In 1954, as communist guerrillas in Vietnam formed a choke-hold around the French garrison at the northwest city of Dien Bien Phu, alarmed White House advisers made their case to President Dwight Eisenhower: Drop the bomb.
Vice President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff all concurred. If America didn’t employ atomic weapons, the French colonialist regime in Vietnam would fall, and Communism would spread throughout Indochina.
Eisenhower, the professional warrior, cut them off at the knees. “You boys must be crazy,” he told Robert Cutler, his national security adviser, “We can’t use those awful things against Asians for the second time in less than 10 years. My God.”
Undoubtedly, Eisenhower contemplated the situation in Vietnam, with all of its negative scenarios — an ally’s defeat, a proxy win for the Soviet Union and “Red” China, a strengthening of the Viet Minh and its leaders, Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap. But he peered beyond those proximate concerns and was steered by a higher star — the long-range impact on American image and prestige should he drop “those awful things” on Asians again.
Eisenhower’s navigation of the Dien Bien Phu crisis provides an imperfect yet intriguing test case as Congress barrels into the debate over allowing President Obama to use military action against the Syrian government for its use of chemical weapons. Obama has pointed the gun while cunningly freezing his trigger finger. His challenge to Capitol Hill: Pull it with me.
Today, as in 1954, immediate concerns are bundled with legacy worries. Ike forged his Dien Bien Phu decision on the latter. Obama’s Syrian policy, seemingly, is weighted upon the former. While nothing on the scale of nuclear weapons is being contemplated for Syria, the broad Eisenhower test — with cruise missiles replacing nuclear warheads and Middle Easterners replacing Asians — is still relevant: Should the U.S. launch any kind of attack on a Muslim country again?
The contours of the coming debate are already evident. Advocates of military action, such as Sen. John McCain, are talking about “limited action” to “degrade” President Bashar al Assad’s fighting capability. Among intervention proponents, the “no boots on the ground” mantra is designed to calm fears of Iraq- and Afghanistan-like entanglements.
But there are indications of how an attack might be thought of two, 10 or 20 years from now. Syrian supporters of Assad — yes, they exist — are organizing campaigns to use human shields against U.S. attacks. Will these martyrs-in-waiting be regarded in future years as incidental casualties of justified action predicated upon chemical weapons, rebel support, and regime destabilization? Or will they be remembered without nuance as victims of U.S. anti-Muslim aggression? What happens when someone holding the second view picks up a gun, or forms a militia, or wins an election?
Eisenhower presided at a time when America’s international image was built upon World War II supremacy and massive foreign policy initiatives like the Marshall Plan and the Mutual Security Act, and he sought to preserve it. Obama entered office at a time when America’s image was badly tarnished by the aggressive unilateralism of Bush-era neoconservatives, and he sought to restore it.
So as Obama refines his Syrian action plan while watching Congress take up his challenge, he might be wise to ask himself: What would Ike do?