Facing an 'Eisenhower moment'

Posted: Sep 03, 2006 12:01 AM

WASHINGTON -- Late in the 1952 election campaign, he promised that he would "go to Korea." So in late November, Dwight Eisenhower and aides "used light planes to fly along the front":

"Except for sporadic artillery fire and sniping there was little action at the moment, but in view of the strength of the positions the enemy had developed, it was obvious that any frontal attack would present great difficulties."

With that assessment, laconically recalled in his 1963 memoirs, the experienced soldier decided to liquidate the war. He had seen at a glance that continuing it was not worth the costs.

George W. Bush might yet face an "Eisenhower moment" regarding Iraq. But not yet, in the opinion of Sen. John Warner, the five-term Virginia Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee.

Warner's father was a field surgeon in World War I; his great-uncle lost an arm fighting for the Confederacy at the Wilderness. Warner joined the Navy in January 1945 at 17, served until 1946, then volunteered as an officer in the Marine Corps during Korea. Because he is a military man who broadly construes the president's inherent powers as commander in chief, it was startling when he recently said that the Oct. 11, 2002, resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq did so for purposes that were largely achieved by the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime. Last month Warner asked:

"What is the mission of the United States today under this resolution if (Iraq) erupts into a civil war? ... I think we have to examine very carefully what Congress authorized the president to do in the context of a situation if we're faced with all-out civil war and whether we have to come back to the Congress to get further indication of support."

But Warner, who in 27 years has served with 260 of the 1,885 people who have been U.S. senators, and who in May became the 26th senator to cast 10,000 votes, knows that no Senate vote is apt to determine war policy. On July 25, 1967, President Lyndon Johnson, meeting with Democratic Senate committee chairmen, was angered when even Georgia's hawkish Richard Russell questioned his Vietnam policy. Johnson acidly told the group: "If you want me to get out of Vietnam, then you have the prerogative of taking out the resolution" -- the Tonkin Gulf resolution -- "under which we are out there now. You can repeal it tomorrow." Every war ends, but none ends that way.

Speaking in his Senate office, Warner says he is convinced that the essential characteristics of civil war are not yet present in Iraq. Iraq's government, he says, is ``functioning,'' the security forces are improving, and senior military officials are not plotting against the government.

But Warner also knows: The Iraqi government's writ barely runs beyond Baghdad's Green Zone. The security forces are not yet competent to hold areas that U.S. forces clear of insurgents. Holding such areas might require sending more U.S. forces to Iraq, which would further alienate Iraqis. Moqtada al-Sadr, whose support helped make Nouri al-Maliki Iraq's prime minister, has a militia that is becoming Iraq's Hezbollah -- a sovereign force within the state, and one imperfectly controlled by Sadr.

For three reasons, Eisenhower's challenge in ending the Korean War was simpler than Bush's problem would be in extracting U.S. forces from Iraq: Eisenhower had a static military front. The U.S. objective of pushing the invaders from South Korea had been accomplished. And Eisenhower had a coercive threat.

In "The Cold War: A New History," John Lewis Gaddis of Yale, who calls Eisenhower "at once the most subtle and brutal strategist of the nuclear age," says that Eisenhower early in his presidency believed -- he later changed his mind -- that when nuclear weapons "can be used on strictly military targets and for strictly military purposes," they should be used "exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else." And Eisenhower allowed America's adversaries to know that his military advisers were seeking ways to use such weapons to end the Korean fighting.

Warner believes that most congressional Democrats understand that there is an unpopular way to oppose an unpopular war -- by voting for abandonment of all the objectives for which blood has been shed. Warner defines the U.S. objective in Iraq not in terms of a glittering achievement, democracy, but as avoiding something appalling -- the Iraqi oil fields in jihadists' hands. Regarding Iraq, there will not soon be an Eisenhower moment.