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What Today’s GOP Gets Wrong About Leadership: Obama & Eisenhower, Russian & Israeli Recklessness

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Posted on Mar 4, 2014

By Juan Cole

  A bronze statue of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. afagen (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


This post originally ran on Juan Cole’s Web page.

The usual suspects have been slamming President Obama for an alleged lack of leadership.  Trolls for the military-industrial complex like Charles Krauthammer, and megalomaniacs from tiny states like Sen. Lindsey Graham have constructed a narrative in which Obama willfully withdrew from Iraq, giving it away to Iran; has been insufficiently slavish in his devotion to the ruling Israeli Likud Party; and then declined to bomb Syria, allowing a diplomatic solution to its chemical weapons stores; and now is dithering while Russia occupies Crimea. Graham, for whom surely a small minority of his state’s 4 million people actually voted, snarkily advised Obama to cease threatening action against foreign challengers: “It’s not your strong suit.”  (I wonder how Osama Bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi would feel about that allegation; and, remember that Graham’s big foreign policy idea was to illegally invade and occupy Iraq).  All this adds up, the war-hawks insist, to weakness on Obama’s part.

Much of what they say is just posturing, and makes no sense.  It was George W. Bush who turned Iraq from a bastion of Sunni Arab secular nationalism that served as a bulwark against Shiite Iran into a natural ally of Iran.  It was Bush who overthrew the secular Baath Party and enabled the takeover of Iraq by the Islamic Call (Da’wa) Party, which aims at a Shiite state.  It was Bush who failed to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi parliament that would allow US troops to remain after December 2011 (as if their remaining would anyway have been a good idea).  And remember that all those things Bush did were war crimes, which the hawks are lamenting Obama has not committed enough of.

Although this chorus demanding forceful “leadership” is largely from the Republican Party, they do not actually represent the positions of that party as it was constituted in saner days.  Their bromides could as well be applied to President Dwight D. Eisenhower as to Obama. 

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So when in late 1956 Moscow crushed the Hungarian uprising, President Eisenhower could do little about it.  He concentrated on helping Hungarian refugees.  Privately, his heart went out to “captive peoples” whom he wanted to rescue from foreign domination (including, by the way, the Algerians laboring under French colonialism).  But he was unwilling to risk WW III over Moscow’s assertion that Hungary was its sphere of influence.

Dwight Eisenhower was among America’s most distinguished military and civilian leaders and had been Supreme Allied Commander during WW II.  He defeated Hitler.  He was not a wimp, to say the least.  And Lindsey Graham and Charles Krauthammer are not good enough to wipe his shoes.  And yet his response to Moscow’s troop movements in Hungary was no more robust than Obama’s to Russian troops in Crimea.  Indeed, because the Soviet Union was economically disengaged from the capitalist world system, Eisenhower had fewer levers against it than Obama’s proposed sanctions on today’s Russia, which has bought into capitalist oligarchy like everyone else.  (The Russian stock market has lashed Vladimir Putin, itself, quite apart from other sanctions; warmongering is usually bad for the economy.)

Obama is not enamored of the militant Greater Israel policy of the ruling Likud Party, which is engaged in a gradual annexation of the Palestinian West Bank and its colonization by Israeli squatters.  He has sought to pressure Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians, whom Netanyahu seeks to keep permanently stateless and without rights.  He recently warned that a time is coming when the US can no longer protect Israel from international sanctions for its illegal actions against the Palestinians.  Netanyahu came to the White House on Monday and essentially told Obama that he would not budge on his West Bank policy of land theft and squatting.  (Why the US should protect Netanyahu from UNSC sanctions at all is mysterious; what is the difference between Russia in the Crimea and Israel in the Palestinian West Bank?  Yet Obama wants to sanction Putin.)

As for Eisenhower, he was outraged by the aggressive war launched jointly by Britain, France and Israel against Egypt in late October 1956, and he put enormous pressure on Israel to withdraw from Sinai.  I wrote elsewhere:

“The United Nations was established in 1945 in the wake of a series of aggressive wars of conquest and the response to them, in which over 60 million people perished. Its purpose was to forbid such unjustified attacks, and its charter specified that in future wars could only be launched on two grounds. One is clear self-defense, when a country has been attacked. The other is with the authorization of the United Nations Security Council.

It was because the French, British and Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956 contravened these provisions of the United Nations Charter that President Dwight D. Eisenhower condemned that war and forced the belligerents to withdraw. When Israel looked as though it might try to hang on to its ill-gotten spoils, the Sinai Peninsula, President Eisenhower went on television on February 21, 1957 and addressed the nation. These words have largely been suppressed and forgotten in the United States of today, but they should ring through the decades and centuries:

  “If the United Nations once admits that international dispute can be settled by using force, then we will have destroyed the very foundation of the organization, and our best hope of establishing a real world order. That would be a disaster for us all . . .

  [Referring to Israeli demands that certain conditions be met before it relinquished the Sinai, the president said that he] “would be untrue to the standards of the high office to which you have chosen me if I were to lend the influence of the United States to the proposition that a nation which invades another should be permitted to exact conditions for withdrawal . . .”

  “If it [the United Nations Security Council] does nothing, if it accepts the ignoring of its repeated resolutions calling for the withdrawal of the invading forces, then it will have admitted failure. That failure would be a blow to the authority and influence of the United Nations in the world and to the hopes which humanity has placed in the United Nations as the means of achieving peace with justice.”

You can only imagine what Charles Krauthammer and Fox Cable News and Lindsey Graham would say about Obama if he gave a similar speech, or took a similar stance, today.  Yet Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank is no more justified, all these decades after 1967– a war in which Israel fired the first shots– than David Ben Gurion’s occupation of Sinai in 1956-57.

Yet Eisenhower’s handling of both Hungary and the Suez Crisis was the epitome of responsible leadership.  He condemned the Soviets and tried to help Hungarian refugees, but did not want to risk nuclear brinkmanship with Moscow.  He upheld the standards of the United Nations Charter and acted forcefully against even allies who contravened it with a war of aggression on Egypt an an attempted long-term occupation of Sinai.  (At the time the US was a creditor Power, not a debtor nation, and so Eisenhower could threaten to call in loans to Britain, France and Israel, which would have crashed their post-war economies).

It is no accident that Eisenhower warned when going out of office of the pernicious influence of the Military-Industrial Complex.  That Complex later captured Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and led them to engage in exactly the kind of illegal and unwise behavior that Eisenhower so forcefully condemned in the 1950s.  Those carping at Obama (who is unfortunately not as far left as Eisenhower) are just ventriloquists for the Complex that Eisenhower so hated and feared, and which has taken over, as he feared.

Leadership does not consist in flailing around like Reagan, creating private death squads in Afghanistan that morphed into al-Qaeda and the Taliban; nor does it consist in falling wolf-like on other nations that have not attacked us; nor does it consist in supporting allies when they contravene international law.  All that is not leadership, it is pandering to the lowest common denominator and it is the height of recklessness.

But Fox Cable News and the inside-the-Beltway chickenhawks wouldn’t recognized mature leadership if it fell on their heads.


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