Foreign and Defense Policy

Does Obama Want to be LBJ or FDR?

800px-dean_rusk_lyndon_b__johnson_and_robert_mcnamara_in_cabinet_room_meeting_february_1968In the Washington Post today, I note that to succeed in Afghanistan, President Obama must do more than simply repudiate his ill-fated deadline for withdrawal—he needs to start projecting presidential resolve. When Obama cares about something (his healthcare bill, the stimulus), his passion and determination shine through. When he does not particularly care about something (the Gulf oil spill, the Afghan surge) his lack of passion and determination shows. The problem is, in a time of war a lack of passion and determination is a dangerous characteristic in the commander in chief.

Fouad Ajami notices the same problem. In the Wall Street Journal, Ajami writes:

The chroniclers tell us that Lyndon Johnson never took to the Vietnam War. He prosecuted it, it became his war, but it was, in LBJ’s language, a “bitch of a war.” He fought it with a premonition that it could wreck his Great Society programs … We know how that war ended, and the choreography of President Obama relieving Gen. Stanley McChrystal of his command notwithstanding, there is to this Afghan campaign a sense of eerie historical repetition.

Perhaps rather than seeing Afghanistan as something that could wreck his domestic agenda, the president needs to recognize that failure in Afghanistan is what will wreck his domestic agenda—and indeed his entire legacy. Johnson’s mishandling of Vietnam destroyed his presidency, and overwhelmed his other achievements. By contrast, President Franklin Roosevelt passionately pursued both sweeping domestic reforms and victory in war—and achieved both. This is why he is considered by historians as one of our nation’s greatest presidents.

Obama needs to recognize that whatever else he may accomplish, none of it will matter if he goes down in history as the president who lost in Afghanistan. So he needs to muster the same passion to rally the country to victory in Afghanistan that he mustered to rally Congress to pass his healthcare bill. When the healthcare bill was in trouble, Obama barnstormed the country like his presidency depended on it—explaining the stakes, the consequences of failure, and why he would not accept defeat. He needs to start doing that for Afghanistan. He needs to barnstorm the country—from military bases to Legion halls—explaining the stakes, the consequences of failure, and why he will not accept defeat. He needs to recognize that his rhetorical gifts are a weapon in this struggle—perhaps the decisive weapon. If he fails to deploy them, we may fail in Afghanistan. And his presidency, and the security of our country, will suffer as a result.

Image by Yoichi R. Okamoto, White House Press Office (WHPO)

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