Thursday, September 12, 2013

Obama, Eisenhower and Syria

Jon Western at the foreign policy blog Duck of Minerva draws a comparison between Obama's decision-making on the recent attempt at a military invention in Syria and Dwight Eisenhower's during the French crisis at Dienbienphu, Obama's Dienbienphu Moment? 09/12/2013.

President Dwight Eisenhower, King Saud of Saudi Arabia, Vice President Richard Nixon, 1957
One might get the impression reading about the anti-Vietnam War movement that it was an unprecedented moment of unpopularity for a foreign war.

But the Korean War was also unpopular, though it didn't generate the same kind of protests the Vietnam War would a decade and a half later. Still, Westerns's piece reminds us that the general public in those early Cold War years wasn't in some wild warmongering mood all the time. Writing about the 1953-4 period when France's troubles in holding out in Indochina became acute, he says that Eisenhower faced a real barrier in public opinion to more active involvement in support of the French:

The problem was that public opinion was overwhelming opposed to intervention. In September of 1953, Gallup polling revealed that only 9% of the public supported fighting in Indochina. George Gallup made a striking notation by footnoting an editorial comment in the release of the September poll: "The size of the disapproval vote is unusually significant. Rarely in the polling annals has opinion divided in such a lopsided fashion as it does in the case of the troops to Indochina issue." That number ran consistently below 15% support throughout the spring of 1954 as the crisis escalated. Other polls suggested wider support, but only if the action included broad international support and active contribution from others.

That opposition came from multiple sources. First, in the wake of Korea (and the legacy of a bad war) there was a strong aversion in the public – and among the Never Again crowd in the U.S. Army – against launching another limited land-war in Asia. Second, there was a general opposition on the basis of estimated costs of war. Korea had been initially sold as likely to be a relatively cheap and easy effort, it wasn't. And, finally, there were many who opposed intervening on behalf of French colonialism – both for moral and prudential reasons. Many saw Ho Chi Minh's rebellion more as a nationalist inspired, not communist driven, campaign. [my emphasis]
And there were other times in which public reluctance to getting drawn into war was particularly strong:

There are many cases where we’ve seen the constraints of public opinion on presidential decisions: Roosevelt faced a deeply embedded isolationist Congress and public on the war in Europe from September of 1939 until Pearl Harbor; Clinton, and much of the international community, clearly floundered on Bosnia because of concerns of widespread public opposition to intervention; and, Reagan desperately believed that the United States should do more to support the Contras in Nicaragua – and despite his popularity, landslide victory in 1984, and his label as the "Great Communicator," he was blocked by Congress and overwhelming public opposition in his efforts to shift American policy to support the Contras – a constraint [that] ultimately led to the administration’s attempt to do an end run on Congress and the Iran-Contra crisis.
Western's piece is also a reminder that Eisenhower as President was not the kind of dove some liberal and progressive commentators now try to make him out to be. Yes, he was right about the military-industrial complex and had more pragmatic restraint in foreign policy than some later Presidents. But Western argues that he would liked to have been able to intervene directly to save the French colonial cause in Indochina.

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