National Commentary

The Obama Doctrine & Eisenhower

nfbentonpicIn recent days, there has been the usual firestorm of reaction to a new initiative by President Obama on the Internet and in blogs and columns, as well as on Washington insider “talking heads” blab shows, but in the case of reactions to the president’s major foreign policy speech at West Point last week, two opinion columns on the editorial pages of The Washington Post set the issues in clear and stark relief.

The last week’s duel, although indirect, over the newly and comprehensively crafted Obama foreign policy doctrine pitting Michael Gerson, from 2001 to 2006 the chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush, against Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s “Global Public Square,” has proved illustrative.

Of course, many other pundits – Richard Cohen, Charles Krauthammer and on and on – have also weighed in, but in this case, Gerson gets seniority points as the man who wrote or oversaw the myriad George W. Bush justifications for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and Zakaria has emerged as a most articulate defender of the “Obama doctrine.”

Gerson’s column in the June 3 edition of The Post was entitled “A Foreign Policy Stuck on Stupid.” Zakaria’s column in the May 29 edition was entitled “Obama’s Leadership is Right for Today.”

Gerson’s criticism of Obama characterizes the new policy articulation as “a doctrine of risk aversion” that “can be justified only by minimizing the seriousness of global challenges and miniaturizing the role of presidential leadership.” Its danger, he concluded, is that “its vapidity is evident to leaders around the world who are even less likely to trust or fear the United States when determining their own actions.”

By contrast with this war-mongering neo-conservative perspective, Zakaria presented a useful global context for the “Obama doctrine.” The world, he noted, is “far more peaceful and stable than at any point in decades and, by some measures, centuries.”

He added, “The United States faces no enemy anywhere on the scale of Soviet Russia (during the 1947-1990 Cold War—ed.). Its military spending is about that of the next 14 countries combined, most of which are treaty allies of Washington. The number of democracies around the world has grown by more than 50 percent in the past quarter-century. The countries that recently have been aggressive or acted as Washington’s adversaries are getting significant pushback.”

In this context, he continued, “What is needed from Washington is not a heroic exertion of American military power but rather a sustained effort to engage with allies, isolate enemies, support free markets and democratic values and push these positive trends forward.”

Zakaria, who considers himself a “centrist,” added, “Obama is battling a knee-jerk sentiment in Washington in which the only kind of international leadership that means anything is the use of military force.”

He evoked the famous farewell speech of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower in January 1961, who as a military general who knew first hand the horrors of war was highly averse to military conflict. He refused to intervene in the Suez crisis, developing his own “Eisenhower Doctrine” of peaceful containment and cooperation in response to the French collapse in Vietnam, two Taiwan Strait confrontations and the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Zakaria quoted Eisenhower, saying “I’ll tell you what leadership is…it’s persuasion, and conciliation, and education, and patience. It’s long, slow, tough work. That’s the only kind of leadership I know, or believe in, or will practice.”

It was in that speech that President Eisenhower coined the phrase, “the military industrial complex,” to warn the American people of the undue influence of war mongers and profiteers in shaping U.S. foreign policy, mongers and profiteers who morphed over the next decades into the neo-conservative movement that took the reigns of U.S. foreign policy during the Reagan administration, howled relentlessly when George Bush Sr. refused to extend the Gulf War into a full-blown invasion of Iraq, and then got their way with the election of George W. Bush.

By evoking Eisenhower, military leader and Republican, Zakaria stepped behind the militaristic era of the neo-cons to identify an American foreign policy reflective of Obama’s doctrine.