hat a difference a vote makes. In January, Barack Obama was being likened to Jimmy Carter. Now, after the passage of health care reform, he’s being compared to LBJ. The Carter link was tenuous at best, but the comparison to Lyndon Johnson is apt. When you add the health care bill—the last, great unfinished piece of the New Deal—to the massive stimulus package that helped avert another Great Depression, to a host of less-celebrated but still impressive measures (tripling the size of AmeriCorps, cracking down on credit card abuse, protecting women against pay discrimination, giving the FDA regulatory authority over tobacco), Obama has already racked up enough liberal legislative victories in his first year–plus to put himself within hailing distance of Johnson’s domestic policy record. And he’s done so with a significantly smaller congressional majority.
It’s impossible, however, not to notice—as many have—a more troubling parallel: between Obama’s decision to increase troops in Afghanistan and Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War. Much ink has been spilled over the years analyzing how Johnson got sucked into the conflict that would divide the country and destroy his presidency. But an especially shrewd read on what happened can be found in the pages of Lyndon B. Johnson, a new biography out in June by Washington Monthly founder Charlie Peters.
A Peace Corps official during the Kennedy-Johnson years, Peters was close to many in LBJ’s and JFK’s inner circles, so his book has the feel of lived experience. Peters also obtained enough fresh material, including an unpublished memoir by Johnson aide Jack Valenti, to shed new light on key moments of decision—in particular, a series of White House meetings in July of 1965 to consider the Pentagon’s request for vastly more U.S. ground troops for "search and destroy" operations. At these fateful meetings, many of the most troubling questions were raised, often by the president himself. How long will the fighting go on? Is this a military solution to a political problem? What about the weakness and ineptitude of the South Vietnamese government? Can Westerners lacking good intelligence win a guerilla war in Asian jungles? Yet instead of demanding answers, Johnson ended the deliberations by agreeing to give the Pentagon nearly everything it asked for. Why? A belief in the "domino" theory, fear of political attack by hawkish opponents, but also, says Peters, a deep emotional need to be seen as courageous, one rooted in Johnson’s Texas upbringing (he lied about having ancestors who died at the Alamo).
While Barack Obama seems blessedly free of such damaging insecurities, there’s no denying that he faces in Afghanistan many of the same intractable problems—the corruption and incompetence of Hamid Karzai’s government being the most obvious. Fortunately, Obama has an advantage Johnson lacked: he can study and try to avoid LBJ’s failures in Vietnam.
The degree to which Obama has already done so is one of many revelations in a riveting book out in May, The Promise: President Obama, Year One, by another Washington Monthly alumnus, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter. A narrative of the administration’s first year, it is the kind of quick-turnaround book—"history on the fly," as Alter calls it—that is easier to write about campaigns than presidencies, unless you have very good sources, which Alter does (in part because of the Chicago roots and connections he shares with the president and some of his closest advisers). Alter reports that Obama and his national security team read Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster, a book about the Johnson administration’s failure to challenge the assumptions that led to the war’s escalation. So when General Stanley McChrystal, the newly appointed commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, delivered a report last August calling for a major increase in troops and long-term commitment to nation building, Obama did what Johnson did not: he pushed back. After a famously protracted reassessment of the entire Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, he agreed to an increase in forces but demanded a much tighter timeframe for their withdrawal (beginning in the summer of 2011) than the military wanted. And to make sure the small Afghan military could take responsibility of whatever U.S. ground forces might capture from the Taliban, he demanded that McChrystal narrow the scope of his counterinsurgency ambitions, telling the general point-blank, "Do not occupy what you cannot transfer."
Whether Obama’s Afghanistan strategy will work is impossible to say. But if it does—and if he can extricate us from Iraq, too—he will not only match Johnson’s record, but far exceed it.