In the past several weeks, after tidal waves of criticism directed at the Obama administration’s handling of the Ukraine crisis, supporters have risen up to defend the president, including James Traub in Foreign Policy and Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post. There is a good deal to be said for their point of view; Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cold-power politics is driving him, not President Obama’s past errors, and the administration has taken steps not unlike those of the Bush administration in the 2008 Georgia crisis. But both Traub and Zakaria go further, comparing the president’s overall approach approvingly to that of President Eisenhower.
There are similarities, but the differences are significant. Nonetheless, Traub and Zakaria do a service by sketching a direction this administration could take in “Ike’s footsteps,” as the administration must react further to Putin’s running over the objections of the United States, Europe and almost the entire United Nations Security Council in his goal to annex Crimea.
What links the two administrations, almost 60 years apart, is a reluctance to get bogged down in significant ground wars for uncertain ends. Eisenhower refused to get involved in any of our European allies’ colonialist adventures, be it Indochina, Suez or Algeria. This was wise, given the correlation of forces, despite much criticism he did not aid the Hungarians in 1956 or the East Berliners in 1953. Likewise, we can see in this Obama’s reluctance to continue indefinitely armed nation-building in Iraq or Afghanistan, or to put boots on the ground in Syria.
But Zakaria and Traub misconstrue Eisenhower’s extraordinary power-politics activism.
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Eisenhower ended the Korean War while ensuring South Korea remained independent, both by committing that U.S. forces would remain on the peninsula and by sticking to a line of tough rhetoric – including references to possible use of nuclear weapons. His policy of threatening nuclear strikes, naval deployments, and the delivery of advanced weapons to the Nationalist Chinese between 1954 and 1958 led to the military defeat of Beijing in the Quemoy and Matsu islands. Eisenhower put combat troops ashore in Beirut in 1958, sent advisers to South Vietnam, and used the CIA and surrogates against unfriendly regimes in Iran, Guatemala and Cuba.
Eisenhower generally worked with “economy of force” action through surrogates and allies, backed by CIA covert ops, arms deliveries, advisory teams and nuclear threats. While some of his push-backs ultimately failed in Cuba and Vietnam, and others in Iran and Guatemala were morally questionable, the overall effect of his policy was a worldwide alliance system whose member states knew that Washington had their back.
In the Obama administration, while some specific foreign-policy decisions can be justified as ending or avoiding quagmires, the overall effect has been to place that alliance system in question.
Eisenhower’s response to the Ukraine crisis, judging from his record, would have been to counter every sortie – perhaps not with a major military campaign, but to do so decisively.
If we assume Putin is acting out of realpolitik, then Washington must deal with him in that realm, not simply hope that history will eventually punish 19th-century behavior with visa restrictions, some sanctions, international meeting boycotts and trade talk cancellations.
Washington must start liberating Europe from the teat of Russia’s gas oligarchy, deploy limited U.S. “trip-wire” ground troop detachments of a few thousand personnel on NATO’s eastern borders, and provide sufficient weapons deliveries, advisory efforts and proxy support to tie Putin and his friends down in Syria until they agree to a compromise that is not a game-changing victory in a region critical to U.S. interests.
Now that is a foreign policy Eisenhower could understand.