Is Obama Like Ike?

Roundup: Talking About History
tags: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Barack Obama

Michael Doran, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration, is the Roger Hertog Senior Fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @Doranimated.

“I remember some of the speeches of Eisenhower,” Hillary Clinton said during a joint interview with President Obama in January. “You know, you’ve got to be careful, you have to be thoughtful, you can’t rush in.” It seems likely her memories were jogged by the reviews of Evan Thomas’s recent book, Ike’s Bluff, which argued that Eisenhower’s experience as a soldier and general taught him the limitations of exercising power. That book and a spate of other recent studies have established Ike firmly in the public mind as the very embodiment of presidential prudence.

They have also turned him into a posthumous adviser to the Obama administration. Before becoming secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel bought three dozen copies of David A. Nichols’s study of the Suez Crisis and distributed them to (among others) the president, Hillary Clinton, and Leon Panetta, his predecessor as secretary of defense. At Suez, Ike refused to support Britain and France when they (in collusion with Israel) invaded Egypt, and he effectively killed the intervention. Hagel’s lesson was clear: Don’t let allies drag you into ill-advised military adventures.

In an influential essay published last year in Time entitled “On Foreign Policy, Why Barack Is Like Ike,” Fareed Zakaria argued that when the president showed a wariness to intervene in places like Syria, he was displaying an uncanny resemblance to Eisenhower. The key quality that the two share, Zakaria argued, is “strategic restraint.” In his recent book, Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era (Princeton University Press, 200 pages), Joseph S. Nye of Harvard takes the argument even one step further. Nye claims Eisenhower was actually an early practitioner of what an Obama aide, speaking of the administration’s role in the ouster of the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya, notoriously called “leading from behind.”...

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