Obama and Eisenhower appear to share similar approaches to foreign policy priorities
Eisenhower entered office as a war hero from his leadership in World War II
The former general cut more than a quarter from defense budget in his two terms in office
Obama has chosen two men to carry out foreign policy who both served
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama reminded many of the youth and vigor of President John F. Kennedy. But as Obama lays out a foreign policy vision for his last four years in office, he’s looking more like Kennedy’s Republican predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Eisenhower historians see Obama’s second-term foreign policy priorities evolving into something similar to what the 34th president pursued – from a contempt for prolonged foreign entanglements to a desire to draw down inherited wars.
The world might be different than in Eisenhower’s time, but his maneuvering to stay out of conflicts in Hungary, Indochina and Egypt resembles the way the Obama administration has avoided committing ground troops in Syria and Libya. Historians also see comparison between Eisenhower’s quick exit from Korea and Obama’s slower drawdown of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
These similarities are striking, especially considering the presidents’ divergent backgrounds. Eisenhower, as Supreme Allied commander of Europe during World War II, was a man shaped by war and the second highest-ranking military man ever to occupy the White House. Obama, as a junior senator from Illinois, had almost no foreign policy experience when he won the White House in 2008 and never served in the military.
Obama would like to keep the United States out of war, “pursue peace through strength and cut defense spending,” said Will Hitchcock, author of the forthcoming book “The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s.” “Those are all things that Eisenhower would have approved.”
The most noticeable similarity between the Obama and Eisenhower administrations is evidenced in the men with which Obama has surrounded himself, primarily John Kerry as secretary of state and Chuck Hagel, who was confirmed Tuesday as defense secretary, said Dave Nichols, author of “Eisenhower 1956.”
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Eisenhower knew going into his presidency the devastating effects of war, and Obama has turned to people with similar experiences.
Eisenhower “believed, with good reason, that once the violence begins, everything changes and you can throw your plans in the trash,” Nichols said. “Small wars can take you down the slippery slope to a big war.”
For Eisenhower, this belief played out a number of times during his presidency.
After winning the White House in 1952, the former general lived up to a campaign promise and quickly ended the Korean War by negotiating an armistice between North and South Korea. He also refused to aid revolutionaries in Hungary in 1956 and stayed out of the Suez Canal crisis in 1956.
Eisenhower was a war hero after leading the U.S. campaign to defeat Nazi Germany and its allies in World War II. He said such things as, “I hate war, as only a soldier who has lived it can, as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
Hagel and Kerry, who both were in Vietnam, share that sentiment with Eisenhower.
Kerry, a lieutenant, served in the Vietnam War, including leading swift boat missions through the country’s deltas. For his service, he earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.
After returning home in 1971, Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he and other Vietnam veterans were “angry because we feel we have been used in the worst fashion by the administration of this country.”
Hagel enlisted in the Army and served a yearlong tour in Vietnam during a time that included the 1968 Tet Offensive, considered the most violent period of the war. He earned two Purple Hearts, one of which was for saving his brother Tom’s life. The second Purple Heart was for shrapnel he took in the chest while on patrol with his brother; his brother saved his life by patching up the wound.
In the 2006 biography “Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward,” Hagel reflected on his service and addressed his changing feelings about war.
“Not that I’m a pacifist – I’m a hard-edged realist, I understand the world as it is – but war is a terrible thing. There’s no glory, only suffering.”
He also told biographer Charlyne Berens that while in Vietnam, he told himself that if he got home alive he would do all he could “to prevent war.”
Hagel even describes himself as an “Eisenhower Republican” and had a bust of the general in his Senate office for a dozen years, according to David Ignatius of The Washington Post.
Eisenhower biographer Hitchcock said the former general didn’t get dragged into small wars because he treated them as he would large ones: “He didn’t want to be drawn into a conflict whose outcome he couldn’t predict.”
Hitchcock continued: “He is not a guy who says avoid war at all costs; he would say pick your fights and make sure you can win them completely.”
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In his first four years in office, the Obama administration has used covert actions, such as targeted drone strikes and special operations missions instead of more conventional war tactics. An example: the mission that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.
And instead of committing ground troops to the fight against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, an option that would have cost American lives, the United States, working with NATO, helped depose him with drones.
Eisenhower, too, preferred more covert, small-scale weapons of war.
In 1953, during Eisenhower’s first term, the CIA backed a group of Iranians that overthrew the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, a move that helped ensure Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi would remain in power.
The following year, another CIA-sponsored coup overthrows the government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in Guatemala, largely because Eisenhower’s advisers worried that Guzman was willing to work with communists.
For both Obama and Eisenhower, the use of covert operations satisfied two issues of importance to them: effectiveness and avoidance of large-scale war, Nichols said.
“It is a way of trying to get things done without striking the cues to a bigger conflict,” Nichols said. “I think Obama has an appreciation, like Ike did, of the limits of American military reach.”
Nichols added: “Ike understood so well that once you got into war, things change. Things change so dramatically, and you don’t know how things change.”
Differences: Approach to military cuts
Eisenhower and Obama have their differences though – the biggest appears to be in their methods over cutting military spending.
Hitchcock said that Eisenhower went to the White House in 1953 as an expert on world affairs and the military, knowing the “nuts and bolts” of the military establishment well.
“That is a big deal. Eisenhower almost felt that he knew how to push around the military establishment. He told them he was going to cut the military budget and he did and they complained, but he wouldn’t let them boss him around,” Hitchcock said.
After the armistice in Korea that year, Eisenhower began to shrink the Pentagon budget. In the first two years of his presidency, he cut 31% off the defense budget. Over eight years he reduced Pentagon spending by 27%.
These cuts square with his views on the military-industrial complex. In a 1961 speech in the last days of his presidency, Eisenhower warned of the growing size and cost of defending America.
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” Eisenhower said. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
According to Hitchcock, Obama has yet to channel this aspect of Eisenhower’s presidency.
“Obama is not a budget hawk; maybe his hands are tied, but he hasn’t been a budget hawk. He wants to cut the defense budgets now that the wars are coming to an end, but it is not as if the defense spending is driving the war strategy.”
CNN’s Mike Mount contributed to this report.