By William Pfaff
A week ago, in the Providence Journal newspaper (in Rhode Island), the publisher of Harper’s Magazine, John R. MacArthur, wrote that President Barack Obama, through expedient political compromises, has lost the moral authority that an American president must command, and therefore has lost his right to a second presidential term. Mr. MacArthur quotes in support of his argument the veteran journalist Bill Moyers, who was a member of President Lyndon Johnson’s staff from 1965 to 1967, and since has become a prominent commentator on public television and in liberal and Democratic Party circles.
American history is not beyond repeating itself. At the end of November 1967, Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, a respected political figure but lacking a national reputation, declared that, under the Lyndon Johnson administration, no end seemed in sight to the futile Vietnam War, and that he was going to challenge what was becoming a tragedy for Americans and for the people of Indochina. He declared his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination of 1968.
Almost exactly two months later, the Tet Offensive occurred in Vietnam, a series of attacks across the country on Americans and on the South Vietnamese government. It took nearly a month for American and South Vietnamese forces to retake the former imperial capital city of Hue, one of the cities overrun by the insurgent offensive. This delivered an enormous psychological and political blow to Americans at home and to U.S. forces in Vietnam, though the Vietnamese Communists suffered heavier casualties than the Americans. The response of Gen. William Westmoreland, U.S. commander in Vietnam, was to request more than 200,000 men in reinforcement. There already were a half million American troops in the country. Washington refused the request, and Westmoreland was replaced and kicked upstairs to a desk command in Washington.
Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy’s successor, had already indicated that he would be a candidate to succeed himself. In the New Hampshire primary, Sen. McCarthy, until then taken by the press as a vanity candidate whose main supporters were students and impractical liberals, nearly defeated Johnson. As a result, on March 16, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy announced that he too would run for the presidency. On March 31, President Johnson, who had always hated the war, announced his own withdrawal.
For those who may not know what followed, in June the young Kennedy was assassinated. The Democratic Party convention, which followed amidst disorder and rioting, nominated Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, as the official party candidate. A much-liked but rather ineffectual former senator, Humphrey’s misfortune was that he felt compelled to defend the war policies of Johnson and Kennedy. He was defeated in November 1968 by Republican Richard Nixon. Nixon lost the war during the next seven years, despite major bombing offensives against North Vietnam and Cambodia, and the invasion of Cambodia. Halfway into his second term, because of domestic scandals, he was forced to resign from office under threat of impeachment.
I retell this story in order to establish the importance of Sen. McCarthy’s role. By refusing to stand aside from what he and many considered a doomed war, and the corruption of civil life and government that accompanied it, he set in motion the events that in the minds of many “saved” the United States.
John MacArthur’s and Bill Moyers’ call for the replacement of Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate next year is very likely to fail, and any Democratic replacement candidate is likely to lose the presidency. As a veteran Democratic Party activist recently commented, this is the sure way to elect “one of those idiots” running for the Republican nomination. Very likely he is right.
However, the two may have started something with interesting consequences. Nobody thought Sen. McCarthy’s challenge was anything more than a futile gesture. Nobody foresaw the assassinations and military defeat to come, or the ruin of Richard Nixon. Nobody knows today what disasters may lie ahead in American-supervised Iraq, or in the dual war the Pentagon is waging in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The present foreign policy of the Obama government is fraught with risk.
As for the president himself, the objection to him is that his Democratic Party has become a representative of the same interests as the Republican Party. The nation cannot bear two parties representing plutocratic power.
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My article last week on the European Union and Germany, for the first time in more than three decades of publication, evoked a unanimously hostile response from those who read my columns in newspaper syndication or online, and who troubled to reply either directly to me by way of my website, or indirectly as comment on its publication on Truthdig.
These replies were all roughly parallel in protesting what to me had been a statement of an objective political problem concerning Germany, with roots in European history, which was interpreted as a forecast or warning of a new Hitler, or some other renewal of German expansionism. I had written that Germany historically has “been a problem” to its West European neighbors because of its population, and its well-known economic dynamism.
I presented this as a problem generally recognized by the members of the EU, suggesting that Germany’s current determination to impose its own conservative economic norms on all the EU euro-using countries was probably impractical, impolitic and would make trouble (as proved to be the case, provoking the British rejection of the Brussels agreements). It was the Eurocrat expansionism and enthusiasm for federalist solutions that I mainly criticized.
I believe the German government has done no service to the EU by its insistence upon what many, like myself, see as an obsolete form of fiscal rectitude. Its obstinate insistence upon Bundesbank-style limitation on the independence of the European Central Bank prevents the ECB from assuming the role of lender of last resort, the role traditionally played by most national central banks.
Furthermore, as many have pointed out, if the ECB were authorized to embark on a program of “quantitative easing,” as currently practiced by the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of England, this would go a long way toward solving the present impasse. However this is anathema to the Germans, who insist that the ECB put up “real money” to guarantee European sovereign credit.
This provoked Nicolas Sarkozy even to propose borrowing from China: an increasingly unstable state whose own economy is deeply backward by comparison with that of the EU eurozone, relying mostly on low-value-added export manufactures. China has a huge trade surplus, but its GNP per capita (according to 2010 IMF figures based on purchasing-power-parity in current international dollars) is merely $7,544.
The European Union’s is $30,455; Belgium’s is $36,274; Germany’s $36,081; France’s $33,910; Spain’s $29,830; Italy’s $29,480—and Greece’s $28,496. Why should such rich countries beg from China?
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
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A button from Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 campaign.