Obama as LBJ


With President Obama poised to announce our “new” strategy in Afghanistan next Monday, the courtiers and pundits in Versailles on the Potomac seemed to have reached a consensus that he will opt for an escalation in Afghanistan of 35,000 troops. Such a policy announcement would be presented as a middle ground derived from careful reflection, but in actuality would be based on the fatally flawed recommendations in the report submitted to him last August by General Stanley McChrystal (see my article in CounterPunch, 22 Sept 2009). Mr. Obama has been accused unjustly by former Vice President Cheney as “dithering” over this decision, yet there is no evidence that the centerpiece of the new strategy — namely the rapid doubling in size of the Afghan security forces — has been subjected to any kind of rational critical analysis, despite widespread reports of its corruption, inneffectiveness, and penetration by the Taliban.

Given this huge hole in McChrystal’s logic, it should not be surprising that the Afghan escalation debate degenerated into intellectual chaos over the ensuing three months. The intellectual incoherence even included some amazingly moronic ramblings in the pundocracy about strategy being merely a neo-Hitlerian question of willpower, as I explained in the “The Afghan War Question” on November 12.

In the end, the question of escalation boils down to one man’s decision, which begs the question: What is going on in Mr. Obama’s head?

There have been many comparisons of the Afghan escalation question to its equivalent question in Vietnam 45 years ago, but I think the most ominous similarity lies in the way each escalation debate devolved into intellectual incoherence and confusion, mutating into an exhausted disorder, bordering on a paralysis of the decision maker’s critical faculties, and finally caving in to domestic political pressures. Moreover, at the center of the paralyzing intellectual morass in each case, is a reliance on the same vague assumptions: namely, that we can eventually evolve some kind of undefined exit strategy by converting the corrupt and incompetent indigenous security forces of our client government into effective forces, including the equally vague corollary assumption that these local security forces will eventually be perceived as being legitimate by the people they are currently robbing, raping, murdering, and terrorizing. And so, like the Vietnam escalation debate, the Afghan debate boils down to the same need to buy an undetermined amount of time for these ill-defined developments to take effect in an as yet undefined way. In each case, the mechanism for moving along this unknowable evolutionary pathway will be by propping up the local forces with even larger doses of American military power, hence the need to escalate, if only to fend off one’s domestic political adversaries’ accusations of weakness.

While recent events make it quite clear that this incoherence is now at the center of Obama’s Afghan escalation deliberations, Bill Moyers just produced a stunning TV show that reminds us that it was the same evolution into incoherence that led the president into the cul de sac in 1964 and 1965. He did this by going inside President Lyndon Johnson’s head to examine how LBJ,s agonizing deliberations induced him to escalate in Vietnam, even though LBJ and some of his closest confidants, like Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, admitted to each other that the strategy was not likely to work. But it becomes clear that they were sucked into a cul de sac of acting against their better judgement by a fear that domestic political adversaries, particularly conservative Republican warmongers, like Senator Barry Goldwater, would accuse LBJ of cutting and running. Sound familiar? What makes Moyers’ exposition so elegantly brilliant is that Moyers used the secretly taped conversations of President Johnson’s own private telephone calls to illustrate his descent into intellectual chaos and paralysis.

I urge you to listen to it carefully — maybe twice; it is truly mind boggling in terms of the light it shines onto Mr. Obama’s dilemma.

We may never know what is going on inside Mr. Obama’s head, but the outward manifestations of LBJ’s scary mental evolution are now enveloping Mr. Obama, and they are in plain view for all to see. Let us hope the consensus of pundocracy is wrong and he exhibits the moral courage to take an obviously wiser course than his predecessor, because one lesson is clear: it is wiser and less painful over the long term to lance an infectious boil immediately. Otherwise, Obama can forget about ever being compared to Lincoln and FDR, and it is more likely he will find himself compared to some kind of a Carterized caricature of LBJ.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

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