May 25, 2013
Virtual JFK: The 44th President’s Foreign Policy Challenge
Posted on Oct 29, 2008
‘Virtual JFK,’ Obama, McCain and Vietnam
What about the 2008 U.S. presidential election? In matters of war and peace, what do we want the bottom line of our next president to be? Should it be to avoid war, and the unintended escalation of war? Or do we want the next president’s bottom line in foreign affairs to be the avoidance of defeat (or retreat, or conciliation, or something less than unconditional victory)? How do the two presidential candidates fit into this historical context? Can the JFK-LBJ-Vietnam quasi-“experiment” help us decide whom we want to elect as president this year?
We believe it can. One candidate, John McCain, shares many of the assumptions of those in the Bush administration who launched the war in Iraq and the occupation of that country. McCain does not in the least regret the Bush decision to invade Iraq. He does not even regret the occupation of Iraq, which has destabilized the entire Middle East and brought untold suffering to millions of people. On the contrary, McCain often seems eager to expand the American presence in the region. He has even suggested on many occasions that he favors war with Iran, a country roughly three times the size of Iraq, with a large military establishment and a recent history of anti-American zeal.
In fact, McCain often sounds more hawkish with regard to Iraq than even some Bush loyalists. Bush has said from time to time, for example, that he could imagine a U.S. presence in Iraq for 50 years. But McCain has said during the campaign that he would have the U.S. stay in Iraq for a hundred years if necessary—if that is what it takes to bring to power in Baghdad a stable, democratic government on the U.S. model, congenial to U.S. interests. It was unnerving to hear to this potential occupant of the White House speak so casually and confidently, on Jan. 3, 2008, in New Hampshire, about a hundred years of war and occupation.
John McCain’s critics have characterized him as a trigger-happy, muddle-headed advocate of military solutions to international political problems. Some see this as the inevitable residue of his career as a “top gun” Navy pilot during the Vietnam War. His supporters, on the other hand, see McCain as a strong defender of U.S. interests who will not back down, who will not betray an ally (like Israel, or the current Baghdad government) and who will not coddle an enemy who understands only the language of force.
The other candidate, Barack Obama, opposed the invasion of Iraq and has pledged, if elected president, to withdraw U.S. personnel from Iraq as soon as that can be done in an orderly and dignified way. Moreover, Obama has said he prefers talking to enemies rather than attacking them or threatening to attack them. He has said he believes that military force should be used to resolve conflicts of national interest only as a last resort. Obama’s critics see him as too inclined toward trying to reason with unreasonable adversaries (like Iran, with whose leaders Obama has said he would talk without pre-conditions). McCain and his supporters have characterized Obama as an Ivy League rhetorician who is too naive and too indecisive to apply military force when it is needed, a man wholly unsuited to the dangerous new world of Islamic fundamentalism, a resurgent, anti-Western and belligerent Russia, and the Chinese behemoth. Obama’s supporters, however, see him as a thoughtful, nuanced, cautious leader who could deal with an increasingly complex, interconnected and chaotic international arena.
We have witnessed during the 2008 campaign frequent comparisons between the two candidates for president, on the one hand, and the leaders and events of the early to mid-1960s on the other. Often the Vietnam dimension is implicit, but sometimes it is quite explicit. Early in the 2008 campaign, former JFK aide and speechwriter Theodore Sorensen said that he endorsed Obama because Obama had evinced good judgment and a calm demeanor—which he characterized as very JFK-like. Others have seen something similar in Obama: the same skepticism, the same resistance to panic, the same ironical wit that JFK displayed as president. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently revealed that, in response to an offhand question from Brooks about the American theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, Obama “for the next twenty minutes gave a perfect description of Niebuhr’s thought, which is a very subtle thought process, based on the idea that you have to use power while it corrupts you.” We note that JFK believed Niebuhr was the most important political philosopher of his time.
Many regard this kind of calmness and resistance to making snap judgments based on advice from bellicose advisers as one of Obama’s strongest traits. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote recently that he fears if John McCain had been president during the Cuban missile crisis we would recall that event not as a crisis but as “World War III”—assuming that anyone remained to recall it. Kristoff endorses Obama. Why? Because Kristof believes that McCain’s instincts lead him to snap decisions, pre-emptive decisions, meant to “beat the other guy to the punch.” Kristof’s reference to the Cuban missile crisis suggests that he believes a McCain-like president in October 1962 would have agreed with the preponderance of JFK’s advisers then who initially recommended an air attack on Cuba and an invasion. Such an invasion, if militarily successful, would have resulted in the U.S. occupation and governance of the island under difficult circumstances, against a force of tough Cuban and Russian fighters numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In other words, as Cuban veterans from that era have said on many occasions, the U.S. would have had its “Vietnam” in Cuba—a guerrilla war the U.S. was unlikely to win and from which it would eventually have withdrawn in defeat.
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