January 29, 2014– This is about history, or more precisely what presidents learn, or think they learn, from history to apply to their current headaches. Many of you will be familiar with the kinds of word associations that college entrance exams delight in confronting us with. Here I want to make an analogy between President Barack Obama’s present approach and one attributed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to argue that it is indeed possible to learn wrong things from history.
The episode from the Eisenhower years occurred in 1954. It was a Far Eastern crisis, one in Vietnam. In the last year of the French war there, our ally’s Expeditionary Corps trapped itself into a hopeless battle against a Vietnamese revolutionary army. Paris, aghast at the specter of defeat, appealed to President Eisenhower to save them. “Ike,” as he was familiarly known, was sorely tempted to intervene with air strikes in support of the French. If those did not work, he recognized that he would have to commit American ground troops.
Ultimately President Eisenhower did not intervene at Dien Bien Phu. I mention the crisis because of the similarity between actions Mr. Obama has taken recently to one explanation for Ike’s course in 1954. The conventional wisdom on Dien Bien Phu is that Ike worked with a “hidden hand” deliberately to avoid intervention by insisting that Congress approve the proposed action, safe in the knowledge that it would not do so. I happen to think that explanation is false. As I argue at length in my new e-book, Operation Vulture: America’s Dien Bien Phu, the president worked to further the intervention project far more assiduously than can be accounted for by an explanation which posits that he opposed this course. We shall see how that historical debate fares, but for our purposes in today’s posting it is the supposed historical lesson of the consensus–the desirability of “hidden hand” action–which frames the point.
Last summer and fall an extended debate raged in the United States over whether the U.S. should intervene militarily in Syria to support a popular uprising against the ruler of that land. Much as Mr. Eisenhower, at Dien Bien Phu, had been trapped by policies he had set and promises made to France; President Obama had been caught in his threats to retaliate against the Syrian government if it were found to be using chemical or biological weapons against its people. When evidence emerged the Syrian regime had done exactly that, Mr. Obama was on the hook. His response? Obama insisted that Congress approve the proposed intervention.
Much the same thing happened with regard to the Snowden revelations and the National Security Agency (NSA) scandal. That issue also emerged last summer. Mr. Obama’s first response was to solicit a national debate on the legal, constitutional, and privacy issues involved in the NSA’s eavesdropping. Privately he ordered intelligence agency chiefs to offer options that might make the dragnet more palatable, and appoint a blue ribbon commission to review the practice. Another review was carried out by an independent agency, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (see “Funny Name, Serious Business,” January 23, 2014).
We now know that President Obama approved of this domestic spying all along. As reported by journalist David Remnick in The New Yorker of January 27, Mr. Obama felt no ambivalence about this: “I actually feel confident that the way the NSA operates does not threaten the privacy and constitutional rights of Americans and that the laws that are in place are sound, and, because we’ve got three branches of government involved . . . it actually works pretty well.” Despite Obama’s feelings, last month his blue ribbon commission reported out a study starkly critical of the domestic spying and a federal judge ruled it probably unconstitutional. Three weeks ago the oversight board emerged with an even darker view (see “Independent Agency Study Trashes NSA Claims,” January 24, 2014). Obama’s response? On January 17 he gave a speech accepting the criticisms of the NSA spying, and proposing a number of reforms that he says should be enacted by Congress.
Last night President Obama presented his 2014 State of the Union address. Among its more important features was Mr. Obama’s lambasting of Congress for its inability to act on anything. The president promised to move forward on social issues by means of executive action if Congress will not cooperate. Of course the political gridlock on Capitol Hill has been evident for a long time, since before Mor. Obama took office, and Republican obstructionism became even more strident with him in the White House. Obama’s speech makes perfectly clear his awareness of this factor–and his willingness to proceed unilaterally. Why, then, on two critical issues–Syria intervention and NSA reform–insist that Congress move the ball forward?
One explanation, cynical but not unlikely, is that the president did not want anything to be done on these matters. This certainly concords with Mr. Obama’s expressed view on the NSA spying, and it is a good fit with his need to escape entrapment on his own laying down of “red lines” with the Syrians. Obama has been playing with Dwight Eisenhower’s “hidden hand” deck.
If Barack Obama drew these lessons from history, they are the wrong ones. Let’s go back to Dien Bien Phu, and Vietnam. The hidden hand approach neglects consequences. After Dien Bien Phu these tactics left Eisenhower with no alternative but to support a South Vietnamese government that progressively embroiled the United States in a war. By not addressing policies the tactics put the U.S. on a track from which there was no escape, except by doing the very thing Ike’s supposed course sought to avoid. At the same time, because the hand is hidden a president builds little constituency for his actions. The effect is thus inherently limited. It is distressing that history can offer the wrong lessons and be invoked in support of dubious courses of action.