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The Eisenhower-Obama Doctrine? Ending the Military's "Blank Check"

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In the current political climate, the most dramatic point of President Obama's West Point speech on Afghanistan was neither his commitment of additional forces or the precise timing to begin a drawdown of our troops. It was his determination to apply cost-benefit analysis to our military commitments.

Of course, it helps a President who has not served in the military if he can cite an iconic general for what should be a common-sense point. So, he invoked Dwight D. Eisenhower for the doctrine: "Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs."

In post-Eisenhower Washington, this is revolutionary stuff. As progressives propose initiative after initiative to improve the health, education and welfare of the American people, we are continually pounded by ominous predictions of ruinous cost. Yet, when it comes to national defense, there appears to be no ambition too excessive, no cost too burdensome, no deficit too large.

By reciting what we might now call the Eisenhower-Obama Doctrine, President Obama, to my mind, is setting the stage for the rest of a two-term presidency. He inherited, as he frequently reminds us, two wars, a huge budget deficit and an economy on the brink of depression. He is willing to devote much of his first term energies to cleaning up the inherited messes in the economy and national security. What he is not willing to do is put off the pursuit of other critical national priorities indefinitely.

In a wise essay, Jacob Weisberg recently predicted that Obama, by State of the Union time, is likely to appear as having accomplished more in the first year of his presidency than any chief executive since FDR. Like Weisberg, I do not believe Democrats will scuttle health insurance reform altogether, and even the most modest version of what is being proposed would bring huge help to millions of Americans. Add that to the start of an economic recovery and a repositioning of America in the eyes of the world and it looks like a pretty good year.

And how will things look by 2012? President Obama has promised a complete withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. I now predict he will do the same for Afghanistan by 2013. Why? In 18 months, there will either be discernible improvement in Afghanistan or not. If there is, he has the same basis for phased withdrawal as now exists in Iraq. If not, the American people will simply insist on a strategic exit. And, if job growth begins to pick up next year or by spring of 2011, the Obama Administration will have set the table for a second term largely devoted to the domestic reforms that are pretty obviously at the top of the President's personal to-do list.

That does not mean, of course, that jobs, education, financial services reform, climate change and the rest of the domestic agenda will be on hold until 2012. There is much that might still be accomplished in the first term. But the timing of withdrawal from Iraq and the beginning of a drawdown in Afghanistan helps to set a timeline for progress on the home front, as well.

In saying this, I do not want to be misinterpreted as happy with the current pace of change. Like many progressives, I am angered by how slowly, if at all, those who undermined the rule of law and our economic security over the last decades have been brought to any measure of accountability. The scope of congressional ambition with regard to health care, climate change, financial regulation, and education strikes me as too narrow - and I wish the Administration were turning its back yet more dramatically on Bush-era abuses and preposterous claims of executive power.

But President Obama has given me hope. One of his favorite words is "persistence," and his West Point speech seems to me to be signaling the time frame within which a persistent President can help deliver "change we can believe in." Even as progressives rightfully keep pushing, President Obama seems determined not to let America's reflexive support for all things military blur his focus on other national priorities. That's a very big deal. President Eisenhower would be proud.

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