Opinion Columns & Blogs

Evan Thomas: Eisenhower a good model for Hagel to follow

The conflict between Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, and his neoconservative detractors feels personal. Hagel once disparaged the neocons as “chicken hawks,” and the neocons call Hagel an “appeaser.”

But beneath the name-calling lies a deeper and more substantive divide in the Republican Party that goes back more than half a century.

Hagel has told friends that he takes Dwight Eisenhower, a fellow soldier, as his model. Hagel and Eisenhower were different kinds of warriors: Hagel was a noncommissioned officer wounded twice in combat; Eisenhower was a commanding general who never saw combat.

But Hagel shares Eisenhower’s strong reluctance to use military force to intervene in foreign crises. Unlike civilians who have never served or commanded in war, Eisenhower had, and Hagel has, a good understanding of everything that can go wrong on the battlefield.

As president, Eisenhower was a realist, born of experience. In the early days of the Cold War, when alarmists were warning that the Soviet Army could drive all the way through Europe to the French coast in two weeks, Eisenhower wrote in the margin of a Pentagon planning document: “I don’t believe it. My God, we needed two months just to overrun Sicily.”

In 1954, as their army was collapsing at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, the French asked the United States to intervene. Eisenhower refused. “The jungle,” he warned his National Security Council, “would absorb our troops by divisions!” Hagel experienced firsthand the truth of Ike’s warning in 1968 as a sergeant in President Johnson’s Army in Vietnam.

Eisenhower wasn’t exactly a dove and certainly not an isolationist. While some in his party believed that the United States should retreat to a “Fortress America,” Eisenhower was a paragon of the internationalist wing that called for a strong military alliance with Western Europe.

But Ike disliked halfway measures. In war, he believed, it was all or nothing. Ike believed that small wars led to big wars, and that a nation fighting for survival will stop at nothing. He was skeptical when politicians used words such as “surgical strike” and called for a “flexible response” and “gradual escalation.”

As the supreme Allied commander for the D-Day assault and the surrender of Germany, Ike had a credibility not every American president can bring. But modern presidents, as well as their defense secretaries, can appreciate that the U.S. can look weaker, not stronger, if its forces get bogged down in nonessential, but also unwinnable, conflicts.

If he is confirmed, Hagel’s greatest challenge is likely to be Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. He may be of a mind to ask, “What would Ike do?”

Here’s an informed guess: Eisenhower would threaten to use force to take out any Iranian nuclear weapon. But he would be vague about exactly when or how he might strike. He would use public diplomacy and sanctions to forestall a decision to strike, and he would lean hard on Israel not to take pre-emptive action. (It was Eisenhower who used economic pressure to turn back a joint Israeli, French and British invasion of Egypt during the Suez crisis in 1956.) He would also rely heavily on covert action.

Not everything worked as planned during Eisenhower’s eight years in office. But once he had extricated the U.S. from its conflict with Korea in July 1953, he never committed another U.S. soldier to combat.