Friday, May 14, 2010

Obama vs. Reagan vs. Eisenhower

As you probably know already, we are into the second week of Protect America Month, the four weeks of every year where we contemplate ruination as the Obama administration strips America of its muscle. This is organised by the Heritage Foundation, who adopted the slogan "Resurrecting a Vision of Peace Through Strength" as they launched this year's events. This is an echo of Reagan's argument for high defence spending, and contrasting Reagan and Obama is a theme of the occasion.

Conn Carrol argues that military cuts demonstrate that unlike Reagan, Obama is not an exceptionalist:
So strongly did Reagan believe in American exceptionalism that he often described our country as “this experiment in liberty, this last, best hope of man.” But President Obama disagrees. He sees the United States as just another declining power like Britain or Greece.
This is a canard. Obama has frequently expressed a belief in America's exceptional story and opportunity, and has even, like Reagan, quoted Lincoln on occasion. Exceptionalism, though, has developed recently on the right as a euphemism for nationalism (I has some thoughts on this during the 2008 election). Meanwhile, another Heritage man, Kim Holmes, has suggested that this moment is analogous to the late seventies:
We may well be at that moment again. After Jimmy Carter, we elected Ronald Reagan. He restored not only our belief in America, but our commitment to defense. Conservative principles and traditional American values prevailed then. They can prevail again.
As far as I know, Heritage has not chosen its candidate for 2012, and nor has the Committee on the Present Danger, the defence-oriented think-tank collective who in its last incarnation took Reagan into its ranks and elevated his candidacy with its intellectual weight.

The Secretary of Defence has since come out to defend his cuts from this organised criticism. Attacked by fellow veterans of the Reagan administration such as Ed Meese, who again quoted one of their boss's aphorisms - "no nation ever got into a war because they were too strong" (debatable) - Bob Gates turned instead to Eisenhower to support his position. Speaking at the Eisenhower Presidential Library on VE Day, Gates promoted the war hero and Republican president as a model for austerity:

Eisenhower told his senior defense team that he wanted the Pentagon cut down to a “Spartan basis,” lamenting that “people he had known all his life were asking for more and more.” He went on to say: “I say the patriot today is the fellow who can do the job with less money.”

Time and again, whenever Eisenhower was asked to fund something his response usually took the form of a question: where is the money going to come from, and what will the military cut in its place? The other question was priorities. In a meeting with defense officials earlier in his presidency, Eisenhower said he was troubled by the tendency to “pile program on program” to meet every possible contingency.

Looking back from today’s vantage point, what I find so compelling and instructive was the simple fact that when it came to defense matters, under Eisenhower real choices were made, priorities set, and limits enforced. This became increasingly rare in the decades that followed, despite the best efforts of some of my predecessors and other attempts at reform over the years.

Gates also quoted from Ike's farewell address, which coined the "military-industrial complex" and warned: "This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience…We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications." While conservatives reach back to the triumphalism of the Reagan years, the Obama administration recalls the uncertain new paradigms and new choices that America faced in the early Cold War.

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