By FOUAD AJAMI
On Nov. 6, 1956, Election Day, to be precise, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent a brief message to British Prime Minister Anthony Eden: “We have given our whole thought to Hungary and the Middle East. I don’t give a damn how the election goes.”
Eisenhower could afford that kind of attitude—he was a genuine American hero in World War II, and there was no chance of his losing his bid for a second term to the inconsequential Adlai Stevenson. But the election came, as the historian David Nichols put it, during a “perfect storm.” Britain and France had invaded Egypt under the guise of bringing to a halt fighting in the Suez Canal between Egypt and Israel, and the Soviet Union had deemed this the right time to crush a Hungarian bid for freedom.
Ours is a different world. Barack Obama isn’t to be held to the Eisenhower standard. Indeed, as a fortunate “off-mic” moment recently revealed, this president bargains with Russian errand boy Dmitry Medvedev over something as trivial as protecting Europe with a missile defense system. I will have more “flexibility,” the leader of the Free World says, with my last election behind me.
Thankfully, we don’t live in the shadow of a nuclear showdown. But from its very beginning, this presidency has been about the man himself and his personal ambition, and less so his duty to democracy.
So what’s to be said of Mr. Obama’s foreign-policy accomplishments? Has he, like Eisenhower, given his whole thought to the troubles of the Middle East? As a candidate, he declared Afghanistan the “war of necessity.” But the war does not detain or torment him, nothing here of the anguish of LBJ over Vietnam. He ordered his own surge in Afghanistan but took away so much of its power by announcing a date for American withdrawal in 2014—two good, safe years after his second presidential bid. This way peace could be had with the Taliban who could wait us out—and with the “progressives” at home who have no use for this war but are willing to grant the president prosecuting it time and indulgence.
In the same vein, the primacy of electoral politics over the necessities of strategy had driven the decision to quit Iraq and give up our gains in that vital country. Mr. Obama gave the Iraqis an offer they were meant to refuse. The small residual force he said he would accept, a contingent of somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 soldiers, could hardly defend itself, let alone be of any use to the Iraqis.
No one was fooled. The American president had given every indication that he had no interest in Iraq and its affairs. A decade of sacrifices lay behind us in Iraq, the new order was too fragile to stand alone. We could have had an appreciable presence in Iraq—the Kurds, the Shiites, the Sunnis would have all been glad for the American protection. This presence would have served us well as a hedge against the hegemonic ambitions of Iranian theocracy, and an Iraq in the orbit of U.S. power would have been less likely to cast its fate with the embattled House of Assad in Syria.