September 29, 2009
Eisenhower and Afghanistan
"I believe there is only one thing to do when you go into this kind of thing. It must be a success." So former President Dwight David Eisenhower admonished President Kennedy at Camp David after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The time was spring of 1961 and the two veterans came together to discuss military action. Ex- Lieutenant Kennedy had invited ex- General Eisenhower both to advise him and to provide political cover after the embarrassing disaster in Cuba.
For Kennedy it was a smart move at a sobering time. The former-President, ex-General, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Second World War and, later, of NATO, Eisenhower knew war like few others. After bringing the pause to the Korean War (technically still ongoing), his eight years in office were amazingly free of war for the United States. Although filled with hot conflicts in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, with every cause and incentive to unleash the awesome firepower of the American military, Eisenhower consistently avoided the military option. He denied help to the British at Suez. He refrained from aiding the French in Dienbienphu. He stayed out of Cuba, and to the intense anger of conservatives, permitted the Soviet rape of Hungary in 1956. Perhaps he refrained from committing our military because he thought he had sent enough young American service men to their deaths in righteous causes. More likely, he saw war as the supreme judgment and the last measure. A serious man, he saw war as serious business.
Eisenhower is a strange anomaly. Arguably our most under-appreciated great President, he was misjudged by most of his contemporaries and has been consistently underrated by subsequent historians. Very unlike the popular image he projected: avuncular, grandfatherly, somewhat detached and addicted to golf. In reality he was a cold, determined man of powerful will, formidable intellect, and extreme ambition. Furthermore, despite his genial personality and famously broad smile, there was not a sentimental bone in his body. And having planned, directed, and witnessed the massive carnage required for victory in Europe he had no illusions about the limits to or limitations of military action. Reluctance to use force came not from fear or inhibition, but from a thorough knowledge of war and its aftermath. He understood that there is never truly an end to military conflict - only management of the resultant consequences.
Romantic idealists with martial ambitions or amateur commanders intoxicated with political power he regarded with contempt.
His post-presidency days were filled with frustration. In retirement he witnessed not only the fumbling of the inexperienced Kennedy but also the tragic escalations of Johnson in Vietnam. He was a firm enemy of gradualism. And although championed as the definer and avowed enemy of the "military-industrial complex" by liberals and pacifists alike, his take on the use of force would turn a dove stone cold. In October 1967 he said this regarding the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam. " I would not automatically preclude anything. When you appeal to force to carry out the policies of America abroad there is no court above you."
Always his council remained consistent. Stay out if at all possible, but if you must use the force of the United States military, use it in overwhelming strength.
Were Eisenhower to advise President Obama on the current situation in Afghanistan, it would not be surprising to find him advocating an immediate withdrawal. It is entirely plausible that he would reason that with our forces already committed in all seven seas and unofficially acknowledged as protector of a free world, the burden of our cause is already adequate. The friendly countries of Europe and Asia should be waging war on our behalf in that sphere of the world. Our "Allies", as they exist today, he would no doubt recognize as parasites living off American blood and treasure.
But with our confirmed enemies boasting of success in Afghanistan after a commitment of eight years of American engagement behind us, Eisenhower could consistently and contrarily advise Obama to unleash an all out war. As he said to Congressional leaders about Korea and the threat of a renewed Communist aggression in 1954, we "would hit them with everything we've got!" The goal in other words was to win. " When you appeal to force," he said. "You have to use it overwhelmingly."
Thus, the reluctant warrior of old might have had advice most opportune for Obama and the nation in the current quandary of Afghanistan. Get out now and make serious geo-political points to our allies about inter-national responsibilities. Or direct a surge to end all surges and clean out our enemies in a ruthless battle of short duration. The latter, although bloody in conception, ironically may result in the most humane conclusion.
Though reluctant to draw the sword, Eisenhower knew that the appeal to arms does not necessarily always result in chaos and death. His favorite example, (as related to his staff Secretary, General Andrew Goodpastor, in his memoirs), " If a general sent a battalion to take a hill, he might get the hill but he would suffer heavy casualties in the process, whereas if he sent a division the casualties would be minimal." To the brave members of our country's military, the Obama administrations all out commitment to defeat our enemies using every weapon we have would be a welcome acceptance of the wisdom and experience as exhibited by the life and example of President Eisenhower.