What today’s GOP gets Wrong about Leadership: Obama & Eisenhower, Russian & Israeli Recklessness

(By Juan Cole)

The usual suspects have been slamming President Obama for an alleged lack of leadership. Trolls for the military-industrial complex like Charles Krauthammer, and megalomaniacs from tiny states like Sen. Lindsey Graham have constructed a narrative in which Obama willfully withdrew from Iraq, giving it away to Iran; has been insufficiently slavish in his devotion to the ruling Israeli Likud Party; and then declined to bomb Syria, allowing a diplomatic solution to its chemical weapons stores; and now is dithering while Russia occupies Crimea. Graham, for whom surely a small minority of his state’s 4 million people actually voted, snarkily advised Obama to cease threatening action against foreign challengers: “It’s not your strong suit.” (I wonder how Osama Bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi would feel about that allegation; and, remember that Graham’s big foreign policy idea was to illegally invade and occupy Iraq). All this adds up, the war-hawks insist, to weakness on Obama’s part.

Much of what they say is just posturing, and makes no sense. It was George W. Bush who turned Iraq from a bastion of Sunni Arab secular nationalism that served as a bulwark against Shiite Iran into a natural ally of Iran. It was Bush who overthrew the secular Baath Party and enabled the takeover of Iraq by the Islamic Call (Da’wa) Party, which aims at a Shiite state. It was Bush who failed to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi parliament that would allow US troops to remain after December 2011 (as if their remaining would anyway have been a good idea). And remember that all those things Bush did were war crimes, which the hawks are lamenting Obama has not committed enough of.

Although this chorus demanding forceful “leadership” is largely from the Republican Party, they do not actually represent the positions of that party as it was constituted in saner days. Their bromides could as well be applied to President Dwight D. Eisenhower as to Obama.

So when in late 1956 Moscow crushed the Hungarian uprising, President Eisenhower could do little about it. He concentrated on helping Hungarian refugees. Privately, his heart went out to “captive peoples” whom he wanted to rescue from foreign domination (including, by the way, the Algerians laboring under French colonialism). But he was unwilling to risk WW III over Moscow’s assertion that Hungary was its sphere of influence.

Dwight Eisenhower was among America’s most distinguished military and civilian leaders and had been Supreme Allied Commander during WW II. He defeated Hitler. He was not a wimp, to say the least. And Lindsey Graham and Charles Krauthammer are not good enough to wipe his shoes. And yet his response to Moscow’s troop movements in Hungary was no more robust than Obama’s to Russian troops in Crimea. Indeed, because the Soviet Union was economically disengaged from the capitalist world system, Eisenhower had fewer levers against it than Obama’s proposed sanctions on today’s Russia, which has bought into capitalist oligarchy like everyone else. (The Russian stock market has lashed Vladimir Putin, itself, quite apart from other sanctions; warmongering is usually bad for the economy.)

Obama is not enamored of the militant Greater Israel policy of the ruling Likud Party, which is engaged in a gradual annexation of the Palestinian West Bank and its colonization by Israeli squatters. He has sought to pressure Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians, whom Netanyahu seeks to keep permanently stateless and without rights. He recently warned that a time is coming when the US can no longer protect Israel from international sanctions for its illegal actions against the Palestinians. Netanyahu came to the White House on Monday and essentially told Obama that he would not budge on his West Bank policy of land theft and squatting. (Why the US should protect Netanyahu from UNSC sanctions at all is mysterious; what is the difference between Russia in the Crimea and Israel in the Palestinian West Bank? Yet Obama wants to sanction Putin.)

As for Eisenhower, he was outraged by the aggressive war launched jointly by Britain, France and Israel against Egypt in late October 1956, and he put enormous pressure on Israel to withdraw from Sinai. I wrote elsewhere:

“The United Nations was established in 1945 in the wake of a series of aggressive wars of conquest and the response to them, in which over 60 million people perished. Its purpose was to forbid such unjustified attacks, and its charter specified that in future wars could only be launched on two grounds. One is clear self-defense, when a country has been attacked. The other is with the authorization of the United Nations Security Council.

