Fifty years ago this summer, Dwight D. Eisenhower contemplated his departure from the White House. As he prepared to leave, Ike sketched out the ideas that would inform his celebrated farewell address, presciently warning against the dangers of a military-industrial complex. Simultaneously, he was plotting ways to overthrow the Cuban government.
Eisenhower did not remain in office long enough to implement the plan his minions hatched. Instead, he bequeathed it to JFK. We remember the debacle by the place where it occurred: the Bay of Pigs.
Although Kennedy took the fall for the bungled, CIA-engineered invasion, his predecessor deserves a share of the blame. Without Eisenhower, the Bay of Pigs would never have occurred. How could such a careful and seasoned statesman have concocted such a crackpot scheme? The contradiction - wisdom and folly coexisting in one figure - forms a theme in presidential politics that persists today.
What was true then, when the ostensible threat posed by Fidel Castro loomed large, remains true now, when the issue has become Afghanistan: The formulation of American statecraft rests on three widely accepted fictions. Presidents know things the rest of us can't know, or at least can't be allowed to know. Armed with secret knowledge and sophisticated advisors, presidents are uniquely positioned to discern the dangers facing the nation. The surest way to address those dangers, therefore, is for citizens to defer to the Oval Office. Call it the Trust Daddy principle.
Yet presidential judgment has repeatedly proved to be fallible. Perhaps worse, presidential claims of being able to connect the dots, thereby revealing the big picture, have turned out to be bogus. Eisenhower (and Kennedy) viewed Castro's revolution as an intolerable affront - tiny Cuba placing the entire Western Hemisphere in jeopardy. The Cuban dictator had to go. Yet half a century later, Castro survives and his revolution wheezes along. Who cares?
Pretending to navigate by some sort of acutely accurate presidential GPS, the man in the White House actually flies blind. Whether it's Lyndon B. Johnson plunging into Vietnam, Ronald Reagan dispatching U.S. "peacekeepers" to Beirut, or George W. Bush, invading Iraq, the man ostensibly in charge doesn't know what's coming next. Hence, the frequency with which events catch presidents (or their successors) by surprise.
No one in Washington will acknowledge this, of course. Once it's admitted that presidents and their "wise men" rely mostly on guesswork and are no smarter than the geezers meeting over coffee down at the corner cafe, the mystique enveloping the nation's capital will vanish in thin air. Plain folk might get restive.
This describes the predicament that President Obama will soon encounter in Afghanistan. Obama has invested Afghanistan's fate with historic importance: Americans dare not flinch from their obligation to fix that distant land. Obama has articulated a strategy - winning Afghan hearts and minds - that will ensure our success, all between now and July 2011, when U.S. troops will begin coming home.
Yet that strategy is not working, even as the clock keeps ticking. So for the president, a great opportunity is about to present itself. He can admit the obvious: Afghanistan's fate is not his (or ours) to decide. Or he can recycle the standard guff about persevering in the promotion of freedom, with American soldiers (as usual) paying the price for presidential unwillingness to acknowledge error.
Eisenhower has much to teach Obama. During his two terms in office, Ike did some things right and more than a few things wrong. Where he most disappointed his admirers, however, was in waiting until the eve of his departure from office before speaking the truth. Here's hoping that Barack Obama won't wait that long.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book is "Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War." He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
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