Politics & Policy

Why We Like Ike

Eisenhower knew, instinctively and by experience, what makes a successful foreign policy.

In a recent column, Commentary’s Seth Mandel contends that Dwight Eisenhower was no great model for conservatives — that, in fact, his foreign policy was “muddled, improvised, confused, and often shallow.” Mandel further contends that there is already a robust, reigning GOP foreign-policy consensus, which Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) does not challenge, and that would-be foreign-policy reformers need to move beyond “ritual denunciations of [George W.] Bush.”

If Senator Paul were to embrace a consensus with the other likely Republican presidential candidates in support of a strong national-security policy, we would certainly welcome that. He did eventually come out in favor of airstrikes against the Islamic State — though only in September, after much delay. But he has also made very clear over the years his core conviction that when it comes to foreign policy and defense, the United States needs to spend less, intervene less, and generally be involved less with international affairs, not only by comparison to Bush, but also by comparison to President Obama. This appears to be a sincere conviction on the part of Senator Paul, and it certainly has its niche within the party and the country. Still, that’s exactly the point. Right now, there may be certain tendencies within the GOP on specific foreign-policy issues, but there is no overall conservative consensus. That consensus has to be built.

Now, when liberals discuss what they view as necessary reforms of GOP foreign policy, what they generally mean is: more liberal. And when isolationists discuss what they view as necessary reforms, what they generally mean is: isolationist. We disagree. And that’s where Eisenhower comes in. There are certainly other fine examples for GOP foreign policy, notably Ronald Reagan, but Eisenhower offers the model for conservatives on how to build a muscular foreign policy amid isolationist currents on Main Street.

In his brief dismissal of Ike, Seth Mandel appears to share the misperception, common among the smart set during the 1950s, that Eisenhower was a kind of avuncular figure, likable enough but not very strong or effective — especially on foreign policy. There is now a mountain of primary evidence, mined by numerous historians and political scientists over the past 40 years, to suggest a very different picture. And the picture that emerges is this: On foreign policy and defense, Eisenhower was in fact a very active, precise, and hard-driving chief executive behind the scenes, with an exceptional talent for strategic analysis. He was careful to cultivate public and congressional support for his selected foreign policies, in ways both direct and indirect, and on both sides of the aisle — and he was pretty good at that too. Finally, he maintained firm control of the entire process; he was actually in charge. If all this sounds commonplace as a foreign-policy leadership style, it isn’t. And we could certainly use it today.

Eisenhower ran for president in 1952 for two reasons: to stem the advance of what he called “creeping socialism,” and to curb the neo-isolationist trend within the GOP embodied by Senator Robert Taft (R., Ohio). In other words, Ike was a conservative internationalist, dead serious about bringing government spending under control, and also committed to strong international policies for the United States. When he first entered the White House, he initiated an explicit, systematic review of U.S. national-security policies, known as the Solarium exercise, to assess some basic strategic options. The outcome of this healthy internal debate was embodied in clear National Security Council directives like NSC 162/2. This process helped lay the groundwork for the pursuit of a successful national-security strategy. Ike also reviewed U.S. options in the Korean War, and decided to threaten military escalation against China in the absence of Communist concessions. The fear of such escalation appears to have influenced China’s decision to support a ceasefire in Korea in 1953.

What elements of Eisenhower’s foreign and defense policy might be useful examples for conservatives today?

Strategic planning. Good foreign-policy outcomes are more likely when the president oversees a coherent national-security strategy, where ends are aligned with means, words are aligned with actions, and regional responses are aligned with one another according to a worthwhile overall purpose. To a remarkable extent, Ike did exactly that. President Obama does not. Under Obama, presidential rhetoric often bears little relation to the actual policies pursued, and U.S. responses to regional crises are typically spasmodic, half-hearted, and incoherent. This is not simply some issue of bureaucratic flowcharts. Since decisions regarding war and peace are at stake, these are matters of life and death. A reform-conservative foreign policy would seek to craft a rational and strong strategic-planning process for the next Republican president.