It was because the French, British and Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956 contravened these provisions of the United Nations Charter that President Dwight D. Eisenhower condemned that war and forced the belligerents to withdraw. When Israel looked as though it might try to hang on to its ill-gotten spoils, the Sinai Peninsula, President Eisenhower went on television on February 21, 1957 and addressed the nation. These words have largely been suppressed and forgotten in the United States of today, but they should ring through the decades and centuries:

“If the United Nations once admits that international dispute can be settled by using force, then we will have destroyed the very foundation of the organization, and our best hope of establishing a real world order. That would be a disaster for us all . . .

[Referring to Israeli demands that certain conditions be met before it relinquished the Sinai, the president said that he] “would be untrue to the standards of the high office to which you have chosen me if I were to lend the influence of the United States to the proposition that a nation which invades another should be permitted to exact conditions for withdrawal . . .”

“If it [the United Nations Security Council] does nothing, if it accepts the ignoring of its repeated resolutions calling for the withdrawal of the invading forces, then it will have admitted failure. That failure would be a blow to the authority and influence of the United Nations in the world and to the hopes which humanity has placed in the United Nations as the means of achieving peace with justice.”

You can only imagine what Charles Krauthammer and Fox Cable News and Lindsey Graham would say about Obama if he gave a similar speech, or took a similar stance, today. Yet Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank is no more justified, all these decades after 1967– a war in which Israel fired the first shots– than David Ben Gurion’s occupation of Sinai in 1956-57.

Yet Eisenhower’s handling of both Hungary and the Suez Crisis was the epitome of responsible leadership. He condemned the Soviets and tried to help Hungarian refugees, but did not want to risk nuclear brinkmanship with Moscow. He upheld the standards of the United Nations Charter and acted forcefully against even allies who contravened it with a war of aggression on Egypt an an attempted long-term occupation of Sinai. (At the time the US was a creditor Power, not a debtor nation, and so Eisenhower could threaten to call in loans to Britain, France and Israel, which would have crashed their post-war economies).

It is no accident that Eisenhower warned when going out of office of the pernicious influence of the Military-Industrial Complex. That Complex later captured Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and led them to engage in exactly the kind of illegal and unwise behavior that Eisenhower so forcefully condemned in the 1950s. Those carping at Obama (who is unfortunately not as far left as Eisenhower) are just ventriloquists’ dummies for the Complex that Eisenhower so hated and feared, and which has taken over, as he feared.

Leadership does not consist in flailing around like Reagan, creating private death squads in Afghanistan that morphed into al-Qaeda and the Taliban; nor does it consist in falling wolf-like on other nations that have not attacked us; nor does it consist in supporting allies when they contravene international law. All that is not leadership, it is pandering to the lowest common denominator and it is the height of recklessness.

But Fox Cable News and the inside-the-Beltway chickenhawks wouldn’t recognized mature leadership if it fell on their heads.

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Related video:

John Stewart of the Daily Show from last week: “Anarchy in the Ukraine – What Would Reagan Do? President Reagan would never kowtow to the beteated ruler of the Caucasus.”

