Social Studies April 2007

Learning From Ike

When politicians reach for foreign-policy models, they cite practically every president except Dwight Eisenhower. That's a pity.

Dwight Eisenhower, for all his rambling amiability, was capable of vehemence. He showed it memorably at a news conference on August 11, 1954. Ray L. Scherer of NBC asked him about "increasing suggestions that we should embark on a preventive war with the Communist world, some of these suggestions by people in high places." Scherer was talking about Red China, which was rattling its sabers at Taiwan (then called Formosa) and would soon begin shelling Taiwanese forces in what would rapidly become a full-fledged crisis.

In those days, Communist China was the closest thing to today's Iran: a rising regional power, radical, ideological, antagonistic, and increasingly bold. Ike's secretary of State called the Chinese "an acute and imminent threat," and compared their "aggressive fanaticism" to Hitler's. Hawks clamored for action, saying that if the U.S. failed to defend Formosa, it would have to defend San Francisco later.

That was the climate in which Ike said:

All of us have heard this term "preventive war" since the earliest days of Hitler. I recall that is about the first time I heard it.... I would say a preventive war, if words mean anything, is to wage some sort of quick police action in order that you might avoid a terrific cataclysm of destruction later. A preventive war, to my mind, is an impossibility today.... I don't believe there is such a thing, and, frankly, I wouldn't even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing.

Eisenhower's attitude put him at odds with the hawks of both his time and ours; anyone speaking as categorically against preventive war today as he did in 1954 would be derided by mainstream Republicans as a "defeatocrat," waiting for America's enemies to gather strength and strike first. But the victor of World War II was assuredly no dove. He made clear his theoretical willingness to use nuclear weapons, he sent U.S. marines to Lebanon, and he said, "We do not escape war by surrendering on the installment plan." The best way to see Eisenhower is as neither hawk nor dove but, so to speak, as a reptile: a cold-blooded realist.

In his day, realism dominated the councils of Washington. Today it is notably underappreciated, underrepresented, and misunderstood. When politicians reach for foreign-policy models, they cite practically every president except Eisenhower. That is a pity. The brand of realism he practiced, with its studied under-reaction and its easygoing unsentimentality, has never been more relevant than it will be in the post-Bush cleanup that is about to begin.

Cold-Blooded Creatures

Realism, in its Eisenhowerian form, is not a doctrine or a policy prescription. Any roomful of realists, if you can find a roomful, will contain as many policy opinions as there are people. A better way to think of realism is as an attitude grounded in a theory. The attitude emphasizes restraint, indirection, and suspicion of sentimentality and idealism. The theory is about where peace comes from.

In today's America, hawks think that peace comes from American strength, deployed vigorously to deter adversaries and pre-empt threats. Doves think that peace comes from international cooperation, in which the United States must play a leading role. Reptiles are all for strength and diplomacy, but they believe that peace ultimately comes from something else: equilibrium.

In their view, competition and conflict on the world scene, like converging floodwaters, seek a natural balance that outsiders can ride or resist, can channel or manipulate or temporarily hold back, but usually cannot do very much to change. From a reptile's point of view, doves and hawks, different as they are politically, share a misguided sentimentality: doves about the power of global cooperation and sensible diplomacy to end conflict, hawks about the power of American force to ensure security.

The classic modern reptilian manifesto is a bewitchingly Machiavellian article published in Foreign Affairs in 1999 by Edward N. Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Perhaps because of his European accent (he is Transylvanian-born) and his penchant for caustic pronouncements (he observed recently that the Transportation Security Administration can find a bomb only "if you attach it to a pair of nail clippers"), Luttwak has something of a Strangelovian reputation in foreign-policy circles, though no one disputes his brilliance. Characteristically, he titled his article "Give War a Chance."

War, he argued, is a great evil, but it has one indispensable virtue: It brings peace. Too often, well-meaning diplomats or peacekeepers interpose themselves in conflicts that should be left to burn themselves out. Alas, cease-fires and peacekeepers "artificially freeze conflict and perpetuate a state of war indefinitely by shielding the weaker side from the consequences of refusing to make concessions for peace," he wrote. "The final result is to prevent the emergence of a coherent outcome, which requires an imbalance of strength sufficient to end the fighting." In other words, war ends in a stable peace only when one side loses, and understands it has lost. "If the United Nations helped the strong defeat the weak faster and more decisively," Luttwak wrote mischievously, "it would actually enhance the peacemaking potential of war."

In a complicated and unpredictable world, realists, or at least intelligent realists, do not pretend to have prefabricated answers. They can and do disagree about where equilibrium lies and how—sometimes even whether—to get there. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a vexing case in point. One realist school regards America's attachment to Israel as sentimental and thus counterproductive; better to scale back the special relationship, treating Israel with more objectivity by leaning further toward the Arabs. Another school believes that, to the contrary, the United States should firmly support Israel until Palestinian militants understand that they can never win; until then, peacemaking is premature and only encourages Arab rejectionism. Yet others believe that the United States has little real-world choice but to muddle on with diplomatic efforts to calm the situation. (Luttwak is in this last camp.)

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In