Politics & Society — March 14, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Is Barack Obama A Modern Eisenhower?

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When looking for potential parallels for Barack Obama’s foreign policy, analysts often compare the approaches of former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Dwight Eisenhower. The key uniting principle, in the eyes of these commentators, is the “pragmatism” or “realism” of their foreign policies. All three avoided initiating long, drawn out wars, but none were afraid to use military force when they saw necessary. This analysis is by and large appropriate. However, often overlooked are the unique similarities shared between Eisenhower and Obama, separate from Bush.

Unlike Bush, both Eisenhower and Obama lived in eras of high political paranoia. In Eisenhower’s day, this paranoia centered on the perceived communist threat. The infamous trials in the Senate and House, led by figures such as Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon, had gripped the country since the late 1940s, but the paranoia extended further, and Truman had even instituted a loyalty program aimed at expunging supposedly communist elements from the bureaucracy and executive branch. Although Eisenhower was a renowned World War II general, his centrism alienated the right wing, and he selected anti-communist crusader Nixon as running mate partially in response to these pressures.

Today, similar paranoia exists regarding Islamic terrorism, exemplified by legislation such as the Patriot Act, exceptional policies such as indefinite detention, and congressional hearings led by Peter King of New York and others. Unlike Eisenhower, Obama did not have impeccably patriotic credentials. On the contrary, he had a Kenyan father and attended school in Indonesia for a period. To top it off, he was black. This all spurred (unjustified, of course) suspicion of Islamic and un-American infiltration at the highest levels of power.

Both combated domestic suspicion through policy. Eisenhower committed to containing communism, refusing to back down to Soviet and Chinese provocations, defending the sovereignty of South Vietnam, Taiwan, and elsewhere. Obama has also forcefully taken on countries and actors associated with militant Islam and terrorism, with the increasing pressure on Iran and increased use of drone strikes in ungoverned territories as the most prominent examples. Obama has also given ground on issues previously central to the civil liberties agenda by extending the Patriot Act and further entrenching indefinite detention policies.

This last note brings up another key similarity: a shift to the ruthless and efficient use of covert operations. For Eisenhower, these took the form mostly of CIA operations to depose governments in key locales thought to be on the verge of or already accepting a spot in the communist bloc. He used the CIA to overthrow regimes initially elected democratically in Iran and Guatemala. In Obama’s case, covert ops have more often been used to eliminate terrorist targets like Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, although focusing on these high profile strikes understates the full extent of drone strikes.

Both presidents looked to covert ops for two reasons: budgetary constraints and war weariness among the public. Although Eisenhower did not face the budget deficits Obama does, he feared military costs growing too large and eventually overwhelming the domestic economy, choking out the prosperity central to American power and security. At the same time, he knew the American public was in no mood for another drawn out quagmire in Asia after Korea.

Obama wrestles a more difficult budgetary situation. Coming into office, he faced a moderately high level of public debt to GDP, but he must be concerned with moderating the long run growth in government debt, as the ratio of retirees to workers will be increasing, implying higher government spending on entitlement programs in the future. It seems unlikely a country can sustain its power while embarking on high cost/low reward wars in the Middle East when the primary rising challenger, China, is avoiding such distractions. Even if such wars were conducive to maintaining power, the American public is unwilling to support them any longer. And to top it off, American debt is piling up. How long will interest rates remain low enough for us to maintain these debt levels without crippling burdens on the domestic economy?

Another key similarity is that, as opposed to Bush, who oversaw the Soviet Union’s fall, both Eisenhower and Obama face rising challengers. Both the early Cold War Soviet Union and 21st century China challenged the US on two fronts: there was the political challenge, pitting top down systems vs. democracy; but more significantly, there was the economic challenge. The Soviet Union was still exhibiting high growth rates from its top down industrialization processes, enchanting third world countries who saw this top down guidance, and not capitalism and free trade, as the way to develop.

Similarly, China today presents the US with a similar challenge. We seem to be losing jobs and market share because of Chinese neo-mercantlism. Can the American system of mostly free trade and limited industrial subsidization hope to compete? The Soviet system collapsed on its own, with a bit of nudging from high US defense spending, but the Chinese system does not have the same obvious economic vulnerabilities, and other states who developed with a strong state role in the economy, such as China’s neighbors Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, continue to prosper.

Although the presidencies of Eisenhower and Obama share a number of similarities, there is one key difference, and it does not bode well for the future of American power. Eisenhower’s presidency was an era of increasing prosperity and constant innovation, leading to more and better jobs for Americans. More and better jobs translate into resources that can be used to maintain geopolitical superiority. Today, however, we’re mired in the aftermath of a recession. Innovation is occurring in Silicon Valley, but how many jobs is Silicon Valley creating? Sure, jobs aren’t everything. But how much better off are these innovations making us, and how can we translate that into power?

The world today is interdependent. What helps us often helps China, and vice-versa. But the US today is struggling. Can Obama take insights from Eisenhower and apply them to an age of economic stagnation and budgetary difficulties? Or was Eisenhower’s strategy so good only because he had the American economy working so well behind him?

At least we’ve still got culture.

2 Comments

  1. Who’s Eisenhower?

  2. Similar but so very different.

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