On NPR someone wistfully dropped the name of George Kennan, in the context of “Wouldn’t be nice if there was some profound strategic thinker in government who could guide the administration through the multiple escalating crises?” Looking at a lineup consisting of Susan Rice, Ashton Carter, and John Kerry, the impetus for the remark seems pretty plain.
In Ukraine, longstanding Western efforts to bring the border state into the Western fold have provoked a violent Russian reaction, which has erupted into war and could escalate into a nuclear exchange. Regarding Iran, the administration, in close cooperation with its Western allies, is seeking an agreement to slow and monitor Tehran’s nuclear potential, preventing an Iranian advance to nuclear weapons status. The government of Israel, for many in Washington America’s most treasured ally, is working hard to wreck this negotiation by mobilizing its American supporters and leaking classified information, and could conceivably launch an attack on Iran, or possibly somewhere else, to thwart Obama’s diplomatic efforts.
Meanwhile, much of the Arab world is falling into an expanding civil war, and the fundamentalist and barbaric Islamist group ISIS has seized a territory the size of Britain in Iraq and Syria and declared a caliphate. ISIS is opposed diffidently by other Arab governments, and more forcefully by Shi’ite forces from Iran and Lebanon, as well as the Syrian government. Israel has at least tacitly sided with ISIS forces opposing Syria, which is allied with both Moscow and Iran.
These three conflicts overlap in ways that no one fully understands—the facile analogy might be three-dimensional chess, as if anyone knew what three dimensional chess is and how it is played. The nearest analogy in postwar history would be the autumn of 1956. Eisenhower was aged and ailing at a moment when his top foreign policy aide, Secretary of State Dulles, was undergoing emergency cancer surgery. Yet he faced the simultaneous events of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, which had overthrown its pro-Soviet Communist party, and the Israeli-British-French campaign to topple Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser and seize the Suez Canal, recently nationalized by the popular Egyptian nationalist. But that only made for two simultaneous crises. Obama has three erupting at once.
As we began with Kennan, it ought be acknowledged that he was one of relatively few prominent men in Washington who foresaw the Ukraine crisis, or some variant of it, emerging from the American decisions to expand NATO after the Soviet collapse in the Cold War. Writing in 1997, Kennan warned that expanding NATO was “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-war era.” That would include, of course, Vietnam, where America lost more than 50,000 dead, but does not take into account the second Iraq war, the neocons’ war, which set the stage for the rise of ISIS by destroying the Iraqi state. Kennan predicted that NATO expansion would inflame Russian nationalism, and enhance the anti-Western and militaristic tendencies within Russia, as it certainly has.
The difficult Iran negotiations are complicated by Israel’s special relationship with Washington, demonstrated by the extraordinary prospect of the Israeli prime minister’s planned trip here to lobby openly against the negotiations, with the support of many in Congress. That Iran’s drive to become a state with latent nuclear capability is motivated at least in part by Israel’s flouting of its own (once professed) nuclear nonproliferation promises and its subsequent successful clandestine push to acquire nuclear weapons seems obvious, if seldom discussed.
It is becoming increasingly plain that Ukraine that has the potential to spark a nuclear war: here the German magazine Der Spiegel has an alarming account of how moribund are the Cold War nuclear crisis channels designed to keep the two superpowers mutually informed and far away from the brink, post-Cuban missile crisis. The paranoia in Russian circles about Western encirclement and aggression is thick and may seem irrational, but it has to be acknowledged that the NATO enlargers really do mean to encircle Russia, at least on its western and southern borders. The reasons for such an encirclement they have never made clear. One has to hope, pray even, that there are influential people in the U.S. government who realize that pulling Ukraine into the Western defense and financial system is not worth a single hair on the head of a single American child—much less the destruction of the United States, which Russia could accomplish if it wanted to badly enough. One percent of Russia’s nuclear arsenal could destroy about 60 American cities.
