In signaling that he’s likely to select Chuck Hagel as his secretary of defense, Barack Obama is sending a message about his second term. In the decade since 9/11, the spirit of Harry Truman has dominated American foreign policy. Now it may be giving way to the spirit of Dwight Eisenhower. And that could make all the difference in the world.
Truman’s foreign policy was grand. In March 1947, in his speech to Congress requesting aid to Greece and Turkey, and then, more comprehensively, in a secret 1950 strategy paper entitled NSC 68, Truman committed the United States to containing communism everywhere on earth. It was a stirring cause, and hubristic beyond words. The United States lacked the money and manpower, not to mention the wisdom, to ensure that no new nation embraced communism (itself an ill-defined term). And by making global containment the centerpiece of American foreign policy, Truman set America on the path to Vietnam.
George W. Bush, who had avoided his own rendezvous with Vietnam, loved the bigness of Truman’s vision, and set out to emulate it. Thus was born the “war on terror”: a vow to use force, or the threat of force, to prevent any new adversary from acquiring nuclear weapons and, ultimately, to transform dictatorships into democracies and foes into clients. That limitless quest has led the United States into unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and threatens to bring us into a third, in Iran. And like Vietnam, it has helped bring us to the brink of insolvency as well.
Barack Obama knows this. But fearful of the Bush-era right, he has failed to break decisively with the hubris he inherited. He withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq, but in Afghanistan, despite grave misgivings, sent more. He has avoided war with Tehran, but pledged to launch one down the road if necessary to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.
Hagel may represent a shift: a sign that Obama is finally willing to liberate himself from Bush’s legacy. A painting of Eisenhower adorns Hagel’s office wall. And Hagel resembles the 34th president in two crucial ways. Unlike Truman, who believed that America’s epic post-World War II economic growth meant it could afford epic increases in defense spending, Eisenhower—according to his treasury secretary—“feared deficits almost more than he feared the communists.” For Eisenhower, who believed that Moscow wanted to goad America into “an unbearable security burden leading to economic disaster,” the best way to strengthen national security was to reduce unaffordable defense spending. And he did so ferociously, cutting defense from almost 70 percent of the federal budget when he took office to just over 50 percent when he left—and in the process prompting four different Army Chiefs of Staff to quit.
Hagel’s assumption is the same: that since economic strength forms the foundation of national security, slashing the Pentagon budget, and thus reducing the debt, may actually make America stronger. “The Defense Department,” Hagel has argued, “has been bloated” and must “be pared down.” Hawks warn that cutting defense will make America more vulnerable to foreign threats. But Hagel, like Eisenhower, understands that a nation cannot meaningfully define its threats without first defining its interests. That means determining which corners of the globe really matter to the United States, and which don’t, and then figuring out how much defense spending you need. “We have not had any real strategic thinking in this country for years and years and years—strategic thinking in what are our interests,” Hagel told the Council on Foreign Relations. He’s right, and just asking the question would be a big shift from the Bush era.
The second characteristic that Hagel and Eisenhower share is their fear of war. Eisenhower feared war because, as a career soldier, he had lived it. In a 1943 letter to his brother, he scorned intellectuals who opined about war but had never seen “bodies rotting on the ground and smelled the stench of decaying human flesh.” And Eisenhower feared war because although he was one of the greatest generals in history, he knew that he could not control it. “Every war,” he declared, “is going to astonish you.” And “for a man to predict” a war’s course “would I think exhibit his ignorance of war.”
It was because Eisenhower feared war that after becoming president he resisted his own party’s push for a new offensive in Korea, and instead settled for a draw. And it was because he feared war that in 1954, with French troops besieged at Dien Bien Phu, he refused Paris’ request for an air strike that would have drawn the United States into Vietnam. “The United States never lost a soldier … in my administration,” Eisenhower later exclaimed. “People ask how it happened—by God, it didn’t just happen.”
Hagel, too, fears war because he knows it. In 1968 outside Saigon, a mine blew up his armed personnel carrier, badly burning him and blowing out his eardrums. As John Judis showed in a superb 2007 profile, Vietnam haunts Hagel to this day. And perhaps the defining sentiment of his political career has been his Eisenhower-like fury at politicians and pundits who advocate war without understanding its horror. “It’s interesting to me,” Hagel told Newsweek in 2002, “that many of those who want to rush the country into war [with Iraq] and think it would be so quick and easy don’t know anything about war. They come at it from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off. I try to speak for those ghosts of the past a little bit.”
Had Hagel been around to “speak for those ghosts,” I’m not sure the Obama administration would have sent 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan in a “surge” that, as Bob Woodward has shown, few in the White House believed could succeed. Hagel has also been more reluctant than Obama to support, even hypothetically, military action against Iran. Like Eisenhower, who scorned the idea that any war, once unleashed, could be controlled, Hagel reviles the bloodless, almost casual, way in which commentators discuss “air strikes” against Iran. Hagel doesn’t talk about air strikes; he talks about war. “Once you start [a war with Iran],” he told the Atlantic Council in 2010, “you’d better be prepared to find 100,000 troops because it may take that.” You can’t say “it’ll be a limited warfare. I don’t think any nation can ever go into it that way.”
Hawks are terrified of a Hagel appointment. They should be. Hagel is that rarest of Washington creatures: a politician brave or foolish enough to follow his conscience wherever it leads. He imperiled a safe senate seat in an overwhelmingly Republican state because he so fiercely opposed the Bush administration’s foreign policy. It’s entirely possible that he’d resign rather than support another Middle Eastern war. For the last four years, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have been silent partners in Barack Obama’s foreign policy, continuing to define many of the assumptions that guide America’s relations with the world. Now, finally, mercifully, that may be beginning to change.