History Repeating Itself in the White House

Karl Marx was not as funny as Groucho, but he made at least one amusing quip. It occurs in his critical comparison of Louis Bonaparte, the French ruler in 1848, with his uncle Emperor Napoleon. In his essay, "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon", Marx wrote, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all world-historic facts and personages appear so to speak twice. The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

Although 130 years apart, there is an uncanny resemblance between the foreign and military policies and actions of the political leaders William Gladstone in Britain in the 1880s and President Barack Obama in Washington today. Both leaders were (and are) characterized by their reluctance or hesitation to become involved in international affairs. Both were more concerned and interested in domestic than in foreign affairs.

Both can be characterized as more anxious to construct alliances and partnerships to meet common challenges and confront common threats than to act unilaterally in their leadership roles. Both engaged in careful deliberation of issues and displayed caution before acting, but both are seen to suffer from weakness, indecisiveness, and slowness or unwillingness to act as a result. Neither can be said to have applied any strategic calculation to world affairs. Both refused to make total commitments or permanent alliances. Both claimed to avoid needless and entangling engagements, and both intervened militarily after reluctance to do so in order to counter threats by extremist Islamist groups.

In Britain, two brilliant men, William Gladstone, the leader of the Liberal (Whig) Party and Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative Party leader, differed in personality, character and political policies. One was magisterial, austere, self-righteous, and a deeply religious pious Christian. The other was mercurial, flamboyant, opportunistic, cynical, and son of an Italian-British Jew who baptized Benjamin to help his future career. Both were ambitious and successful. Gladstone, reasonably rich, educated at Eton and Oxford, became a cabinet minister at age of 33. Disraeli, who never went to university, was a personal and political adventurer who climbed what he called “the greasy pole” of politics.

As political rivals, the two political giants differed in their approach to foreign policy. Disraeli, who had been prime minister in 1868 and from 1874 to 1880, was not uninterested, for political or other reasons, in domestic affairs. He was responsible for reforms in a variety of different areas, health, housing, factory conditions, and agriculture. Above all, he was responsible for the 1867 Reform Bill that increased the size of the electorate by 80 per cent.

Nevertheless, his greater interest was in foreign and imperial issues. In 1875 he secured funds from the Rothschild family to buy for the nation 44 per cent of the total shares in the 1869-built Suez Canal, “the spinal core” of the Empire. He assented in 1876 to Queen Victoria’s desire to become Empress of India. At the Congress of Berlin in June-July 1878 he was the leading figure, together with Bismarck, in redrawing the map of what is now the Balkans. One of the consequences was the survival of the Ottoman Empire for 40 more years; another was that Cyprus became a British colony.

Disraeli was a master of realpolitik. At a time when the Ottoman Empire was declining in power, Disraeli’s important concern was to support it and prevent Russia from having more influence in the area and gaining control of Constantinople. In contrast to the aggressive policy of Disraeli, his rival Gladstone who became prime minister in 1880, though not an isolationist or an apostle of nonintervention, was reluctant to be drawn into foreign encounters. Though there were not categorical differences on all issues between the two rivals, Gladstone tended to take moralistic and humanitarian positions on issues on which he felt strongly while Disraeli acted on what he considered realistic and in the national interest.

Gladstone, like Disraeli, was concerned -- though he differed from him -- on what used to be called the “Eastern Question,” the European response to the decline of the power of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East and the Balkans. While Disraeli supported the Ottoman Empire, Gladstone condemned the massacre of Bulgarian Orthodox Christians by the Turks in 1876. In an extraordinary pamphlet, The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, Gladstone wrote of the tortures and beheadings carried out by the brutal Turks, in a manner akin to those committed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria today. 

Like Obama in regard to Iraq, Gladstone wanted to extricate Britain from its war in Afghanistan. On becoming prime minister in 1880, he withdrew the British garrison from Kandahar in Afghanistan. He was reluctant to intervene in the complex affairs of Egypt and the Sudan over which Egypt had nominal authority, but ultimately was forced to by events. The nationalist revolt in Egypt in 1882 constituted a danger to control of the Suez Canal.

President Obama has based his policy on forming a coalition or alliance of nations. Similarly, Gladstone appealed to the Concert of Europe, founded by the Allied Powers after they had defeated Napoleon, and which was supposed to meet at moments of crisis. The Concert refused to help and therefore Gladstone sent troops to Egypt.

President Obama did not meet the challenge when Syria crossing his rhetorical “Red Line,” and has been slow in responding to Islamist terrorism. Gladstone too was hesitant in meeting the challenge of Muhammad Ahmad, the self-appointed Mahdi, an Islamist extremist dedicated to Jihad and to the establishment of an Islamic state, who in 1882 had united various groups in the Sudan. Gladstone did not want to engage in war and did not immediately respond after the Madhi’s forces had annihilated an Egyptian force under the leadership of a British officer.

Gladstone did not approve of sending a military force to Khartoum which was threatened by the Mahdi. Instead, in response to pressure from public opinion, he reluctantly allowed General Charles Gordon to go to the Sudan but only to evacuate the Egyptian garrison and civilians still in Khartoum. Defying orders, Gordon wanted to hold Khartoum and fought against the Mahdi. Gladstone refused to send a relief expedition to help Gordon. He finally consented, dispatching a force under Gen. Garnet Wolseley, but it was too late. Gordon had been killed in battle as Khartoum fell to the Mahdists. The Mahdi ruled the Sudan until defeated by Gen. H.H. Kitchener at Omdurman in 1898.

Gladstone and Obama had to resolve the same issues, where and when to intervene in international affairs, what is in the national interest, what is desirable from a humanitarian point of view, and what should be the concern of the dominant powers, Britain in the 19th century and the U.S. in the 21st, for maintenance of international order.

In his 2014 book, Worthy Fights, Leon Panetta comments on Obama’s tendency to look at issues as a law professor might do to determine what exact actions might be taken. This may be necessary but it is insufficient. Panetta himself concludes that the president also needs to have the heart of a warrior as well as the mind of an academic in order to engage in the necessary fight. What is noticeable in Obama as in Gladstone is the tendency to miss moments for opportune action. Both seem to lack fire in the belly.  Both want to avoid battle whenever possible. Do nothing until you hear from me may be a fine Duke Ellington ballad but it is bad advice for a coherent and successful foreign policy.