In November 1956, Eisenhower faced a situation where adversaries and allies were on the march simultaneously. As the world woke up to Kruschchev sending 200,000 troops supported by tanks into Hungary, Britain and France were joining Israel in a move to seize the Suez Canal and potentially topple Nasser. Ike had little choice but to keep cool about Hungary: he knew it was in Russia’s sphere of influence, that there were no American or allied armies in position to contest it, and perhaps, that Soviet dominance wouldn’t last forever. Eisenhower would write a stiff letter to Soviet premier Bulganin, expressing “shock and dismay” at the Soviet action in Hungary, urging the Soviets to withdraw immediately and permit the Hungarians basic and fundamental human rights. But he made no threats, deployed no condescending John Kerry-type language, did not even threaten to take the matter to the UN.
The crisis did force Eisenhower to concentrate on keeping the Russians out of the Mideast, where they were nominating themselves for a peace-keeping role to stem the French-British-Israeli attack on Egypt. Here Ike, heart weakened, at the end of an election campaign, top foreign-policy aide in the hospital, had to maneuver simultaneously against the Soviets and against his closest allies. He cut Britain off at the legs and supported UN resolutions against the three-pronged invasion, which he proclaimed contrary international law, while issuing stiff warnings against Soviet meddling. Eisenhower was surprised that Britain and France would bring down upon themselves all of the Arab hostility to Israel. But ultimately he saw international law as clear guidance to the crisis, and the attack on Egypt was simply illegal.
These positions were hardly popular in Washington. Many wanted the United States to stand more forcefully on the side of “freedom”. Hungary really was a captive nation; American propaganda and Radio Free Europe had helped encourage the Hungarians to revolt by giving the impression that American support for an anti-Soviet revolt was forthcoming. Egypt’s Nasser was a dictator whom Britain’s prime minister Eden likened to Hitler. James Reston, New York Times columnist and nationally prominent purveyor of the conventional wisdom, wrote about the crisis under the headline “Washington Loses Grip,” charging that Eisenhower had “lost control of events in areas vital to its security.” The president, he added, “could no longer speak as keeper of the peace and leader of a unified alliance,” then, as now, a widely echoed charge. Much of America’s WASP foreign-policy establishment was aghast at Ike’s letting Great Britain hang out to dry.
Regrettably, the present situation seems more dangerous than 1956. Everyone’s nuclear forces are now on quicker triggers, rockets instead of bombers. Eisenhower was more popular than Obama, and was genuinely respected by the military. He was thus able to dispute his generals with confidence, if need be; the experience of having victoriously commanded armies in a major war is something no civilian president can ever match. Obama faces three crises, not two: even if the ISIS doesn’t have serious weapons or hold strategic territory, it has captured imaginations throughout the world of Sunni Islam. But almost certainly the best thing Obama can do vis-à-vis ISIS is to avoid getting drawn into a war against Iran.
At one point early on in the Suez crisis, Eisenhower contemplated intervening in support of Egypt against Israeli aggression. As the crisis unfolded, Eisenhower became a de facto protector of Nasser, not of the policies of Britain and France. He recognized that America’s interests did not lie with blind and unconditional support of an ally. This is perhaps the most critical lesson Obama could draw from 1956, and he should make it very clear that an Israeli attack on Iran would be viewed as direct threat to American interests, and the United States might counter it directly, by military means, if necessary.
An underlying lesson of 1956 is that America’s geographic position enables it to watch events and not rush into precipitous action. What seemed an earth-shattering crisis was, in fact, not one. Britain and France got over it. Their imperial pretensions, which Eisenhower always thought ridiculous, were doomed anyway. NATO survived, and thrived. The man accused by the Washington commentariat of not “leading” and acting forcefully has gone down in history as America’s most successful postwar President, alongside Reagan. There is much Obama can take from that.
A joke currently going around the chanceries of Europe is that Washington, having missed out on the beginnings of World Wars I and II, wants to be in right at the start of World War III. It is mordant, the darkest of gallows humor. But Obama has it well within his power to put this joke to rest.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.