What lessons can President Obama learn from LBJ

November 29, 2009

As the nation awaits President Obama’s decision about how to proceed with the war in Afghanistan, I found it very helpful to listen to President Lyndon Johnson deliberate with his advisors in 1964 and in the process acknowledge the power politics behind his decision to send thousands into Vietnam.

Bill Moyers Journal presents an hour of President Johnson’s recorded conversations about Vietnam: LBJ’s Path to War: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/11202009/watch.html You can watch the videos, download the podcast from the right column or read the transcript.

Bill Moyer’s presentation suggests that President Obama’s deliberations with advisors likely have tragic parallels to those of LBJ and his advisors.  In both cases, the question is raised as to whether thousands of lives will be risked or lost because of one man and his party’s mission to hold on to power. Repeatedly LBJ acknowledges that the US likely has nothing to win in Vietnam but that he has a lot to lose if he is perceived to be weak.

It becomes clear listening to these conversations that reasoned deliberation is not relevant to the debate about next steps in Afghanistan. The power options presented to Obama are: lose now and lose a second term or lose later when you are a second term lame duck President. The continued destruction of Afghanistan and the misery caused for many families is the horrific price of this maneuvering.

Against the force of such power mongering is it any wonder that some see no avenue but to match violence with violence?  In each case the immorality is defended with arguments about the constraints of realpolitik or the imperatives of national pride, or ethnic, religious and cultural identity.

The only way I can see to stop people from waging war to protect their power is to make their power dependent on alternatives.  This means rallying moderates and conservatives and not just liberals against the war.

As President Franklin Roosevelt famously said to pressure groups that wanted him to do good but seemingly politically untenable things – “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”  His point: The reformers need to create the political space for the politician to take advantage of.  This means that we must create the pressure that will allow Obama do the right thing and keep his power.

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