And as with colonialism in 1956, Middle East militarism is now careening down a blood-soaked path toward the ash heap of history. Muammar Gaddafi is gone. The military rulers of Egypt will not willingly abdicate, nor will Bashar Al-Assad in Syria; but their fate is sealed. This is a moment equivalent to the enunciation of the Eisenhower Doctrine, demanding a comparable commitment to build the future, not protect the past.
Obama’s May 19, 2011 speech on the Middle East at the State Department provides some evidence that he understands the need for a fresh “Obama Doctrine” to succeed the Eisenhower approach. In that address, Obama strongly endorsed “universal rights” as the cornerstone of a new era in the Middle East. “Those rights,” he said, “include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders -- whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran.”
Another leadership attribute Obama should be prepared to borrow from Eisenhower is this: The willingness to oppose treasured allies when necessary, even when they are backed by powerful interest groups.
A scenario echoing 1956 looms in 2012. Say that a few days before November 6 Israel bombs Iran without consulting or informing the United States. Iran closes the Strait of Hormuz and the American Fifth Fleet is placed on battle-ready alert. The Russians and Chinese threaten to intervene, Middle East states allied with Iran prepare to attack Israel, and the price of gasoline in the U.S. rises to $6 a gallon.
Opposing Israel in an election year is difficult for any president. But On November 6, 1956, Ike was able to say: “We have given our whole thought to Hungary and the Middle East. I don’t give a damn how the election goes.” If Obama takes any one lesson in leadership from Eisenhower, it should be a willingness—if necessary—to say much the same.
David A. Nichols is the author of
Eisenhower 1956: The President's Year of Crisis—Suez and the Brink of War
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