On Foreign Policy, Why Barack is Like Ike

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Illustration by oliver munday for time; Obama: Getty Images (2)

One of the least controversial judgments about Barack Obama’s first term is that he has been a good foreign policy President. Certainly that’s what the American public believes. It has given him high marks on overseas affairs for much of his presidency, especially after the successful operation to kill Osama bin Laden. In the final presidential debate, Mitt Romney, who had relentlessly attacked Obama in their two previous matchups, decided that the wisest course was to agree with the President on virtually every foreign policy issue.

But what has been the character of Obama’s foreign policy? Most Presidents gain fame and respect in this realm because of some large-scale project. Franklin Roosevelt led the U.S. to victory in World War II, Harry Truman organized the Marshall Plan and NATO treaty, and Richard Nixon opened the door to Communist China. While Obama has accomplishments to his credit, the signature trait that has helped him steer the country well—and receive credit for it—is what he has not done.

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Obama’s foreign policy has, above all, been characterized by strategic restraint. At a time when old orders are changing and new forces are emerging, he has kept the U.S. engaged and at the forefront of these trends, but he has been wary of grand declarations and military interventions.

Obama came to office believing that the U.S. had overextended itself militarily. He believed that the cost of extravagant involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan had been the erosion of ties with allies and the worsening of relations with adversaries. He set out to change things, restoring diplomacy but also systematically drawing down in Iraq despite the advice of most of his military leaders. He experimented with a buildup in Afghanistan, partly because he was outfoxed by the generals, but he soon found a way to begin reducing that mission as well, shifting from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism. He set constraints and limits to the U.S.’s military intervention in Libya and has been wary of a new one in Syria. He has navigated a path on Iran that has increased pressure and tightened sanctions while refusing to rush into war—so far.

Such restraint is much harder to execute than it may appear. In a world without a serious military rival, the U.S. becomes the world’s emergency call center. When trouble brews anywhere, it brings with it cries for the U.S. to get involved and solve the problem. That’s an opportunity, but it comes with huge caveats. American military intervention cannot always create a stable new liberal order. It often generates its own negative consequences that unfold for decades. It can also throw a President entirely—and disastrously—off course.

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Obama has tried to refocus American foreign policy toward Asia. If the U.S. is to remain a global superpower, it must continue to be a player in the Pacific. Obama understands that to make this shift, it is not enough to draw down in the Middle East; he will need to deepen U.S. involvement in Asia—a commitment made not as a panicked response to a crisis but as part of a larger strategy.

The President whom Obama resembles most in this respect is an unlikely one: Dwight Eisenhower. In a new book on his foreign policy, Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World, Evan Thomas points out that Eisenhower was determined to keep the U.S. out of the many crises erupting around the world, whether they were caused by decolonization or communist aggression. In another fine new book on Ike, Eisenhower in War and Peace, Jean Edward Smith points out that from the end of the Korean War to the end of his presidency, not one American soldier died in combat.

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To pull that off, the former supreme commander repeatedly overruled his own advisers. Eisenhower refused to support America’s closest allies, the British and French when they—with Israel—invaded Egypt. He kept his calm when Khrushchev threatened war over Berlin. He declined to send forces to help the French in Vietnam, even after their rout at Dien Bien Phu. During two tense crises, when China launched military attacks on Taiwan, Ike would not contemplate an American response. At the height of the Cold War, with fears running high that Soviet communism would defeat the U.S., only Eisenhower—the greatest military hero of World War II—could stay sane and resist calls for action. Four years after Eisenhower left office, President Lyndon Johnson faced similar crises and similar calls for intervention, and he gave in, derailing his entire presidency.

Obama lacks Ike’s military pedigree, but he does seem to share some of his character traits—a deliberative process of decisionmaking, a disciplined evaluation of costs and benefits and perhaps above all an instinctive feel for the power of strategic restraint.

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