Would Ike Have Gone to Libya?

Thick histories may well be written about how President Obama—a Democrat from the leftward wing of his party, a use-of-force skeptic who campaigned against Iraq as a war of choice—came to involve the U.S. in a third Mideastern war. Much will be made of the regrets of a generation of party leaders that the U.S. did not move in 1994 in Rwanda, but that nation’s experience raises as many questions as it answers.

Rwanda was a real and actual genocide in which, in the Human Rights Watch estimate, 800,000 people were killed. Some say it was a million. Libya, in contrast, was a civil war with a dictator only threatening brutality toward his myriad foes. And a great nation’s foreign policy can’t be built on regrets, it can’t be built only on emotion, it has to be more steely-eyed than that, more responsive to immediate and long-term strategic needs.

Three weeks in, Libya seems sunk in stalemate. Der Spiegel reports the country continues to be split between government troops and rebels, the “seemingly rudderless attacking and fleeing” of the latter “causing the Western allies to despair.” Last week, NATO bombs killed 13 rebels by mistake. This week, the Washington Post reports, air strikes hit rebel forces near Ajdabiya, though it’s unclear whether the strikes were the work of NATO or the Gadhafi government, whose warplanes aren’t supposed to be able to fly in the no-fly zone. Al-Jazeera notes that “territory keeps changing hands,” casualties continue, and civilians are packing their bags. The Christian Science Monitor reports Libyans fleeing the war are contributing to an “immigrant crisis” in Italy. And the price of crude oil Thursday hit $110 a barrel for the first time in two and a half years.

What a mess. And the White House, immersed in the daily drama of the budget crisis, doesn’t look particularly beset. They look grateful for the change of subject.

But let’s stay on the subject.

It’s still worthwhile to consider some of the dynamics surrounding the U.S. decision. The influence of the media is one—a million microphones clamoring for action will tend to force action. The administration no doubt feared grim pictures from Benghazi and the damage those pictures could do to the president’s reputation and standing.

Another dynamic, I suspect, is a change in presidential leadership style the past few decades, toward a bias for dramatic or physical action, toward the seemingly bold move.

The other night I was with an old Reagan hand who noted that Ronald Reagan broke ground by speaking truth to and about the Soviets, by holding up his hand and saying “Stop,” by taking tough diplomatic actions, by working closely with the Soviets’ great foes, Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher. But he didn’t break ground by literally breaking ground! He didn’t invade Eastern Europe. He was judicious about the use of military might.

Now “energy in the executive” is supposed by many to involve or include a quickness to consider military options or answers, accompanied by an assumption that American military power is endless.

But of course it’s not endless, and must be well-tended, and you’re not tending it when you’re spending it, which is what armed conflict is, a spending of power and resources.

We could use, in both parties and among all our foreign-affairs thinkers, a new or renewed respect for an old leadership style, one that involves prudential restraint.

Political operatives are sort of embarrassed by caution and judiciousness now, as if they are an indicator of weakness (the Democrats’ traditional worry) or a lack of idealism and compassion (the Republicans’ worry.) But carefulness in a leader is a beautiful thing. That is the message of “Eisenhower 1956,” David A. Nichols’s history of how Ike, the old hero of World War II, resisted great pressure to commit U.S. forces in the Suez Crisis and, later, the rebellion in Hungary. The whole book is a celebration of restraint. “Eisenhower the military man was not militaristic,” writes Mr. Nichols. “He did not think that there were military solutions to many problems.” He was happy to use his personal “military credibility” in deterring the Soviets but viewed war with them “as a last, not a first resort” and often talked about disarmament.

Eisenhower was no isolationist—James Reston noted in the New York Times that in his first inaugural, 41 of the 48 paragraphs were devoted to foreign affairs. But he knew how to read the lay of the land, the needs of the moment, and he could not see why America (despite the pleas of his old comrades in arms in Britain and France) should join them, and spend its blood or treasure in an attempted invasion of Egypt. In his memoir, he wrote: “I believed that it would be undesirable and impracticable for the British to retain sizable forces permanently in the territory of a jealous and resentful government amid an openly hostile population.”

Eisenhower’s actions in 1956 have never received the attention they deserve. In America, applause for the moderate will be moderate, approval for the restrained will be restrained. But Ike was at his greatest when he wasn’t waging war.

Two closing thoughts on the modern impulse toward U.S. international activism. The past 10 years, as a nation, we have lost sight to some degree of the idea of Beaconism—that it is our role, job and even delight to be an example of freedom, a symbol of it, a beacon, but not necessarily a bringer of it or an insister on it for others. Two long, messy, unending wars suggest this change in attitude has not worked so well. Maybe we could discuss this in the coming presidential campaign.

And this, too. Visiting Afghanistan last month, I saw the flood of money, the gushing pipeline of dollars, we are spending to win the love and support, and foster the peaceableness, of the people of Afghanistan. I was told of and saw pictures of the newly opened health-care centers and schools. I’d think: “This is very nice, very kind, but Camden, N.J., could use a clinic. Camden could use a new school.” We have such budget problems, a brutalizing tax system, an incoherent American culture. Don’t these things need our attention?

And when I returned, I didn’t think of seminars, debates and extracts in foreign-policy magazines. I thought of Charles Dickens. Of Mrs. Jellyby from “Bleak House,” that little tornado of conceit and self-righteousness who set herself to rehabilitating the world as she neglected her own family. Mrs. Jellyby “devoted herself to an extensive variety of public subjects, at various times, and is at present (until something else attracts her) devoted to the subject of Africa,” the narrator tells us.

One of her children has his head caught between metal railings. “I made my way to the poor child, who was one of the dirtiest little unfortunates I ever saw, and found him very hot and frightened and crying loudly.” Another of Mrs. Jellyby’s children fell down a flight of stairs and had no one to tend to or comfort him. But Mrs. Jellyby barely noticed and wasn’t disturbed. Her eyes seemed to look “a long way off,” as if “they could see nothing but Africa!”

Is there something of Mrs. Jellyby in our foreign policy?