What Ike Can Teach Obama

tags: Obama, Eisenhower

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of  The American Conservative.

On NPR someone wistfully dropped the name of George Kennan, in the context of “Wouldn’t be nice if there was some profound strategic thinker in government who could guide the administration through the multiple escalating crises?” Looking at a lineup consisting of Susan Rice, Ashton Carter, and John Kerry, the impetus for the remark seems pretty plain.

In Ukraine, longstanding Western efforts to bring the border state into the Western fold have provoked a violent Russian reaction, which has erupted into war and could escalate into a nuclear exchange. Regarding Iran, the administration, in close cooperation with its Western allies, is seeking an agreement to slow and monitor Tehran’s nuclear potential, preventing an Iranian advance to nuclear weapons status. The government of Israel, for many in Washington America’s most treasured ally, is working hard to wreck this negotiation by mobilizing its American supporters and leaking classified information, and could conceivably launch an attack on Iran, or possibly somewhere else, to thwart Obama’s diplomatic efforts.

Meanwhile, much of the Arab world is falling into an expanding civil war, and the fundamentalist and barbaric Islamist group ISIS has seized a territory the size of Britain in Iraq and Syria and declared a caliphate. ISIS is opposed diffidently by other Arab governments, and more forcefully by Shi’ite forces from Iran and Lebanon, as well as the Syrian government. Israel has at least tacitly sided with ISIS forces opposing Syria, which is allied with both Moscow and Iran.

These three conflicts overlap in ways that no one fully understands—the facile analogy might be three-dimensional chess, as if anyone knew what three dimensional chess is and how it is played. The nearest analogy in postwar history would be the autumn of 1956. Eisenhower was aged and ailing at a moment when his top foreign policy aide, Secretary of State Dulles, was undergoing emergency cancer surgery. Yet he faced the simultaneous events of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, which had overthrown its pro-Soviet Communist party, and the Israeli-British-French campaign to topple Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser and seize the Suez Canal, recently nationalized by the popular Egyptian nationalist. But that only made for two simultaneous crises. Obama has three erupting at once.

As we began with Kennan, it ought be acknowledged that he was one of relatively few prominent men in Washington who foresaw the Ukraine crisis, or some variant of it, emerging from the American decisions to expand NATO after the Soviet collapse in the Cold War. Writing in 1997, Kennan warned that expanding NATO was “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-war era.” That would include, of course, Vietnam, where America lost more than 50,000 dead, but does not take into account the second Iraq war, the neocons’ war, which set the stage for the rise of ISIS by destroying the Iraqi state. Kennan predicted that NATO expansion would inflame Russian nationalism, and enhance the anti-Western and militaristic tendencies within Russia, as it certainly has. ...

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