A national security strategy Ronald Reagan would love

March 25, 2015
U.S. President Barack Obama meets members of his Cabinet at the White House in Washington

President Barack Obama with Secretary of State John Kerry at the White House in Washington, February 3, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

President Barack Obama’s national security policies are being sharply criticized by Republicans and even undermined by members of the GOP foreign-policy establishment.

They insist Obama should significantly increase defense spending and respond more forcefully to threats from Russian President Vladimir Putin in eastern Ukraine, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and China in the Pacific. The White House must also stop making concessions to Iran, Republicans say. The letter to Tehran signed by 47 Republican senators is just the latest example of their attempts to undermine his policies.

Yet Obama’s strategic patience on national security continues a pattern set by the most successful Republican foreign-policy presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush.

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President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem at National Airport in Washington, 1957. Courtesy of National Archives.

When the Soviet Union crushed rebellions in Hungary and Poland in 1956, for example, Eisenhower, the former supreme commander of the armed forces in World War Two, ignored calls from political hard-liners to “liberate the captive peoples of Eastern Europe.” When Britain, France and Israel wanted to undo Gamal Abdel Nassar’s revolution in Egypt by igniting the Suez Crisis, Eisenhower forced them to withdraw.

When the entire foreign-policy establishment wanted to intervene militarily in Vietnam to save the French at Dien Bien Phu, Eisenhower refused. Instead, he began negotiating with the “communists.” Eisenhower also resisted calls to take precipitous action against Cuba, regularly cited as the communist “enemy 90 miles off our coast.”

In addition, rather than raising defense spending dramatically after the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, he warned the nation about the dangers of the military-industrial complex in his farewell address.

In the same manner, Nixon did not leave a residual force in Vietnam to prop up the government of South Vietnam. He famously went to China and threw Washington’s Taiwanese ally under the bus. Nixon visited Beijing even though “Red China” was still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, in which an estimated 30 million people were killed and Mao Zedong had made cavalier statements about using nuclear weapons.

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President Richard M. Nixon meets with China’s Communist Party Leader Mao Tse- Tung in China, February 29, 1972. Courtesy of National Archives

Nixon negotiated an arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union that was criticized by Democrats, particularly Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.), because it allowed the Soviets to have more land-based missiles than the United States. Nixon was no dove, yet he developed a doctrine that said that there would be no U.S. boots on the ground in Asia, and cut defense spending to below $400 billion in today’s dollars.

Ford, in his short time in the Oval Office, signed the Helsinki Accords with the Soviet Union. The pact to reduce Cold War tensions eventually proved to be the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. The agreement was signed, despite efforts by Congress to kill it.

Even Reagan displayed more strategic patience and restraint than many give him credit for. In his early days in the White House, Reagan resisted calls from the hawkish establishment to send tens of thousands of troops to Central America to undo the gains of communist forces in the region. In addition, after 241 American servicemen  were killed in the 1983 barracks bombing in Lebanon, he withdrew all U.S. troops from the country, though it was in the midst of a civil war.

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President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in the Oval Office, December 9, 1987. Courtesy of Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum

Reagan also negotiated directly with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the Kremlin, even though Moscow still had troops in Afghanistan. Because of these talks, Reagan was taunted as a weaseling Neville Chamberlain by prominent members of his own party, among them Newt Gingrich. Reagan also reduced defense spending by 10 percent in real terms during his second administration in order to avoid sequestration, which was part of the 1985 Graham-Ruddman-Hollings Act.

After the Gulf War in 1991, Bush resisted calls from the neo-conservatives to march allied troops into Bagdad and remove Saddam Hussein from power. He also ordered a unilateral reduction of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal, and reduced defense spending significantly even before the Cold War ended.

It’s too bad that today’s Republicans are unaware of their roots and do not give Obama credit for continuing the pattern set by many successful Republican presidents.

12 comments

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Well put, thank you. I, too, wonder about the rationale behind the GOP’s current actions. I reckon there’s less strategy than reckless posturing. It’s a shame.

Posted by jantsch | Report as abusive

In President Eisenhower’s famous address, the warning of the dangers of the military-industrial complex had also incuded Congress. This bit was stricken from the final draft.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Enjoyable piece.

Posted by aeci | Report as abusive

Why does he put quotation marks around the word communist in the first part of the article?

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

Nixon said he disagreed with Eisenhower for not doing more to help the Hungarians.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

Good article.

I wish the author writes another article on the success or failure of these as the recent missions seem to result in calamity beyond anyone’s control.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

Eisenhower knew the value of getting along with other people in the world. Today’s ignorant GOP barely believes there is a world outside of America. Sarah Palin thought Africa was a country. And a republican Senator just warned America that Iran had already taken over Tehran. This is why the GOP will not seat a President for 20 more years. They pride themselves on camo-country ignorance.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Excellent article. Let’s not forget that Raytheon, Northrop-Grumman and the other big stocks are FIRMLY in control of congress, having bought and paid for them. We now have taxation WITHOUT representation again, time for a NEW GOVT.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

Interesting that the writer ‘forgot’ to mention the Democrats who also are critical of o’s Iran policy. True, none of them signed ‘the letter’ but there’s still some who are opposed to the policy.

Posted by chaemeleo | Report as abusive

I am glad we are not putting boots on the ground in Syria. If McCain and his ilk had their way, we’d have 1,000 dead young Americans there now, for nothing. Obama should stay the course and keep ignoring the chicken hawks.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

In the tradition of this article, conclude the Iran nuclear deal by lifting all sanctions, provided Iran agrees to let all its citizens travel freely and likewise allow American’s to visit Iran.

Posted by XRayD | Report as abusive

Of course the GOP can’t give an inch to Obama. After all, he’s just a Kenya-born Muslim Communist dictator who is secretly in league with the Iran and Hollywood to destroy America.

Did you all know that Obama runs over baby ducklings with his motorcade for fun and dine on pomeranian pups as late night snack? The man is a combination of Lex Luthor and the Joker.

Anyway, only Donald Trump, Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz can save us from his evil baby killing agendas. Well, maybe Jesus too if he reincarnates in time.

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive