Obama in the Shadow of Truman and Eisenhower

Corporeality X: Obama in the Shadow of Truman and Eisenhower


Howard Adelman

The Obama Presidency has been marked by the strenuous efforts of Barack Obama to leave a legacy as a peace president. George W. Bush wanted to be a domestic president but was manipulated by his Vice-President, Dick Cheney, into becoming mired in two long wars – Iraq and Afghanistan. Barack Obama started as an activist president intent on getting out of foreign military adventures, specifically in Iraq, to forge a breakthrough towards peace in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians, to set relations with Iran on a new course and end the threat of Iran as a nuclear power, and to recalibrate relations with Cuba. Where military action was not a prime option and where resolving disputes was mostly under his control and a matter of skillful diplomacy – Iran and Cuba – he was successful. In the case of Israel-Palestine, he and John Kerry spectacularly failed, not for want of trying, nor even for lack of skill, but, because the “partners,” each for his own reasons, were unwilling to resolve differences in ways that would be too much of a compromise as far as each was concerned.

Obama’s greatest failures have been where his powers as Commander-in-Chief have come into play – in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan. Admittedly each of these conflicts was wrought with tremendous difficulties. But Obama has not been able to manipulate those difficulties to the advantage of the United States. When it came to the intelligent use of military power either to extricate the U.S. from wars overseas or to remain involved in wars overseas in ways that advanced American interests, Obama, thus far, has proven to be a failure as a war president. This is particularly true in Syria where a war has gone on for five years, where the side he backed is being bombed by the Russians and forced to retreat in the face of an assault by Iranian proxies, where the common enemy of both Russia and the West, Daesh or ISIS, has been forced back, but only to the advantage of Putin and his allies, and where the costs of the Syrian war to Syrians has been enormous – a country left in large part in ruins, huge number of casualties, half the population displaced and with large numbers of refugees flowing into Europe in disarray.

My argument here is that a good part of the responsibility rests in the way the Office of the President is structured, where the President must be both a political leader and a Commander-in-Chief. Dubya Bush tried the fusion approach where his Office took the path of a coup and civilians seized control of the military. Obama has taken the opposite course, not of consolidation of his powers as both a political leader and the top military commander, but by reverting to the separation of the two powers as much as possible. But, as I will explain in future blogs, Barack Obama has been trapped by the structure of his own office where he has not been able to leave the conduct of war in the hands of his military, but had to involve himself too deeply in command and control responsibilities which compromised and undermined his role as leader of the American polity.

Would the Americans have been better off originally constituting the office so that the President only had responsibilities as a political leader and where military matters, other than overall considerations of political goals and policies, were left exclusively in the hands of military commanders? We do not know. Speculations of a “what if….” variety do not help when the real issue is playing well with the cards that you have been dealt. But Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau were left with a structure of an office where separation of powers was unequivocal. Harper engaged in token military involvement and sacrificed any Canadian diplomatic role. Justin Trudeau seems to be following a course of cutting back on military involvement where it might compromise Canada returning to the international stage as a diplomatic peace broker. I suggest that, under current conditions, the resurrection of this old option will no longer work. But that is a separate subject. Suffice to say that an alternative structure to the American one, a formal separation of powers instead of marrying them in the one office is no guarantee of success, especially when a country has been handed the responsibilities of leadership for the democratic side. But the separation of powers within the one body, while now unavoidable in the U.S., needs proper management. And proper management requires adequate understanding.

The question then is, given the combination of political and military leadership in one office, given the principle that civilian leadership must take precedence over the role of military leadership, and given the prior efforts of political leadership to enact a coup over the military and assume absolute control under George W. Bush, and given that the chances of a reverse coup of the military over civilian authority, which the founding fathers most feared, is a remote possibility, how can one strike a reasonable relationship between the two roles that neither fosters military adventurism nor, on the other hand, sentences the President of the United States to tripping over the enormous military capacity of the United States?

