When President Obama visited Iraq earlier this month, he thanked U.S. troops for their bravery and sacrifice, and praised them for having provided an "opportunity [to Iraq] to stand on its own." In December 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower paid his own visit to a war zone when he went to Korea. Flying over the 38th Parallel, Ike surveyed "rocky, mountainous" terrain that "bristl[ed] with Chinese gun emplacements," as historian Jean Edward Smith recently wrote in the New York Times.
The differences between the two war zones could hardly be greater: Whereas the Korean War was a thoroughly 20th-century conflict—fought between large uniformed armies to establish clear control of land masses, and defined by the use of heavy artillery and aerial bombing—the war in Iraq has consisted of urban warfare, suicide bombers, and ethnic hatreds that have imploded into spasms of sectarian bloodshed. Still, despite these differences, Ike's decision to end the Korean War has a lot in common with Obama's strategy to end America's six-year-long war in Iraq.
Like Eisenhower in 1953, Obama has achieved a surprisingly strong bipartisan consensus in support of his desire to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in large numbers. Ike had won support from both Democrats and some Republicans in his pursuit of a negotiated armistice on the Korean Peninsula. In the early Fifties, to be sure, California Sen. William Knowland (dubbed the "Senator from Formosa" for his strident anticommunism) blasted Ike's truce in Korea as a plan that "would inevitably lose the balance of Asia"—tantamount to surrendering to Communist China. While other anticommunist conservatives bristled at Ike's peace agreement, some Republicans supported his armistice.
Knowland's critique offered merely a minority view of the unending conflict in Korea. When Ike said in 1953 that "the war is over, and ... my son is going to come home soon," he succinctly articulated the national attitude toward a war that by then had become an increasingly unpopular military stalemate.
Obama's war-ending strategy has also received plaudits from a cross-section of the political spectrum. In February, Obama announced that he would withdraw combat forces from Iraq by August 2010; he adopted some of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's recommendations. The group's cochairs, James Baker and Lee Hamilton, endorsed Obama's approach as "an exit in a responsible way" (Hamilton's words). Obama's 2008 Republican rival John McCain expressed his support for Obama's strategy as well.
Eisenhower and Obama have both excelled at using political symbols to promote their policies to end their respective wars. Ike was particularly good at using dramatic words and gestures in bringing the Korean conflict to a close. With a mere two weeks remaining in his presidential campaign, he delivered a speech at the Masonic Temple in Detroit, vowing that if he won the White House he would "go to Korea." In uttering three simple words, he communicated to the public that he had a plan (albeit a vague one) to end the war, and signaled that he would be engaged from day one of his administration toward achieving this critical goal.
A few weeks later, when Eisenhower fulfilled his campaign pledge to visit Korea, his presence had a captivating effect; Jean Edward Smith reports that he ate C-rations with troops from his former regiment, consulted with military commanders, and "conferred with ... old friends." Similarly, Obama's first presidential trip inside a war zone to Iraq this month won praise from the soldiers whom he addressed; and Obama's ability to balance his expressions of support for U.S. soldiers with his antiwar policy harkened back to the thin line that Eisenhower had to walk in negotiating an imperfect truce in Korea—a "peace with honor."
Furthermore, Obama has recognized that in order to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq, he must move swiftly, as Eisenhower once did, to capitalize on the mandate achieved in his recent election victory. Like Ike's approach to Korea, Obama has grasped an elegant concept: that maximizing his political clout in the weeks after Election Day would help him to achieve his strategy of withdrawing from Iraq. Obama and Ike both understood that much of their presidential credibility hinged on their ability to bring troops home quickly and successfully, and both moved rapidly toward this similar goal during their first weeks in the White House.
Matthew Dallek, a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, teaches at the University of California Washington Center and at the University of Notre Dame Washington Program.