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21 Responses

  1. President Obama’s foreign policy is based on fantasy
    By Editorial Board, Published: March 2
    Well here we have the Editorial Board from the Washington Post coming down hard on Obama’s foreign policy. What grabbed my attention is the source because the editors are really coming down on themselves. How ironic as they seem to have abandoned their own fantasy world, where they thought they were correct to have supported Obama all along, and where those on the right are just aggressive warmongers (stupid, as well) and peace and love can win out over viciousness.
    The first sentence lays down the premise:
    “FOR FIVE YEARS, President Obama has led a foreign policy based more on how he thinks the world should operate than on reality. It was a world in which “the tide of war is receding” and the United States could, without much risk, radically reduce the size of its armed forces. Other leaders, in this vision, would behave rationally and in the interest of their people and the world.”
    The WaPo then heaps scorn on our naïve Secretary of State and his musings about how power games, invasions and shifting alliances are things of the past:
    “That’s a nice thought, and we all know what he means. A country’s standing is no longer measured in throw-weight or battalions. The world is too interconnected to break into blocs. A small country that plugs into cyberspace can deliver more prosperity to its people (think Singapore or Estonia) than a giant with natural resources and standing armies.”
    It’s time, the Post continues, for the Obama administration to wake up from its somnolent blindness. Reality is calling:
    “Unfortunately, Russian President Vladimir Putin has not received the memo on 21st-century behavior. Neither has China’s president, Xi Jinping, who is engaging in gunboat diplomacy against Japan and the weaker nations of Southeast Asia. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is waging a very 20th-century war against his own people, sending helicopters to drop exploding barrels full of screws, nails and other shrapnel onto apartment buildings where families cower in basements. These men will not be deterred by the disapproval of their peers, the weight of world opinion or even disinvestment by Silicon Valley companies. They are concerned primarily with maintaining their holds on power.”
    Of course, members of both parties are more than happy with an American retrenchment, but, as the old saying goes, the buck stops with the president:
    “Today Mr. Obama has plenty of company in his impulse, within both parties and as reflected by public opinion. But he’s also in part responsible for the national mood: If a president doesn’t make the case for global engagement, no one else effectively can.”
    And finally:
    … as long as some leaders play by what Mr. Kerry dismisses as 19th-century rules, the United States can’t pretend that the only game is in another arena altogether. Military strength, trustworthiness as an ally, staying power in difficult corners of the world such as Afghanistan — these still matter, much as we might wish they did not. While the United States has been retrenching, the tide of democracy in the world, which once seemed inexorable, has been receding. In the long run, that’s harmful to U.S. national security, too.”
    “As Mr. Putin ponders whether to advance further — into eastern Ukraine, say — he will measure the seriousness of U.S. and allied actions, not their statements. China, pondering its next steps in the East China Sea, will do the same. Sadly, that’s the nature of the century we’re living in.”
    It’s a tough indictment of the incompetent Obama-Clinton-Kerry foreign policy team. Given the source, it will surely have an impact.
    One other issue not related to Obama’s foreign policy but could have an effect is how the Ukraine’s economy is economically insignificant. Let’s put it into some perspective: the Ukraine’s gross domestic product is one-fifth the size of Turkey and its per capita income is a touch higher than Egypt’s. Its entire stock-market capitalization is roughly the size of Schlumberger (NYSE:SLB) or Disney (NYSE:DIS)—take your pick. There is a human tragedy unfolding there, and given Mr. Putin’s history, we should be braced for significant loss of life.

    • Right wing trolling and WaPo rationalization of militarism will persuade no one and does not belong here, as it does not address the underlying issues. The “reality” which is calling is the madness of imperialism, not the predictable response. Consider whether it is right to subvert a democracy which represents public opinion, however misgoverned, and who is responsible for the self-protective response of the neighbors. Consider whether democracy in a nation divided needs reconciliation or right wing subversion. And consider whether your bullying is pro-democracy or anti-democracy in effect. Better thoughts in Chris Floyd’s article at link to chris-floyd.com.

    • Shorter Mr. Dabney:

      I love Thucydides. I love Victor David Hanson. The strong do what they wish and the weak suffer what they must! Let’s conquer the world because it’s dangerous and we’s gots security interests. Oh . . . conquering the world creates resentment and danger? Let’s do it anyway! Bombing Lebanon in the 80s? Bases in Saudi? Sign me up and damn the lingering resentments! Hey, the Vietnamese and El Salvadorans and Iranians rolled over – EVERYONE will roll over – we’re f****ing Amercia, f**k yeah! Damn the blow back! If C+ history was good enough for W. it’s good enuf for me! Oh sure, the WaPo has been wrong on most everything – so statistically they gotta have this one down! Right?! Right?! Es lebe Frederick Hiatt, es lebe unsere Folk! I have a window on the future and the dark door of war doth not apply to moi.

      Obama? Damned if he does damned if he doesn’t . . . because, well, Muslim? Black? Lefty?

      Congrats, one out of three correct ain’t bad – at least your record of error is better than Bill Kristol’s. Now, back to your imperial keyboard where you can conquer the Earth one character at a time.

