Obama Risks Turning From J.F.K. Into L.B.J.

Speaking as the 100th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s birth approached last summer, biographer Robert Caro spoke of how Johnson’s presidency managed to be both triumphant and disastrous at the same time.

“You listen to the [people] who were concerned with what Lyndon Johnson did on the domestic side, and you say, ‘There never was a surer touch. There never was more of an understanding of what exactly needed to be done to get this legislation passed,’” Caro told an interviewer. “Then you turn to Vietnam, reading the minutes of the meetings, talking to people. You have a sense of a man who didn't know what to do.”

The escalation of the war in Vietnam, of course, is what did Johnson in, both in 1968, when he was forced to abandon plans to seek a second full term when Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar insurgency embarrassed him in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, and in the decades since, as his legacy has come to be defined by his Vietnam stubbornness and duplicity.  

It has so tarred his name that when Hillary Clinton, as a presidential candidate, invoked his masterful savvy in pushing sweeping civil rights legislation through a reluctant Congress as an example of what talented presidential leadership can achieve, it was considered a gaffe. “Did any living Democrat ever imagine that any other living Democrat would try to win a presidential primary in New Hampshire by comparing herself to L.B.J.?” Maureen Dowd asked in The New York Times.

L.B.J.’s story seems particularly apt all of a sudden, with the Obama administration’s surprise decision this week to force out General David McKiernan, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, and to replace him with Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal.

The bold move—commanders like McKiernan, who had one year left on his term, are rarely fired so publicly—is part of a calculated effort by the administration to employ in Afghanistan the same type of counterinsurgency tactics used in Iraq under David Petraeus. But it also has tremendous political significance within the United States: From this point forward, the war in Afghanistan that he inherited from George W. Bush is Barack Obama’s war. And as L.B.J. learned with Vietnam (and George W. Bush with Iraq), when you own a war that becomes unpopular, no amount of political savvy on the domestic front can undo the damage.

For now, Obama doesn’t face immediate political danger. It’s widely understood that he inherited Afghanistan from Bush and redirecting U.S. troops and resources to the Asian nation—the “real” central front in the war on terror, as Obama argued—was a main theme of his presidential campaign last year. As a result, the Democratic leaders in Congress, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a fierce opponent of the Iraq war from the very beginning, have stood behind him as he’s redeployed tens of thousands of new troops to Afghanistan and begun instituting his new strategy.

Like war-wary Congressional Democrats, the public is also ready to give Obama some latitude. A poll two months ago showed that 64 percent of Americans supported his plan to send more troops to Afghanistan. Republicans, by and large, are standing with Obama too. A supplemental military spending bill that will fund U.S. operations in Afghanistan—the kind of legislation that Democrats like Pelosi would fight in the Bush years—should breeze through Congress soon with deep bipartisan support.

But that goodwill won’t last if Obama’s plan produces more instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and produces an untenable American casualty count. Given the history of the region, it’s all too conceivable it is that the plan could lead to a quagmire. And the early indicators haven’t necessarily been encouraging.

Some Democrats are already expressing this view and openly opposing Obama—or at least strongly hinting at it. David Obey, an old Wisconsin progressive now serving his fourth decade in the House, used an interview with The New York Times this week to draw a direct parallel to Vietnam, likening Obama to Richard Nixon, who inherited that war from L.B.J. At the end of his first year in office, Obey said, “Nixon had not moved the policy, and so I began to oppose the war. I am following that same approach here.”

Right now, such open dissent is mostly limited to the most staunchly antiwar pockets of the Democratic Party. But most Democrats, particularly in the House, tend to be very suspicious of prolonged, large-scale U.S. military interventions anywhere. Because it is a new and popular Democratic president who is pursuing such a policy in Afghanistan, they have mostly fallen into line, however unenthusiastically. But they undoubtedly share the same basic concerns that Obey voiced.

In the wake of Iraq, this is where most Americans are, too. If violence and American casualties become daily front-page news, voters will turn on Obama’s strategy very quickly, sensing another Iraq debacle in the making. Pressure, from the public and from within his own party, to junk the strategy and leave would mount. L.B.J. found himself in this situation in 1967 and 1968. He ignored the critics, his popularity plummeted, his clout with Congress withered, and Vietnam only spiraled further out of control.

Obama has the most ambitious domestic agenda of any president since L.B.J., and (for now, anyway) he has the public support and partisan numbers in Congress to achieve much of it. We’re a long way from knowing whether his Afghanistan plan will work—and maybe it will. But by making such a major commitment in such a volatile region, he invites the obvious comparison to L.B.J.’s example—limitless domestic potential undercut by a foreign entanglement gone wrong.

Obama Risks Turning From J.F.K. Into L.B.J.