As Israel-Iran tensions mount, a lesson for Obama from Eisenhower

This piece is part of an On Leadership special feature exploring the present-day Iran tensions in the context of leadership lessons from crises confronted by Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy.

It’s a few days before November 6, Election Day. Israel takes military action in the Middle East without consulting or informing the United States. The strike leads to a threat of nuclear conflict and the most dangerous international crisis the president will confront during his time in office.

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Will Iran be Obama’s Cuban Missile Crisis?

Will Iran be Obama’s Cuban Missile Crisis?

Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy faced an eerily similar choice in one of the most dangerous moments in human history.

With Israel and Iran, a lesson from Eisenhower

With Israel and Iran, a lesson from Eisenhower

As with colonialism in 1956, Middle East militarism is now careening down a blood-soaked path toward the ash heap of history.

From the atom bomb to attacking Iran?

From the atom bomb to attacking Iran?

As we look out at the next chapter of our world’s nuclear history, let’s remember what can happen when decisions are made without robust debate.

That may sound like a scenario President Obama could face later this year, as Israeli-Iranian tensions mount and embroil him deeper in an election-year crisis. But it is actually what happened to President Dwight Eisenhower back in 1956. Nine days before that year’s election—which also landed on November 6—Israel began a ferocious attack across the Sinai Peninsula, joined by its allies in Britain and France. The attack was in response to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, through which two-thirds of the oil for Western Europe moved. Days later, the Soviet Union threatened to intervene in Egypt, too, posing a threat of nuclear war.

Eisenhower managed to diffuse the situation before it reached a catastrophic conclusion. Through a rich mix of rigorous planning, commitment to the future, and stubborn resistance to political pressure, he was able to engineer a cease fire, prevent nuclear action, and pressure European and, ultimately, Israeli forces to withdraw from Egypt. As President Obama faces his own election-year crisis in the Middle East, Eisenhower’s tactics provide a timeless—and timely—prescription for effective presidential leadership.

Eisenhower, the World War II general-turned-president, liked to preach that “plans are worthless – but planning is everything.” The goal, Eisenhower would say, was to be prepared for absolutely anything and to “do the normal thing when everybody else is going nuts.” At no point in his presidency did this maxim help him more than in the Suez crisis. Eisenhower was able to walk through that strategic minefield with extraordinary composure, despite attacks being launched just days before his re-election; despite Secretary of State John Foster Dulles undergoing cancer surgery just six days after the attacks began; and despite everything imaginable going wrong.

Eisenhower’s leadership was so successful because, even before 1956, he had defined his core principles and contingencies in Middle East policy through his management of the National Security Council. Unlike President Truman, from whom he inherited the NSC, Ike personally chaired weekly planning meetings. By 1954, the NSC had defined specific Middle East policies for managing a post-colonial future, promoting an Arab-Israeli peace plan, and deploying American power to thwart Soviet designs on the region.

Ike could not know that his World War II allies would secretly conspire with Israel to invade Egypt. But the Suez War highlighted the strength of his forethought and planning as president. By New Year’s Day 1957, not long after the Israeli attack, Eisenhower unveiled to congressional leaders a plan for economic and military aid to the Middle East, including the option of military intervention to prevent a communist takeover. The president’s vision was so compelling that the Republican Eisenhower and his team were able to persuade a Democratic Congress to pass the Eisenhower Doctrine in a breathtaking two months.

Just as Eisenhower’s preparation for crisis management in 1956 was largely unknown to the public, so is Obama’s. His blunt warning last week to the Iranians that he is not “bluffing” about denying their development of a nuclear weapon, blended with pressure this week on Israel to wait for sanctions and diplomacy to work, gives the impression of a nuanced strategy for (in Eisenhower’s favorite term) “waging peace.” And Iran’s recent offer to resume negotiations may be a sign the strategy is working.

Eisenhower’s leadership was also effective in the Suez crisis because he chose to ride the tide of history at a crucial moment in time. World War II had destroyed what was left of the European colonial empires, though in 1953 the British still had 80,000 troops in the Suez Canal zone. When he took office, Eisenhower immediately pressured them to end that occupation and secured an agreement in 1954, sending a clear message to his European allies that colonialism was over.

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

More from On Leadership:

Will Iran be Obama’s Cuban Missile Crisis?

A leadership lesson from our nuclear history

PHOTOS | Iconic presidential moments

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