  2. I would add only the word ‘dummies’ after the word ‘ventriloquist’. Everything else perfect and superb, as always.

    Those carping at Obama (who is unfortunately not as far left as Eisenhower) are just ventriloquists for the Complex that Eisenhower so hated and feared, and which has taken over, as he feared.

    • That’s true, it’s an excellent point but it’s from an out of date view.
      Because Earth is now in grip of unstoppable entropy rise runaway.
      The Earth, her open systems of nature were exploited -undercut to the point where the natural systems of earth ecosystem failed and now heat pulse is getting at methane hydrate in Arctic and deep sourced methane is also getting out to sky.
      (When I was a boy Eisenhower was President and then Kennedy.)
      Latest information on Methane force increase going exponential as described by Dr Malcolm Light at Arctic News.:
      link to arctic-news.blogspot.com Today the field of politics to war is corporate -US Corporate Politics merged with gov is quid essential definition of fascist. Italian style.. WW2 style..
      This is no fault absolutely lethal to any chance for Earth to keep HZ. -Eisenhower and Kennedy would act to reverse the nose dive to Extinction that’s on now..

  3. Prof. Cole, thanks for another excellent commentary. You do a great service. I share your esteem for President Eisenhower. Being human, he made a few mistakes that are visible with the benefit of hindsight, but he was truly a great man and a great leader. My only comment about your analysis would be to suggest that Russia’s actions today in the Crimea seem far more defensible than Israel’s with respect to the Palestinians. I would not equate them. It is a shame that the U.S. has–as you have often eloquently pointed out–enabled the dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians. The U.S. applies different standards when judging our own actions and those of others.

  4. Excuse me but it was Russia that defeated Hitler and paid a huge price in doing so. Hitler’s downfall was when he made the mistake attacking of Russia and this broke the back of his military might.

    • Clearly, Russia paid a terrible price. But one should not forget the cynical pact Stalin had with Hitler to conquer and divide up Poland.

      And one cannot forget the critical role played by FDR on multiple occasions, even before the U.S. entered the war. Cutting off the oil to Japan as the Germans were gaining territory was critical, particularly when it became obvious to the Russians a few months later that Japan was heading south. The Russians had good reason to believe the Japanese might go north and thus had to keep their Siberian troops in place. It was the release of the Siberian troops and their rapid transfer to Moscow that kept Russia in the war.

      I believe the war would have been much more disastrous if the United States had not been separated from the fighting by two oceans. The small amount of damage suffered by the U.S. made it possible to resuscitate the world economy. Given the very brittle energy situation in many places around the world, the kind of physical options that Republicans seem to support could easily lead to debilitating consequences for the world economy (think Iraq and 2008 and no lessons learned). Oil, natural gas and coal will be around for another 2 to 4 decades but the age of fossil fuels is over. The Republicans are oblivious to the economic transition that is now taking place between fossil fuels and clean energy. Some of what is happening in Russia may be a belated response to that reality. I believe there is still much to learn about what is happening.

  5. The Ukraine crisis has prompted lots of chatter that has revealed what may be a fatal malady for what is left of our democracy: rampant hypocrisy and mendacity among the ruling elite and those who aspire to join them. And it is not only the GOP that is guilty of those sins. Add to that a gullible and ignorant populace and there is no cause for optimism.

  6. Dwight Eisenhower also was president during the CIA-inspired 1953 overthrow of popularly-elected Dr. Mossadegh in Iran during Operation Ajax and the emplacement of the repressive regime of the Shah. This eventually led to the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis. The hostage incident led to the resignation of Iranian government leader Mehdi Bazargan – who was an ally of the moderate Dr. Mossadegh.

    The CIA also played a key role in the assumption of power of Maronite Lebanese president Camille Chamoun in Lebanon in 1958.

    Pres. Eisenhower also personally congratulated the CIA personnel who overthrew Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 and it was his administration who commenced planning of what eventualy became the disaster at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba.

    The eight years of the Eisenhower presidency saw exponential growth of the U.S. intelligence community and their respective international covert operations.

