World Politics Review | 6.3.08
By Alan W. Dowd

Sen. Barack Obama’s promise to “immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq” is the centerpiece of his campaign, and his straightforward stance on the war and vision of an endgame is the factor that arguably attracts most of his supporters. “When I am Commander-in-Chief,” he vows, without a hint of hedging or nuance, “I will set a new goal on Day One: I will end this war.”

The US has witnessed similar moments in presidential politics. In 1952, with the nation bogged down in a bloody and unpopular war on the Korean peninsula, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower campaigned on a promise “to bring the Korean War to an early and honorable end” and to “concentrate on the job of ending the Korean War.” To underscore his seriousness, he famously declared, “I shall go to Korea.” His purpose: to “learn how best to serve the American people in the cause of peace.”[i]

Perhaps in that spirit, Sen. John McCain has proposed a joint visit to Iraq with Obama. “I would be glad to go with him because these issues are far more important than any election,” McCain recently said. “The security of this nation is far more important than any political campaign.”

Whether or not Obama accepts McCain’s offer of a guided tour of Iraq, two important questions need to be considered: Can the bold, young senator from Illinois deliver on his Ike-like promises? And just as important, can he end the war in such a manner that, like Ike’s efforts on the Korean peninsula, the postwar situation is an improvement rather than a setback for US interests and international standing. We may not know the answers, but we do know what it took for Ike to say and do to end the Korean War. That may be instructive today.

Ike’s success in Korea and beyond wasn’t simply a matter of military credentials, though they certainly helped. After all, Ike led US forces in North Africa, was the supreme commander of the Allied armies that liberated Europe, General of the Army, Army Chief of Staff and, finally, military commander of the newborn NATO alliance. In short, when Ike talked about war and peace, Americans listened to him—and trusted him.

However, Ike’s success in a) convincing the American people that he could and would end the Korean War, b) winning the presidency, and c) actually ending the war—the three were inextricably linked—had as much to do with his hard-nosed view of the world. Obama holds a much more idealistic view of the world. Indeed, it’s important to note that Obama’s promise to end the war in Iraq is made in conjunction with a promise to hold what he calls “direct talks with countries like Iran and Syria”—“without preconditions,” as The New York Times reported last November. These are the very countries that are directly and indirectly fueling the fires in Iraq.

Although this fresh, hopeful approach to foreign policy is inspiring and appealing, history reminds us, from Versailles on, that an idealistic view of the world seldom serves US presidents or US interests particularly well.

Ike understood this. Hence, he warned against vacillation and appeasement. “To appease even by merely betraying unsteady purpose is to feed a dictator’s appetite for conquest,” he explained.

Gazing back at history and beyond the horizon, he grasped the broader importance of Korea and of how America extricated itself from the war. “There is a Korean War,” he said grimly. “And we are fighting it,” reminding the American people that he could not go back in time and undo what had already been done.

Even so, he had harsh words for the Truman administration. In fact, he was arguably more scathing in his criticism of President Harry Truman’s handling of Korea than Obama has been about President George W. Bush’s handling of Iraq.

In the autumn of 1952, for example, the general-turned-candidate called Korea a “tragedy,” “the burial ground for 20,000 American dead,” and “a damning measure of the quality of leadership we have been given.” He blamed the outgoing administration for a “record of failure.” Conveying the exasperation of an entire nation, he asked, “Is there an end?” And he warned that “neither glib promises nor glib excuses” would suffice in answering that question.

Instead, Ike pledged to “review and reexamine every course of action open to us” and to pursue not only peace but “victory."

In other words, Ike wanted to end the war, but that was not an end in and of itself for Ike. He had the good sense—the hard-learned sense—to realize that ending the war on American terms could not be achieved through mere negotiation or timetables. In fact, he was dubious of what he called “the conference method” to foreign policy. “We have had a lot of talks and some of them have produced very disappointing results,” he noted, grimly adding, “The pact of Munich was a more fell blow to humanity then the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.”

Ike knew there were many levers of presidential power. As if to underscore his willingness to use all of them, he made this oblique reference two years before his election: “One of America’s great tacticians, Stonewall Jackson, said ‘Always surprise, mystify and mislead the enemy.’” And he had quite a surprise in store for North Korea’s patron and protector in China. As historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote years after Ike’s presidency, “Eisenhower began by invoking the nuclear threat to end the fighting in Korea,” letting the Chinese know that, in Eisenhower’s own words, “he would not be constrained about crossing the Yalu or using nuclear weapons.”[ii]

It would not be the last time the outwardly genial Ike privately brandished his steely tenacity in pursuit and defense of American interests. In 1955, he threatened the Chinese over the Taiwanese islands of Quemoy and Matsu, hinting again at the prospect of nuclear strikes.[iii] And during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John Kennedy dispatched CIA Director John McCone to talk with Ike. McCone reported that the former president recommended “all-out military action...go right to the jugular.”[iv]

Today’s equivalent of an Ike-like policy in Iraq would match public peace overtures with private threats of dramatic, perhaps unthinkable escalation—thrusts across the Shat al Arab to destroy the IED mills, a declaration of open season against Iranian militias, air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Of the remaining presidential candidates, Obama seems the least likely to issue such a back-channel threat to Tehran.

In short, Obama is not like Ike. That may or may not be important in Iraq. But then again, maybe it is.

[i] All references to Eisenhower speeches taken from “Pre=Presidential Speeches,” Eisenhower Archives, www.eisenhower.archives.gov/speeches/Pre-Presidential_speeches.pdf and from Eisenhower’s campaign Speech in Detroit, Michigan, October 24, 1952.

[ii]Scheslinger, “Eisenhower the Hawk,” Major Problems in American Foreign Policy Volume II: Since 1914, 1989.

[iii]Scheslinger, “Eisenhower the Hawk,” Major Problems in American Foreign Policy Volume II: Since 1914, 1989.

[iv]“ExComm Meeting Transcripts, October 16-18, 1962,” CNN’s Cold War, CNN.com.