I pose the question in its starkest way to suggest that a resolution of the dilemma is virtually impossible. What is needed, as in most conflicts, whether external or internal, is the ability to manage the problem. And that requires first recognizing that there is a problem, attempting to put one’s finger on symptoms indicating that the tension between the two roles has gone awry, tracing how and why the relationship has become unbalanced, and determining what tools are available to set the relationship between the role of the President as a political leader and his role as a Commander-in-Chief on a positive synergistic path rather than one destructive in advancing the interests of the United States and the world. Non-citizens of the United States are impacted by an improper resolution but can only try to influence the situation given their advantage as outsiders.

Let us review the anatomy of the situation. The United States President is the elected political leader of the United States and the unelected leader of the free world. His political powers at home are fenced in by the division of political responsibilities between the executive, the legislative and the judicial branches, and externally because the American leader operates in a world of independent nation states. This is a given. But the President also operates within a strong presidential system that includes the role of Commander-in-Chief in charge of the various branches of the military, including state militias. He is a two-in-one president.

Further, he is a two-in-one president in which the possibility of a military coup is remote and the fear of one even more distant. But the possibility of a civilian coup over the military is readily apparent. However, there is a real danger that, in and effort to restore a reasonable separation of powers, both the adequate execution of responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief will be undercut while, at the same time, proponents of a civilian coup will be re-strengthened for they will have the backing of a disenchanted public. The fusion advocates, those who want civilians not simply to supervise, oversee, monitor and provide political direction and parameters for the military, but to run the military, will once again attempt to actually engage in command and control functions in an even more extensive way than Cheney and Rumsfeld ever attempted. In that way, America is open to dictatorship through the back door, not by the military seizing civilian power, but by civilians seizing compete control over the military as a means to engage America once again in adventurism abroad.

lt is important to emphasize what functions the President can and should perform if the responsibilities of supervising and monitoring the military are to be carried out without engaging in military operations. Briefly, the President should maintain but not exercise authority by setting forth policy directions and parameters without attempting to manage. It is a governing and executive function without management responsibilities. At the same time, the President must not apply military powers to matters of political concern – such as the treatment of prisoners of war. This is easier said than done when the major conflicts are irregular wars rather than wars between states and when the major enemies are terrorists and not other political states. Basically, the Commander-in-Chief must ensure that the military, in carrying out its independent functions, follows executive direction and operates within the rule of law.

Though difficult, it was far easier for Harry Truman to fire General MacArthur when the latter wanted to carry the Korean War into confrontation with the Chinese at the Yalu River and not simply cross the 38th parallel and sbring the North Korean government to its knees. Confronting the Chinese militarily could escalate the war and risked war with China and even the USSR. As the UN troops marched north and captured Pyongyang, China massed four armies and three artillery divisions along the Yalu River and even sent some probes across the river. When Truman awarded MacArthur his fifth Distinguished Service Medal at Wake Island and authorized the military operation north of the 38th parallel, he also insisted that risk of any conflict with China be avoided.

MacArthur could have avoided that risk instead of carrying the war to the Yalu River and even appearing willing, and perhaps eager, to cross it. He could have stopped 100 miles south of the Yalu River at the easily defensible narrow neck of the Korean peninsula only 100 miles wide between Angu on the west coast just in from the Yellow Sea linking up to the Taedong River and then over to Hamhung on the Sea of Japan to the east.

Instead, China was now directly threatened. Truman’s parameters had been breached. Truman had no choice if civilian power was to be maintained over the military but to fire MacArthur. The advance of UN forces toward the Yalu River had not been authorized.  Lest the Americans try to topple the Communist regime, as MacArthur had expressed a desire to do (already going well beyond his responsibilities as a military commander), a reluctant Mao Zedong crossed the Yalu River and pushed the UN troops back, first a long ways into South Korea and then retreating back to the 38th parallel.

So do you have to ensure military commanders do not exceed political boundaries at the same time as you have to prevent civilians from seizing management of as well as policy direction for the military? This has been a continuing conundrum, particularly in the aftermath of Korea. The one side of the coin is not preventing a military coup, but preventing the military from seizing control of political policy by the way operations are executed on the ground. General Eisenhower assiduously drew a heavy line between his responsibilities as President and responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief, in good part by leaving the operations of the military in the hands of his military chiefs, but also, because he had been a much decorated military officer, he understood where the military should not exceed its authority.

