While President Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech placated some of his US critics today, his recent decision to surge and withdraw in Afghanistan remains deeply controversial.
Liberal critics upbraid the President for increasing US military forces there. Conservatives complain that Mr. Obama’s announcement of a date for the beginning of US military withdrawal from Afghanistan will only allow al Qaeda and its Taliban allies to wait America out. In addition, some media pundits claim the President’s policy is really all about domestic politics, giving a little bit to everybody with strong preferences on what the US should be up to in Afghanistan and moving out of the country before the 2012 US presidential campaign heats up.
The last view may have some truth, but overstates its case. No war-time president has ever been, or could afford to be, oblivious to domestic politics. Presidents need popular support to sustain military action they deem necessary. Popular support can also give presidents the ability to end military actions in ways they think in the country’s interest. So, Mr. Obama’s year-and-a-half mark for beginning US withdrawal from Afghanistan probably is, in part, a carrot for members of his own party’s left-wing who want the President to break his campaign promise to pursue the war along the Afghan-Pakistan border with renewed vigor.
But in the end, I believe that all three views are simplistic, naive, and heedless of the facts. Obama is not George W. Bush-2, as some of his Democratic critics claim, nor a latter day peacenik, nor a pol solely in search of a golden mean to ensure his re-election.
It is, I think deeply significant that Mr. Obama chose to give the address unveiling his Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy at West Point, more particularly at the Eisenhower Auditorium there. I also believe that it was more than just the venue that incited the President to cite President Eisenhower during his speech, as he discussed all the factors that presidents must take into consideration in their decision-making.
Dwight Eisenhower was the most effective US president, when it came to foreign policy and national security issues, in the twentieth century. It wasn’t merely Eisenhower’s military background that made him so effective–MacArthur, LeMay, or Patton would have manifestly been disasters as presidents, in spite of their military backgrounds. It was, first of all, that Eisenhower was, in the best sense of the term, a “political general,” acclimated from peace-time service at the War Department to dealing with US pols at the Capitol and knowledgeable of the world scene from both his command of Allied forces in Europe during World War Two and his service as the first commander of NATO.
Eisenhower was an advocate and practitioner of what I call foreign policy realism. It’s one of three major ways in which foreign policy and national security have been approached in US history. I talk about those three ways here, a post in which I recount a conversation my son and had over dinner about five years ago:
…the first way was that of the realists. This was George Washington’s and Alexander Hamilton’s mode of thought. Later practitioners would include Dwight Eisenhower, Henry Kissinger, and Brett Scowcroft.
This group has always held that nations tend to act in their own self-interest. When, in his Farewell Address, drafted by Alexander Hamilton, Washington warned against “entangling alliances,” he wasn’t commending isolationism. He was rather offering a realistic warning that other nations–including republican France which people like Thomas Jefferson naively wanted the US to unstintingly support over against the still-powerful Great Britain–would act in their own interests, forming temporary friendships that advanced their national aims. But, the original George W and other realists would say, US foreign policy ought to be shaped by what is in the best interests of the country.
A second tradition in US foreign policy is represented by what I would call the impositionists. This group has been exemplified by Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and of late perhaps, George W. Bush.
Whether by military force, through support of other kinds, or simply in their thinking about foreign policy issues, these leaders have believed in the imposition of the American template on other countries. Jefferson read his own version of the American Revolution (to which he was more of a spectator than participant) into the French Revolution and concluded that America must lend its hand to republican France. Wilson adventured in Mexico and then entered World War One to “make the world safe for democracy.” Kennedy and Johnson got us into Vietnam. James K. Polk can, to some extent, be put in this category as well.
Most impositionists have been Democrats and have operated from a kind of semi-religious zeal. (Republican William McKinley, who employed the language of religious zealotry, displayed this tendency, as did his successor, Republican Theodore Roosevelt. But both did so more for economic or global political reasons than for others. )
Impositionists seem to see it as the function of American government to spread democracy, by force if necessary. Their approach to military force has been analogous, perhaps, to their big government solutions to domestic policies.
[George W. Bush], with his adoption of neo-conservative ideas on foreign policy may be in this camp. His evangelistic zeal to spread democracy in the Middle East, even, some would say, through the barrel of a gun, is reminiscent of Wilsonian approaches to the world. [The second Bush’s] policies bear little resemblance, for example, to the approaches taken by his own father, who was much more in the realist camp.
