“I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I really loved — the Great Society — in order to get involved in that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs… But if I left that war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be sen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser and we would both find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on the entire globe.”
Thus spake Lyndon Johnson, looking back over the disaster that the Vietnam War made of what was once the most promising presidency in American history.
Now President Obama has his own bitch of a war, and with great honor, intelligence and resolve he has stepped forward to shoulder the burden. We shall see what happens to the woman he really loves.
(I am actually more hopeful about the war than about his true love; the president’s domestic agenda has a distinctly quagmirish feel to it.)
In any case, the president seemed much smarter and much more on his game than his critics last night. Republicans and conservatives attacked his timetable for withdrawal, but a careful reading of the speech shows that any withdrawal from Afghanistan will be based on the on-ground conditions, not the date on the calendar. Democrats and doves invoked the specter of Vietnam, but Obama, I think, wins on points. The case he made for the American commitment to this war is logical, comprehensive and clear. It will I think carry increasing weight — if the president and his allies continue to make the case.
In some ways, the speech was most interesting when the president looked past Afghanistan and laid out his broad vision of the goals of American foreign policy. Placing himself firmly in the mainstream of American foreign policy thinking since World War Two, the president invoked both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower. From FDR, President Obama drew a commitment to a principled and active American global role. From Eisenhower, Obama drew the lesson that the United States needs to pursue its global agenda in a sustainable way: we must husband our resources and balance our overseas and domestic commitments in ways that safeguard the prosperity and dynamism at home that ultimately underwrite our power abroad.
The most important parts of the speech may be the least noticed. Having described his approach to the war in Afghanistan, the president went on to outline his strategy for the War That Dare Not Speak Its Name, the Conflict Formerly Known as the Global War on Terror. Here the president called for global containment, a policy I’ve long thought was the only approach we can take. The United States must work globally against both specific groups and the radical ideology that nurtures them, preventing such groups from achieving state power anywhere and working with partners and allies worldwide to reduce their impact and disrupt their activities. The president and his allies will do well to return to this theme often; if we are to build the kind of bipartisan consensus we need for what is likely to be a long engagement in the War That Must Not Be Named, we will need the president, the secretary of state and other leaders to make this case persuasively and frequently.
American presidents since FDR have not had good luck with long wars. Truman, Johnson, Nixon and George W. Bush all saw their authority and popularity gradually collapse under the grinding pressure of long, limited wars. In every case, public opinion supported the war at the beginning of the conflict. And in every case the public grew tired and frustrated by wars that didn’t end quickly and gloriously.
President Obama is now setting off on this gloomy and unpromising road. But he is doing so with a clear sense that this is the right thing to do under the circumstances; he needs and deserves our support.