Ike’s handling of Korea was consistent with his successful management of many other cases of deterrence and coercive diplomacy during his time in office — for example, over Taiwan and Berlin. Drawing from vast personal experience as a soldier, commander, and strategist, Ike knew that diplomacy and deterrence can only succeed when there is a credible threat, backed up by ample military power along with a believable willingness to use it. As he put it, “When you finally decide to resort to force, you should plan no limits for its use.” Ike had deep disdain for half-hearted approaches to the use of force. He issued blood-chilling warnings of massive military retaliation against threats of aggression, precisely to prevent any escalation to general conflict while protecting U.S. interests. What’s more, it seems to have worked. Our adversaries took Eisenhower seriously, general war was averted, and both West Berlin and Taiwan were preserved from explicit, aggressive Communist threats. And in cases where Eisenhower did not believe a whole-hearted response to be possible — such as in French Indochina in 1954 — he did not engage in half-baked interventions, but otherwise bolstered friendly forces as best he could.

Robust deterrence and decisive use of force. For deterrence to work, there has to be a believable and impressive threat behind it. And when deterrence fails, military action must be carefully planned and launched with the understanding that anything other than a decisive approach is positively irresponsible. Eisenhower understood this, both by instinct and from experience. Obama does not. A reform-conservative foreign policy for the U.S. would embrace bolstered deterrence of competitors in specific cases such as Ukraine and the East China Sea, through enhanced capabilities and clarity of commitment. This would actually make peace more likely, not less. But when peace is not possible, a reform-conservative foreign policy would support decisive military action, not the pinprick version, which tends to prolong war’s agonies.

#page#Ike’s approach to defense spending is also instructive. During the Korean War, U.S. defense spending reached about 15 percent of GDP. Ike thought that was too high — and he capped it at roughly 10 percent of GDP for the rest of his time in office. By way of comparison, U.S. defense spending today is under 4 percent of GDP. So if would-be defense cutters look to Ike for their example, they would have to more than double American military spending today. Ike worked to apply fiscally conservative principles to specific elements of U.S. defense spending, but he took it for granted that a strong national defense was basic to the functioning of effective government as well as to America’s role in the world. His single biggest domestic-policy concern was actually the runaway spending, taxation, debt, and regulation introduced by liberal Democrats – and, as president, he worked with considerable success to bring those related ills under control. He said repeatedly in public and in private that the expanding role of the federal government in our society and economy was a threat to basic American traditions of limited government. There is no doubt that he would have found Obama’s further expansions of the welfare state appalling.

Fiscal responsibility and defense spending. Military spending is not exempt from close examination on fiscal-conservative grounds. Still, at the end of the day, national defense is a practical and constitutional government mandate, in a way that many liberal projects are not. Eisenhower took a close look at defense spending, and found efficiencies where he could. Yet he also maintained robust military capabilities, because he understood that without them existing commitments would be hollow. Obama, for his part, has no special feeling for military affairs, and has repeatedly sacrificed military funding to protect entitlement programs from cuts. A reform-conservative national-security policy would be open to worthwhile efficiencies in areas like managing weapons acquisition, designing a more equitable retirement and benefits plan for the military, and addressing the Pentagon’s workforce bloat. But it would support increased troop numbers, shipbuilding, and defense research and innovation, in order to restore the essence of U.S. military power.

Ike’s foreign-policy record wasn’t perfect. No president’s is. In particular, when Hungarians rebelled against Communist rule in 1956, in the hope of liberation, Eisenhower himself admitted that “We have excited [the] Hungarians for all these years, and [are] now turning our backs on them when they are in a jam.” That violated his own normal rule of making only those commitments that could actually be kept. Conservatives have also long questioned his handling of the 1956 Suez crisis, with good reason.

For the most part however, Ike supported our allies and opposed anti-American radicals and Communists with admirable vigor. He considered the U.S.-led alliance system to be absolutely essential to America’s own security, and expanded its reach considerably. He bolstered NATO members in Europe against threats from the Soviet Union. He bolstered U.S. allies in East Asia against Moscow, Beijing, and indigenous Communist forces. He bolstered U.S. allies in Latin America against radical Marxists. Indeed this is why his record is anathema to dovish leftists. Eisenhower supported covert action against hostile governments when there was any hint the Soviet Union might benefit from the existence of those governments, as in Iran and Guatemala. He supported plans for covert action against Fidel Castro, although warning with characteristic prescience: “Boys, if you don’t intend to go through with this, let’s stop talking about it.” Perhaps the Bay of Pigs fiasco could have been avoided if the Kennedys had operated on that understanding.

