss, "He was an expert in finding reasons for not doing things."

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.

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.