Will Obama Be a Peacemaker?

Eisenhower keeps looking better, the farther we descend from those postwar years. We’ve been on an almost uninterrupted downhill careen since midday Friday, November 22, 1963.

Will Obama Be a Peacemaker?
By John W. Whitehead
January 8, 2009
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children…This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”–Dwight D. Eisenhower

The Middle East is a boiling cauldron of violence, ready to erupt at any moment. The civilian death toll is mounting in Gaza, as Palestine and Israel engage in a military showdown. Tensions continue to increase between India and Pakistan in the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attacks. And the Russians are preparing to sharply increase production of their strategic nuclear missiles as part of a massive rearmament program.

Clearly, what the world desperately needs from America and its new president is a peacemaker, not another warrior.

Media pundits are calling on Barack Obama to borrow a leaf from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal playbook to handle the current economic crisis. However, he would do well to look to Dwight D. Eisenhower for ideas on how to deal diplomatically with the brewing international crisis.

A five-star military general who led American troops to triumph in World War II, Eisenhower believed that an influential world leadership is needed to guide nations toward peace and put an end to war. Thus, after taking office in 1953, Eisenhower used his presidency to show the world that it does not take a powerful military to foster peace among nations. Rather, he favored diplomatic overtures, the most memorable of which were his hosting of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at Camp David and his subsequent 22,000-mile “goodwill tour.”

In the midst of the Cold War, President Eisenhower persistently pushed for peace negotiations with America’s chief adversary, the Soviet Union. To this end, Eisenhower invited the often-caustic Khrushchev for a transcontinental tour of the United States “for one last chance” to move toward peace. Khrushchev’s tour ended at Camp David, Maryland, where Khrushchev and Eisenhower successfully fostered a mutual agreement to pursue diplomatic peace measures between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Following this, Eisenhower embarked on his own global journey. On December 3, 1959, he set forth on a 22,000-mile “goodwill tour.” Within eighteen days, Eisenhower made stops in India, Greece, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Italy, Iran, Morocco, Tunisia, Spain and France. During his journey, Eisenhower sent a message to the international community: “We want to live in peace and friendship–in freedom. We want to help other peoples to raise their standards, to be as content with their lot as humans can be.”

People crowded in the streets to get a glimpse of him. They shouted, “We love you, Ike” in Turkey and “Take back our love, Ike” in Pakistan. In India, crowds prepared for Eisenhower’s reception by decorating their homes with traditional brass vessels, festooned with mango leaves in recognition of a high presence. In New Delhi, the president drew crowds numbering in the thousands and was compared to one of India’s most revered figures, Mahatma Gandhi.

Inevitably, such international goodwill for Eisenhower translated to international goodwill toward the U.S. Yet Eisenhower didn’t rest on his laurels. Instead, he used his standing in the world community to press for peace, calling on world leaders to end the arms race and warning Americans against the rise of the military-industrial complex. As Eisenhower said in his 1961 “Farewell Address to the Nation”:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

To our detriment, we have failed to heed Eisenhower’s warning and frittered away our global goodwill. The military-industrial complex of which Eisenhower warned (largely made up of private corporations whose existence and profit margins rely on military defense contracts and perpetual wars) now exercises an inordinate influence in the American government, and it is largely exempt from congressional oversight and answerable to practically no one.

Its influence continues to pervade every facet of the American economy. As MarketWatch’s Paul B. Farrell points out, ours is no longer a manufacturing economy or an agricultural economy or even a consumer economy but a war economy, which requires Americans “to surrender 54% of their tax dollars to a war machine.” The numbers alone are staggering: the United States presently spends more than $700 billion on its military, which accounts for 48% of the world’s total military spending. The military-industrial complex has also helped erect a national security-surveillance state while perpetuating a military empire worldwide (American troops are stationed in 147 countries and 10 territories, roughly 70% of the world’s countries).

Thus, while America was once viewed as the hope for freedom, it has since come to be seen by much of the world as a hated, warring, military empire bent on destruction. Yet this, too, can be changed.

In assuming his role as the leader of the free world, Barack Obama has a chance to unify a torn, weary, splintered world. To do so, however, he will have to heed Martin Luther King’s advice and reorder his priorities “so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.” As King warned in his 1967 Christmas Eve sermon: “Wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete. We must either learn to live together as brothers or we are going to perish together as fools.”

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