President Truman had many difficult tasks that faced him at the end of World War II, and he handled them ably, for the most part. The most intractable problem he dealt with in foreign policy was the worsening relations and oppositional stance that he faced in the Soviet Union. In order to stop Communist expansion he was willing to go to war. In Korea the United States engaged in a tremendous blood bath.
When Eisenhower became president he was concerned about the death of American soldiers in a war that they could not win without massive escalation. He ended the Korean War and throughout his two terms he refused to get the United States entangled and military conflicts. Eisenhower had a dilemma: he had to confront and actively oppose Communism and he desperately wanted to avoid direct armed conflict. So he turned to technology and covert activity. The CIA was given free reign during his tenure and the value of having a distinct technological advantage was realized. An unintended effect of the prolonged arms race was to institutionalize the military programs that were put in place during the Korean War.
Now to Obama, if there are circumstances that could be said to provide a direct analogy from one presidency to another, Eisenhower’s could not be more fitting. The Bush Doctrine necessitated military intervention with combat troops invading countries and overthrowing regimes. This costly and largely failed approach informed much of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.
If there is one thing that truly separates their views on foreign policy it is that Obama has wielded the fear of terrorism less effectively than Eisenhower wielded the fear of Communism. Eisenhower used that fear as a bludgeon to bolster his domestic agenda. It may be dishonest but it was effective in building infrastructure for the American economy, advancing education, and balancing the budget. Obama has not used the fear of terrorism in an effective manner on the domestic front. It is possible that he could have better used American’s fears to advance infrastructure projects or other worthy domestic projects.
The salient features of Obama’s policy toward confronting terrorism are a heavy reliance on drone strikes, which are shrouded in a veil of national security secrecy, and the institutionalization of legal justifications for attacking terrorists and the maintanace of NSA dragnets, covert military operations, and domestic security measures. These are the largely negative consequences of Obama’s policy of confrontation without war. A permanent Cold War-style apparatus has been called into existence to oppose an intractable political, economic, and religious problem. In the new world of crumbling borders and technology it remains to be seen whether or not this will be an effective strategy for defeating terrorism, but it certainly is an oppressive weight on the American government and military and it diminishes the dominance of the law in restraining the impulse to tamp down rights and use force.