Thomas Friedman hit the nail directly on the head yesterday in his regular New York Times column, when he wrote:
“…when taking America surging deeper into war in Afghanistan, President Obama has to be able to answer the most simple questions at a gut level: Do our interests merit such an escalation and do I have the allies to achieve victory? President Obama never had good answers for these questions, but he went ahead anyway. The ugly truth is that no one in the Obama White House wanted this Afghan surge. The only reason they proceeded was because no one knew how to get out of it — or had the courage to pull the plug. That is not a sufficient reason to take the country deeper into war in the most inhospitable terrain in the world.”
No one knew how to get out of it. The unstated assumption that I think most of us would share is that no one knew how to leave Afghanistan without getting bludgeoned by the right wing media that now sets the terms of debate in the mainstream news media. Right-wingers would shout out their typical litany of incendiary catch-phrases: Weak on defense! Couldn’t do what was needed! Put America’s security at risk! In fact I think the reason that President Obama escalated the Afghanistan War was so he wouldn’t take heat for drawing down Iraqi troops. Escalate in Afghanistan while leaving Iraq was his plan even as a candidate. And I believe his plan was a typical Clintonian triangulation to defend in advance against right wing criticism. (BTW, the firing of McChrystal probably won’t raise the ire of the wing-nuts because President Obama replaced him with their sweet little darling, General David Petraus.)
But I think it’s just a little too easy to attribute the Administration’s hesitation to pull its stakes from a sinkhole of an unwinnable war to fear that it would take a scorching from the right. Remember, our president takes a scorching from the right whatever he does, because Rush, Sean, Glenn, Anne and the others are subjective partisans who just don’t like the man.
Let’s go back to the war which served as dress pattern for our current Iraq-Afghan fiasco: Viet Nam. I’m currently in the middle of reading John Prados’ masterful new history, Viet Nam: History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975. Prados describes in accurate detail how Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all had innumerable opportunities to pull out of Viet Nam. Each time the rational evidence suggested that we had nothing to gain by remaining and that remaining would necessitate committing more money and more soldiers to Viet Nam. And in each case, all three presidents forged ahead, sometimes after making noises about pulling out.
During the 10-year period between 1954 and 1964 in which three successive U.S. presidents decided again and again to escalate our presence to Viet Nam, the right wing was at its low point in American politics. The McCarthy era had scared a lot of average middle class folk, elected officials and even corporate executives. The country was rapidly moving to the left on a wide range of social issues such as civil rights, women’s rights and nuclear disarmament. Additionally, the media was much smaller and far from 24/7 since there was neither cable TV nor Internet nor cell phones. And while there were many Republican newspapers, a lot of these were progressive Republicans, sometimes called Rockefeller Republicans. Yes, the core of what would become the new Republican party of whites living in the sunbelt and the rural and suburban north was coalescing, but the various groups in the Republican party Ronald Regan built had not connected and they did not have any powerful news media on their side to shout out their views.
Here’s my point: In an environment ideal for pulling out without suffering any political consequences, Eisenhower did not, Kennedy did not, and Johnson did not. More than 50,000 Americans died, we wasted a lot of money and lost the respect of the world. (The differences in Iraq and Afghanistan are that the war started sooner and that it has killed fewer of our side while wasting more money.)
Now some would call it a collective hubris, an inability of our country to admit we are ever wrong. But in the case of Viet Nam, for the longest time, maybe 8 years, that admission could have come in the dark shadow of the public’s lack of awareness about the war. In the case of our current wars, President Obama had a mandate to repudiate the policies of the Bush Administration and the opportunity to say, it was his war and it was a mistake, so we’re pulling out with all diligent speed.
The similarity I see is the great role that companies that receive military contracts play in the politics of the United States. Although one was perhaps the most big-hearted and caring President we have ever had and the other the archetype of the uncaring and mean business operator, LBJ and Dick Cheney share one thing in common—both were beholden financially to Halliburton, although in Johnson’s day it was called Brown & Root. For a full discussion of LBJ’s ties to Cheney’s future employer, check out Robert Caro’s definitive biography of LBJ.
Add to the military contractors multinational businesses that have always relied on U.S. governments to use our military to protect their interests, agricultural companies, airplane manufacturers, mining and metals companies and weapons makers.
President Dwight Eisenhower called it the military-industrial complex. But even though he warned us about it in his farewell address to the nation in 1961, Eisenhower really didn’t feel he could do much to stop its natural flow, and the result was Viet Nam.
Doesn’t that sound a lot like our current president? Doesn’t Obama seem keenly aware of our problems, including but not limited to the disasters we have created with our military adventurism, but he believes he is limited in what he can do, so he triangulates again and again.
Leadership style is another thing Eisenhower and Obama have in common: both set a broad goal and then watch Congress hash it out. Both prefer to lead by finding and then reinforcing the consensus.
I have read people compare Barack Obama at various times to FDR, Lincoln and Jimmy Carter, but to me, he’s looking a lot like Ike, but without the advantages of a post-war boom and a strong Senate Majority Leader named LBJ.