Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Obama Is No LBJ

As Afghanistan starts to resemble Vietnam, Barack Obama is being compared to Lyndon Johnson, "a president who aspired to reshape America at home while fighting a losing war abroad."

Such parallels must be irresistible to historians and journalistic Big Thinkers, but they overlook the reality that Obama and LBJ are as dissimilar as two presidents could be in every way that counts--temperament, personality and approach to power.

Even the comparison has its roots in the current president's reflective nature as opposed to Johnson's self-assertion and certainty, going back to a recent off-the-record dinner with historians in which Obama "expressed concern that Afghanistan could yet hijack his presidency."

Self-awareness and modesty are traits that could serve him well as Afghanistan threatens to become the kind of quagmire that resulted from LBJ's often-asserted refusal to become "the first American president to lose a war."

If hubris was Johnson's Achille's heel, however, caution is Obama's counterpart.

“We must never forget,” he said in a speech last week. “This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity.”

Maybe so, but in LBJ's time, the domino theory about the spread of Communism seemed just as compelling and proved to be flawed. The question now is will Obama reconsider that "necessity," as the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and others have been urging.

Depressed and defeated in retirement, Johnson was still trying to understand what went wrong, and I heard him give an assessment of his successor Richard Nixon.

"Not much here," LBJ said, pointing to his head and then his heart, "even less here," before lowering his hand below the belt. "But enough down there."

Unlike Johnson, Obama is not so obsessed with such distinctions that they will cloud his ultimate decisions about changing direction in a war that Americans no longer want.

If he stays true to his own nature, he can avoid LBJ's foreign policy disaster and keep trying to match his achievements in working toward a Great Society.

1 comment:

Holte Ender said...

LBJ was influenced by the Generals, "Just 50,000 more troops Mr. President, we can win this thing." I see signs of the same thing happening again. Wars in places like Vietnam and Afghanistan are unwinnable unless you are prepared to turn the country into dust.