01/21/2013 11:51 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2013

Foreign Policy in the Second Term

Indications are that President Obama is leaning toward continuing a foreign policy direction in his second term reminiscent of the approach taken by Dwight Eisenhower, one that involves less heavy lifting militarily. This is clearly visible through the president's first-term decisions to leave Iraq and Afghanistan, and to temper involvement in Libya and Syria.

That's good news. While still the world's preeminent military power, our forces needs time to catch their breath, refit, and tackle the consequences of two grinding wars that have left veterans unemployed, homeless, unwell, and willing to take their own lives at a shocking pace. But that is only part of the story.

Relatively small numbers of soldiers cannot impose political will on foreign populations indefinitely. This lesson has been taught from antiquity, and repeated to the owners of European empires in the last century. We learned this lesson in Vietnam, but had to reacquaint ourselves in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gandhi said it best when he told the British that they would simply leave, because 100,000 British soldiers couldn't possibly continue to tell 300,000,000 Indians what to do. Gandhi had to get on a train and travel through India to tell his people this fact. Today, he would simply activate a Twitter account.

There is also the "or else" factor. We're not Stalinist Russia, or Maoist China. We are not about to threaten utter destruction to get our way, even though nothing else will do if we think we're going to get others to embrace a political philosophy that they find repulsive. Nor does it matter. This is another of the lessons of Vietnam. We couldn't kill fast enough (and we certainly tried) to prevent a Communist takeover, and then went on to learn that it just didn't matter. It is reprehensible that moderate populations are crushed in the Middle East. But that is the problem of those populations, and ultimately, is not going to determine whether we solve the myriad problems facing us at home. Whatever we think about the importance of what's going on elsewhere, if we don't have the power to control political outcomes in those places, and we don't, we should not be inserting our men and women. Stick to sanctions and diplomacy.

There are two other issues that Eisenhower fans must consider. The first is the "military-industrial complex" problem. Though Eisenhower admonished us over a half century ago, the issue has intensified as members of Congress have learned to smear contracts for major weapons programs through as many states as possible, making it virtually impossible to manage those programs responsibly. The result has been a situation where being over budget and late is the norm for everything the Pentagon does.

The second issue is a corollary of the first. Eisenhower, understanding the expense of maintaining a huge conventional force, decided to keep his nukes handy as an alternative. John Kennedy, upon entering office, felt that there was a lack of flexibility to this approach, and built up our conventional forces.

We need to reassess our force balance in a stepwise approach, beginning with a coherent foreign policy that frames a world in which we want to live, tempered by an understanding of what is realistic. It has been a long time since we've had such a framework. Only then will we understand what weapons we need, where we might have to employ them, and where our diplomats are the only sensible alternative. As a second-term president, Mr. Obama is in a position to be Eisenhower-like. It might not be a bad alternative.