    • I’m a long-time admirer of (and donor to) Juan Cole. But thankfully, and with due respect, we have Informed Responses to Juan’s Informed Comment(s).

      Is it not crucial (NOW) that we move beyond the charade of right/left, Dem/Rep points of view and keep our eyes on disecting the anatomy of this bi-partisan Deep State/Shit we’re in? Ike’s hagiography (one who helped design and craft this imperial madness) encourages complacency to The Good Leader.

      And to imply Obama has escaped “capture” from The Complex
      is taking too lightly his disturbing affection for precision kills.
      He probably shoots baskets with his Kill Team. Leadership? Please.

  7. Having served in Vietnam, I abhor this antiquated, liberal belief in nation building whether the specific country is Afghanistan, Iraq or now the Ukraine.

    Obama is shooting blanks, and Putin knows it. But George W. Bush was also shooting blanks, and Putin also knew it. It just simply amazes me that after the foreign policy debacle during the Vietnam War prosecuted by JFK, LBJ and Richard Nixon, we committed the same mistakes in the long war on terror as we did during that war.

    So my observations and opinions, cynical as they may be, are beyond partisan politics. But as the late Gore Vidal loved to observe in his essays and interviews, we live in the United States of Amnesia.

    Putin appears to be well on his way in scoring another PR victory as he did when he played his cards so astutely against Kerry and Obama in averting an intervention in the Syrian civil war. They came off as rank amateurs. And I voted for Obama, being a liberal in my politics, so I’m not one of these crazy neocon trolls Professor Cole inveighed against in one of his previous essay awhile back.

    Putin is a pragmatic nationalist from the realpolitik school of thought, clearly amoral and cold-blooded, when it comes to the game of exercising power in international affairs. He chooses his battles carefully, and he has an intuitive, uncanny sense to smell weakness in his prey as all first-class predators do on the world stage we call foreign affairs. And again we underestimated him. Is that his fault? I don’t think so.

    • Here’s another cynical viewpoint, also beyond partisan politics. In foreign policy, the Republicans and Democrats are two peas in a pod.

      In Syria, Putin did plays his cards well, but Obama set himself up with his “red line” comment. In the end though, Obama and Kerry got out of the trap they set for themselves.

      In Ukraine and the Crimea, Putin’s seems to have done something similar and went even further by sending in troops after his man in Kiev was overthrown by western leaning forces. Putin might have drastically overplayed his hand. His comments at yesterday’s news conference showed him to be “in his own world” as German P.M. Merkel put it. In poker terminology, Putin went all-in because he sensed Obama was holding a weak hand. He better hope Obama’s hand isn’t a full house including sanctions and E.U. support.

      Will the situation in Ukraine weaken Putin’s support for Assad in Syria. If so, what look like a Putin-Assad victory might turn out just the opposite.

      If Assad goes down and a western leaning govt. is in place in Kiev, it’s a win-win for Obama. Taking down Assad also breaks the supply line between Iran and Hezbollah.

      • But what good does this do to a bankrupt American empire propped up by infinite Saudi (Syrian terrorist-backer) and Chinese and Japanese (two countries possibly headed to future war) loans? We’ve solved no real problems, and we caused the Russia problem by humiliating them and causing mass starvation there with our ’90s combo of NATO expansion and neoliberal/austerity economics. We still don’t understand that we cause these problems, so we feel justified in spending another trillion bucks on killer robots to beat everyone else down.

  8. p.s. Another thing I noticed is Putin’s counterattacked in Georgia was on opening night of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. That day, our State Dept. had been in repeated contact with the President of Georgia (Misha) warning him not to attack South Ossetia because it was a Putin trap. Misha ignored the warnings and Putin sent 1,200 Russian tanks through the Roki tunnel into Georgia.

    The government in Kiev, Ukraine fell on closing weekend of the Sochi, Russia Olympics. I do not think that was just a coincidence–No way.

    There’s a method to Obama’s madness.

  9. I have to go with Dale Lanan above. Are we paying attention to what is happening with climate? I don’t think so. Do you know and understand what Dale says in his short piece? Who is that guy who fiddled while Rome burned? We are all fiddling while the planet burns.

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