Appropriate treatment of allies and adversaries. A serious foreign policy must support our allies and challenge our adversaries. Otherwise, we’ll end up with more adversaries, and fewer allies. For the most part, Eisenhower did exactly right. Obama, however, seems to operate on the negation of this principle, under the dubious assumption that if we distance ourselves from our traditional allies, and do our best to accommodate our adversaries, a more peaceful world will follow. A reform-conservative foreign policy would support American allies in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere with greater clarity, via concrete measures of commitment, while ratcheting up pressure against strategic adversaries such as Iran.

Following Eisenhower’s example, through the principles laid out above, would constitute conservative reform — most literally, because it would lead to a foreign policy based on conservative instincts, which would be very unlike the foreign policy of the current president. These principles are firmly rooted in the tradition of conservative foreign policy, and are in need of restoration and application to the array of 21st-century threats facing our country. A conservative national-security policy would embrace serious strategic planning, capable deterrence, the decisive use of force, fiscal responsibility, strong national defense, support for U.S. allies, and resistance to U.S. adversaries. Obama’s foreign policy does none of these things. But an honest effort at conservative reform must also recognize where Republicans have sometimes gone wrong, without falling into the error of overreaction. In the case of foreign policy, this includes learning the right lessons from the past, while avoiding the wrong ones.

That’s why, when Mandel voices the need to move beyond “ritual denunciations of Bush,” we completely agree. It’s why we suggest that the main focus today should be on the foreign-policy and defense record of the incumbent president. After all, a lot has happened in U.S. foreign and military policy over the past six years — and the responsibility for that is Obama’s. Mandel is certainly wrong to suggest that a reform-conservative administration could be staffed without anyone from the Bush era. In practical terms, since George W. Bush is the only GOP president in the past 22 years, banning Bush-administration veterans would leave a new Republican administration with virtually no one possessing executive-branch national-security experience — an obvious absurdity. Furthermore, it’s important for conservatives to recognize exactly what George W. Bush got right, as well as what he got wrong. On counter-terrorism, specifically, Bush got a good deal right, in spite of the most vituperative criticisms of him. He also had a quality of brave and whole-hearted commitment to military engagement that is sadly lacking in the current president — a quality that came in very handy when Bush authorized the 2007 surge in Iraq. But the initial planning for the 2003 invasion of that country was marked by a serious lack of preparation for post-invasion possibilities, with damaging consequences for U.S. interests, and ultimately the responsibility for that was the president’s. Conservative foreign-policy reformers must recognize that reality, and explain how they would try to improve. For Republicans, this is not only a matter of a better foreign policy — it is also a matter of winning the public’s trust on vital matters of war and peace.

Our judgment is that a real danger today — as opposed to twelve years ago — is Obama’s deliberate retrenchment of U.S. military power, combined with a neo-isolationist feeling in some quarters of the GOP. To suggest, as Mandel does, that the principles above are already embraced universally by conservatives is to ignore the tectonic shifts that have taken place within the Republican party’s foreign-policy views over the past six years. Congressional Republicans have offered little resistance to Obama’s retrenchment, including cuts to the military, and at times led the charge for retrenchment, in cases like Libya, Syria, and debate over the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). So it is vital that we not learn the wrong lessons from the Bush years. One wrong lesson, embraced energetically by liberals, including Obama, is that the Bush era proves now and for all time the truth of liberal foreign-policy shibboleths. Another wrong lesson, embraced by neo-isolationists in both parties — and to some extent even by Obama — is that the Bush years demonstrate the futility of America’s forward strategic presence. We look toward a conservative Republican administration that draws the right foreign-policy lessons from the past decade, not the wrong ones. And the right lesson includes no rejection of robust American foreign-policy leadership. The next Republican president’s foreign-policy approach must look more like Eisenhower’s than Taft’s.

Mandel is right, however, to say that conservative foreign-policy reformers — like anyone else proposing new policy approaches — must offer “mastery of detail.” That’s what books and lengthier articles are for. So stay tuned.

Colin Dueck is an associate professor at George Mason University and the author of The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today. Roger Zakheim is an attorney, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a former deputy staff director and general counsel on the House Armed Services Committee; follow him on Twitter @Rogerreuv.

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