Skip to main content

Obama can model Ike in fighting off GOP hawks

By Julian Zelizer, Special to CNN
  • Julian Zelizer: GOP ratcheting up attacks on Obama's national security policies
  • Zelizer: Obama can retain approval ratings and still stand up for his policies
  • He says Eisenhower tried to lower military spending and was attacked, but remained popular
  • Ike's farewell speech warned of threats from a "military-industrial complex," Zelizer says

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book is"Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security: From World War II to the War on Terrorism ," published by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely about current events.

(CNN) -- Republicans have accelerated their attacks on President Obama's performance on national security. A few weeks ago, House Republican Minority Leader John Boehner accused the White House of having a "pre-September 11" mentality.

Counterterrorism adviser John Brennan responded by writing an op-ed in USA Today, urging Republicans to stop scoring political points through national security. Brennan warned the attacks were in fact making the nation less secure.

Missouri Sen. Kit Bond, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called for Obama to remove Brennan from his position, saying Brennan's comments had "destroyed my confidence in him."

This week on ABC, former Vice President Dick Cheney said he was concerned about Obama's "mind-set" and argued that it took him too long to "come to the recognition that we are at war."

President Obama has two choices about how to respond.

The first is to strike back to prove that his critics are wrong.

This is a strategy that President Lyndon Johnson used in 1964 and 1965 when he tried to insulate himself from Republican attacks by taking a firm stand in favor of military operations in Vietnam and resisting proposals to withdraw troops. More recently, the nation saw a cohort of Senate Democrats in 2003 voting in favor of authorizing the president's use of force in Iraq, partially based on their fear of being tagged as weak on defense.

A different approach for Obama, but one that poses greater short-term political risks to the Democratic Party, would be to resist the temptation to mimic his opponents and to instead defend the national security policies that he thinks are most effective.

Some signs this weekend, as Vice President Biden publicly challenged Cheney's claims, indicated the administration might take this path. The capture of the Taliban's second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, offers the administration an opening to talk about what more it hopes to achieve.

When Obama campaigned, he emphasized the importance of diplomacy and multilateralism -- working through international alliances and institutions -- as well as the need to re-establish stronger respect for civil liberties in counterterrorism policy.

He has also called for more investment in domestic programs to prevent bioterrorism and to improve intelligence officials' foreign language skills, particularly in Arabic. Unless he has drastically changed his positions, there is a path for sticking with his principles. As a model, President Obama could turn to a Republican predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, who served in the White House from 1953 to 1961. Nicknamed Ike, he remains one of the most popular presidents in American history.

"Eisenhower ... warned of a 'military-industrial complex' that threatened American democracy."
--Julian Zelizer

Initially, Eisenhower won office as part of a hawkish ticket that sought to defeat Democrat Adlai Stevenson by tying him to the failed national security policies of President Truman. The GOP platform in 1952 focused on claims that the Democrats had not done enough to fight communism at home and that the White House brought the nation into a military stalemate in Korea. They constantly referred to the fall of China to communism in 1949, which Republicans blamed on Truman.

Eisenhower's record as a military hero as the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in World War II, who headed the invasion of France and the Battle of the Bulge, played into this narrative about trusting Republicans on defense. In his first year, Eisenhower appointed Cabinet officials like John Foster Dulles, who called for rolling back communism, rather than just containing it.

But Eisenhower changed once he was in office. By 1954 and 1955, he had turned his attention to balancing the federal budget, which included proposals to significantly cut defense spending.

Eisenhower's "New Look" defense strategy revolved around reducing the size of the armed forces and conventional weapons given that the threat of mutually assured destruction through nuclear weapons was enough to prevent war from taking place. Much of the rest of the defense budget, Eisenhower concluded, was shaped by the desires of legislators who depended on the business and support of the military contractors in their districts.

While Eisenhower's military record gave him a significant amount of political space to make these arguments, they did come at a political cost. Republicans were still extremely vulnerable in this era given their record of opposition to military intervention in Europe or Asia during the 1930s and Franklin Roosevelt's decisive victory during World War II.

The charge of isolationism was one that greatly concerned Republicans in the 1950s. A group of vocal Senate Democrats, led by Sens. Lyndon Johnson, Stuart Symington, Henry "Scoop" Jackson and John Kennedy, used Eisenhower's fiscal conservatism as the opening wedge to attack the GOP and restore Democrats' reputation on national security following China and Korea.

With the support of Senate Majority Leader Johnson, Symington and his colleagues argued that the administration was not investing enough in air power and missiles. As a result, they said, the Soviets were gaining a military advantage.

"Despite efforts to suppress discussion of the subject," Symington warned, "evidence continues to pile up that communist air power is moving up to us in offensive striking power, production and technology. The warning light is on."

When the Soviet Union launched a satellite into space on October 4, 1957, Democrats pointed to this as evidence that their argument was correct. Johnson called the Sputnik a disaster "comparable to Pearl Harbor."

Eisenhower told his Cabinet that he was furious with these attacks. In private, he warned the Cabinet and legislators that the nation could easily "choke itself to death with military force" and that there "is no defense for any country that busts its own economy."

He was convinced that the United States maintained a significant military advantage over the Soviets. He had classified photographs from secret U-2 reconnaissance flights disproving what Democrats were arguing.

To Eisenhower's frustration, the White House could not share this evidence, as he would disclose the flights. To his dismay, Eisenhower watched as Kennedy used the "missile gap" allegation to undermine Vice President Richard Nixon's national security credentials in the 1960 campaign.

The White House later admitted that the missile gap did not exist. Although the president was unable to reverse the trend toward higher defense spending and gave in toward the end of his presidency by accepting higher budgets, Eisenhower's final official statement was to deliver a powerful farewell address in which he warned of a "military-industrial complex" that threatened American democracy.

"The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists," Eisenhower said, "and will persist."

Although his party suffered politically because of the Democratic attacks, Eisenhower still remains a model of presidential leadership. His actions are an example of how a president can stand up to the perennial political pressure to be more hawkish and still retain enormously high public approval ratings, averaging 65 percent -- as the current White House figures out how to respond to these domestic attacks in the coming months.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.