A third group has been the isolationists. One stream of isolationists might be associated with William Jennings Bryan, the prarie populist and three-time Democratic Party nominee. He viewed the outside world as evil over against the pristine purity of America.
Another stream of isolationism came to the fore in the wake of World War One. Tired of the adventurism of the Wilson presidency, Republicans called the country to “return to normalcy ” in the 1920 election. Later, they fought any US involvement in the Second World War, even as an armorer to Great Britain, until the attack on Pearl Harbor changed everybody’s tune. But the Republican isolationism of the 1920s and 30s was surprisingly congruent with that of the Bryan Democrats: Time Magazine, I’m told, didn’t have a section for foreign news in its early days. That section was simply labeled, “Power Politics.” If true, the clear implication would be that those folks “over there” were dirty while we were pure…
President Obama had already clearly signaled that he tilts to the realist camp during the 2008 campaign, siting both the first President Bush and President Eisenhower as role models for him in the realm national security and foreign policy.
And there is much to inspire Mr. Obama in the example of Mr. Eisenhower. Elected in 1952, the country mired in the pointless war in Korea, Eisenhower promised to end the conflict there in six months. He did just that, getting the North Koreans to the peace table by threatening to nuke the country if they didn’t make peace. For the next seven-and-a-half years, at the height of the Cold War, no American was killed or fired a shot in war.
Eisenhower was deeply concerned that the international situation necessitated the expenditure of money on the materiel of war. He also bemoaned the power given to the what he called “the military industrial” complex as a consequence of the Cold War. But he also, in a rare moment of public chest-thumping, incited by John Kennedy’s fictitious claim of a “missile gap” during the 1960 presidential campaign, declared that US military power was unparalleled, “awesome” he called it, all because of his insistence that until the world willingly disarmed and shared its nuclear secrets for peaceful purposes, the US should pursue “peace through strength.”
Like all the best foreign policy realists, Eisenhower knew that the use of military might should be the option of last choice, but that it is a choice that the United States needed to have in hand.
Above all, the bottom line for foreign policy realists is what is in the best interest of the United States. Multilatealism is embraced as an adjunct to what is, as President Obama said in today’s Nobel acceptance speech, in this country’s “enlightened self-interest.” (Obama also said at West Point that the place he most wants to do nation-building is the United States.)
In his speech at West Point, Mr. Obama gave scant reference to defeating the Taliban, nation-building in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or democracy in Afghanistan, all oft-mentioned pieces of his predecessor’s policies. That’s because from the standpoint of the foreign policy realism to which Mr. Obama appears to adhere, the form of government adopted by Afghanistan or the persons who man that government are not core issues. Destroying the capacity of al Qaeda to use the mountainous region between Afghanistan and Pakistan as a staging ground for violence against Americans–as well as against Afghans, Pakistanis, and others–is critical. Destroying al Qaeda, while fostering sustainable institutions in Afghanistan and Pakistan which can quell the resurgence of al Qaeda or similar groups, is the US mission.
Under Mr. Obama’s policies, US forces will destroy al Qaeda enclaves, Americans will train Afghan and Pakistani police and military officials, and Afghans and Pakistanis will be helped to take charge of their own lives. Those three things are ambitious enough. But, taken together, they don’t add up to a reiteration of his predecessor’s Wilsonian impositionism, as charged by members of his own party.
As to Mr. Obama’s decision to begin bringing US forces back in eighteen months, that element of his policy can be seen as much as pressure on the Afghans and Pakistanis to throw in with the US as it can be portrayed as a domestic political strategy. If the current Afghan and Pakistani governments wish to move on unencumbered by al Qaeda and the Taliban, they have eighteen months to get on the right track. (The assistance, in various ways, of the Indian government right now would do a great deal toward quelling al Qaeda as well as securing peace and stability in the region and between India and Pakistan. Hopefully, the Obama Administration can secure such cooperation.)
As is always the case, I express no opinion on the rightness of Obama’s policies in what is called “Afpak.” But it’s clear to me that this guy is not continuing his predecessor’s policies and is not a naive isolationist ceding time or territory to the terrorists. He’s spinning his own version of foreign policy realism. I suspect Ike would endorse the Obama strategy.
Eisenhower: Soldier and President by Stephen Ambrose
Ike: An American Hero by Michael Korda
Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation by Richard Norton Smith
My own Foreign Policy Over Burritos and Tacos, here.