Robert Dallek: When the World Knocks at the White House Door

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Dallek is the author of biographies of JFK and LBJ and a history of Henry Kissinger's diplomacy.]

At the start of his presidential term in 1913, Woodrow Wilson said prophetically, “It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.” Although he managed to win passage of major progressive reforms, including the Federal Reserve Act, his presidency was soon overwhelmed by problems abroad: first in Mexico, with American troops seizing the port of Vera Cruz in April 1914, and then in Europe, where the First World War erupted that August.

Obama will learn, as his predecessors did, that foreign crises are an unavoidable part of the job.
Likewise, every president since Franklin Roosevelt found himself compelled to focus on foreign dangers. Unlike Wilson, F.D.R. was not averse to fixing his attention on overseas troubles. But during his first hundred days, when the Great Depression pushed rising tensions abroad to the recesses of his thinking, Roosevelt, declaring first things first, put economic nationalism above international cooperation and gave the back of his hand to the London Economic Conference.

Harry Truman’s first 100 days were exclusively focused on foreign affairs. However much postwar demobilization beckoned, ending World War II had to be Truman’s first business: finishing off the Nazis, trying to contain Soviet power in Eastern Europe and Germany, and deciding about the use of atomic bombs against Japan were among the greatest initial tests any president ever faced in the opening months of his term.

Dwight Eisenhower’s trip to Korea as president-elect in December 1952 and John F. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 were defining events, signaling that no modern president could expect to spend four or eight years in office without pressure to decide overseas matters of life and death.

Like Wilson, from day one of his presidency Lyndon Johnson thought of himself as a domestic reformer and lamented the foreign calls on his attention that distracted him. It wasn’t long before one aide described Johnson as wishing “the rest of the world would go away and we could get ahead with the real needs of Americans.” And Lady Bird Johnson said that mounting foreign problems “do not represent Lyndon’s kind of presidency.” Johnson gave voice to his discomfort with world problems when he joked: “Foreigners are not like the folks I am used to.”

Johnson felt the press corps intentionally tried to embarrass him during his first 100 days, questioning his competence and attentiveness to external problems. So he took pains to tell reporters in January 1964, “I am spending more time on foreign affairs than on any other subject. I have had 175 separate meetings … have made 188 telephone calls…. I’ve met twice with the National Security Council. I’ve had Secretary [of Defense Robert] McNamara at the White House 30 times. I’ve met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff three times in 60 days. I’ve had Secretary [of State Dean] Rusk here 51 times…. I am often called in the middle of the night … with late information on developments abroad.”
Because all this activity did not convince the pundits of Johnson’s competence as a foreign policy leader, he was especially careful about his management of the first international crises he faced as president: challenges from Cuban and Panamanian nationalists to United States power in their countries.

In February 1964, Fidel Castro’s government in Havana cut off water supplies to the American naval base at Guantánamo Bay in response to American restrictions on Cuban fishing boats in American territorial waters. Recalling Kennedy’s disaster at the Bay of Pigs, Johnson wanted to avoid a response to Castro that made him look like a militarist eager to pick a fight with Communist Cuba or an appeaser who lacked Kennedy’s skill in standing up to an aggressor as during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Johnson showed himself to be judicious and firm by ordering the Pentagon to quickly make the base’s water supply self-sufficient.

Panama was a more difficult problem. Fighting between Panamanian students and American residents in January 1964 that killed some two dozen students and four Americans moved Panama’s President Robert Chiari to break relations with the United States. Warned by Senate leaders not to give in to demands for a renegotiation of the 1903 treaty granting a 99-year lease on the Canal Zone, Johnson saw the dispute as a test of his resolve to resist radical pressures around the globe. As with Cuba, he did not want to be seen as either a hothead or an easy mark of foreign pressure. While promising to meet Chiari’s demands for discussions about the treaty, he insisted that Panama first restore diplomatic relations. At the same time, he scored points with American hawks by belittling Panama as no bigger than St. Louis and defying pressure from the Organization of American States to be more forthcoming with Panama by saying that the O.A.S. couldn’t pour urine “out of a boot if the instructions were written on the heel.”

Can Barack Obama find any lessons for his initial conduct of foreign policy in Johnson’s first hundred days? Whether or not he is conscious of the Johnson experience, Obama so far seems to be imitating Johnson.

Like Johnson, he seems determined to blunt suggestions that he is a novice in world politics. Although saying nothing about how much time he is spending on foreign affairs, President Obama has addressed questions about his knowledge of the world by surrounding himself with more seasoned advisers than himself: Vice President Joseph Biden, the former chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton accords for Bosnia, who is special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan; George Mitchell, the mediator of the Northern Ireland settlement and now the president’s representative to the Middle East; and Gen. James L. Jones, the National Security Adviser.

By announcing his intention to close the Guantánamo prison in the next year and to reverse the Bush administration’s interrogation policies, Mr. Obama satisfies his party base while also proceeding slowly enough to show that he will assure against freeing anyone who might prove to be a renewed threat to the United States.

The announcement of 17,000 more troops for Afghanistan this week, and of expanded powers for the National Security Council suggest that, like Johnson, Mr. Obama is determined not to allow conservative critics get to the right of him on major national security matters.

He will want to remember, however, that foreign policy in general, and wars in particular, have played havoc with presidential reform programs — whether progressivism and World War I, or the New Deal and World War II, or the Fair Deal and Korea, or the Great Society and Vietnam. As Johnson so painfully learned in the 1960s, guns and butter are easy to promise but almost impossible to deliver at the same time.

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