What would Ike do about Kosovo crisis?

May 31, 1999|By Louis Galambos and Daun Van Ee

WHEN HE became President of the United States in 1953, Dwight David Eisenhower had more prior experience with national security affairs than any incoming 20th-century president.

As Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in World War II, he led a multi-national force to victory in Europe. In the aftermath of Germany's surrender, he was up front for the beginning of the Cold War, a struggle that dominated his subsequent careers as chief of staff of the Army, as informal chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and as NATO's first Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.

Hardened by internecine political struggles, accustomed to strategic planning, and familiar with the price exacted by the use of military force, Ike was a sure-handed leader during the foreign policy crises that repeatedly erupted in the 1950s.

So the question is a fair one: What would President Eisenhower have done about the current crisis in Kosovo? Would Eisenhower have used NATO as a platform for launching strategic air strikes against Serbia?

The obvious answer is "No!" In fact, NATO would probably no longer exist in its present form if Eisenhower were in charge. He made it clear as early as 1951 that even if the Cold War persisted, the job of defending Europe should ultimately be performed by the European nations and their military forces.

Self-sufficiency

Writing to a close friend and confidant, Edward John Bermingham, he stated that "the present question is how to inspire Europe to produce for itself those armed forces that, in the long run, must provide the only means by which Europe can be defended. We cannot be a modern Rome guarding the far frontiers with our legions if for no other reason than because these are not, politically, our frontiers."

America's job was to provide a temporary barrier against Soviet expansion into Western Europe while we did everything possible to strengthen the economies and the resolve of our allies. His job at NATO, he told Gen. Lucius Clay, was "to help develop the defensive power of twelve countries."

When they were prepared to defend themselves -- something Ike thought they would be able to do in a decade or two -- the United States should withdraw its forces. But not its support.

The preservation of our European allies was a vitally important objective in Eisenhower's strategy, and he was prepared to go to war if those allies were threatened by a communist attack. He would have engaged in a nuclear war to keep Europe free. But he didn't think the Soviets were prepared to pay that price, and he was right.

In the meantime, he promoted three policies that have some relevance to the current-day Serbian crisis. First, he maintained American military strength without making much use of it. Second, he deployed a fierce rhetoric (using Secretary of State John Foster Dulles as his verbal cannon) that preserved the threat of war without actually engaging in combat. Third, he aggressively sought every opportunity to use diplomacy as a means of easing major power tensions.

He carefully laid out the rationale for this strategy. The United States could never afford all of the security it wanted, he explained; that would bankrupt the nation and lead to our defeat. We would end up as a garrison state, isolated, weak, and uncertain of our own values.

Preserve strength

What we had to do was to maintain our democracy, nurture our capitalist economy and preserve our military strength. Using the military sparingly, we could be certain to have the overwhelming force needed to counter real threats to the security of the United States, its major allies or its sources of raw materials.

Where it seemed feasible, Eisenhower was willing to use the CIA to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives. But once we had forged a settlement in Korea, he did not again send the U.S. military establishment into combat.

Eisenhower would never have accepted the idea that the United States should provide the world with a police force. "As I see it," he wrote, "America can lead the world but cannot carry it; economically, militarily, or politically." Eisenhower had too much respect for national differences and autonomy, too much understanding of the limits of our power, too much knowledge of ground combat to believe we either could or should play the role of global police force.

By dissipating our strength in minor power struggles or internal conflicts around the world, we would leave ourselves unable to achieve our major strategic objectives. "I share most emphatically the average American's understanding," he said, "that this country cannot carry the world on its own shoulders."

Middle ground

He opted for a "cooperative enterprise," a "middle ground solution," while realizing that his course was "unacceptable both to the `do-gooders' and to the strict isolationists." In the present conflict with Serbia, Ike would be concerned because we have lost sight of our relationships with Russia and seem likely to weaken our ties to Western Europe.

If the United States adopted an Eisenhower strategy, our leaders would make our position clear in the United Nations, call for an international condemnation of ethnic cleansing, and perhaps even mount an economic embargo of a rogue state like Serbia. But we would not have become embroiled in the conflict.

What would Eisenhower have done if he had inherited the conflict in Serbia?

He was also clear about this. Once you commit forces, he said, you should do so with overwhelming power. You have to win. Thus, he would do everything he could to bring this war to a quick, successful conclusion.

Louis Galambos and Daun Van Ee are co-editors of the Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower project at the Johns Hopkins University.

Pub Date: 5/31/99

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