When General Dwight D. Eisenhower became President, he was acutely aware of these tensions and risks. When he was about to leave office, he articulated very clearly how that tension must be managed, directions often overlooked because of the huge publicity given to the use of the phrase military-industrial complex. That reference echoed historic American political anxieties resulting from the fears of the founding fathers of the dangers of a huge standing army, but with the addition of even larger fears that emerged after WWII over an ever-increasing arms industry acquiring unwarranted influence.

This was especially true in light of Eisenhower’s own famous 1957 doctrine that cast an even larger shadow, the policy that a country could request American economic assistance and/or aid from U.S. military forces if it was being threatened by armed aggression from another state. However, the real core of his final speech given three days before he stepped down was not a celebration of the Eisenhower Doctrine or his warnings about the industrial-military complex that was partially a consequence of that Doctrine, but rather his advice on managing the dual faces of the presidency.

  1. Recognize that the President and Congress are mutually interdependent and seek cooperation in managing the business of the Nation, especially on issues of great moment where agreement is essential, in order to serve the national good rather than mere partisanship. On this rule, Barack Obama has bent over backwards, an effort not matched over the last five years by the Republican-controlled Congress.
  2. Maintain America as the strongest, most influential and most productive nation in the world. On this, Barack Obama has had mixed results, but largely on the positive side.
  3. Recognize that America’s leadership and prestige depends, “not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.” Barack Obama deserves high marks on the goal of attempting to move the world closer to permanent peace and human betterment.
  4. Be modest in the use of one’s strengths and never arrogant, be comprehensive and deep in the understanding of issues, and be ready to engage in sacrifice in the face of enemies eager to inflict grievous harm on America and its allies, whether abroad or domestically.
  5. Be persistent, steady and sure in direction, especially in the face of ideologies which are hostile in both intent and practice, global in scope, ruthless in purpose and insidious in method. (Eisenhower added “atheistic in character, but I have omitted that phrase.) It is unclear whether Obama has succeeded in this regard.
  6. Emphasize multiple small steps across a spectrum of fields rather than surrendering to the recurrent temptation of betting on some spectacular, costly and purportedly miraculous action to confront current difficulties. Very high marks for Barack Obama in this regard.
  7. Delegate authority and responsibilities to farseeing and responsible officials; Eisenhower increased the size of the White House staff, not to take away power from departments and the civil service as Stephen Harper did in his efforts at micro-management, but to enhance the professionalism and the expertise of advice as in creating the office of national security advisor. I believe Obama has done this, but I am unsure.
  8. Institutionalize cooperation, coordination and especially the expression, articulation and exchanges of different viewpoints and perspectives as in Eisenhower’s weekly meetings with and use of the National Security Council. Obama has continued this legacy.
  9. Make balance the byword in good judgement in making policy: balance between dealing with specific issues and broader considerations; balance in and among national programs; balance between the private and the public economy (as distinct from the recent Republican overemphasis on relying increasingly on the private sector); balance between cost and hoped for advantage; balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future.
  10. Respect independent and free research (Harper should have heeded Eisenhower’s words) while ensuring that public policy is not captured by a scientific/technological elite. (Already in 1960, Eisenhower noted that the blackboard had been replaced by hundreds of computers.) I do not believe that this has emerged as a powerful imminent danger.
  11. Do not surrender to the “impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.” Heed these words, as Barack Obama does and the climate change deniers do not.
  12. Always engage with allies in a “confederation of mutual trust and respect” among equals no matter how weak an ally may be, and never abandon the continuing imperative in pursuit of perpetual peace and, wherever possible, the avoidance of the certain agonies of war. To that end, the pursuit of disarmament had to remain a continuing imperative as “we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.” Eisenhower confessed that in this area he had failed to make progress and Barack Obama can justifiably boast that he has made some.


With the help of Alex Zisman



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