This article orginally appeared on TomDispatch.
It’s early in 1965, and President Lyndon B. Johnson faces a critical decision. Should he escalate in Vietnam? Should he say “yes” to the request from US commanders for more troops? Or should he change strategy, downsize the American commitment, even withdraw completely, a decision that would help him focus on his top domestic priority, the “Great Society” he hopes to build?
We all know what happened. LBJ listened to the generals and foreign policy experts and escalated, with tragic consequences for the United States and calamitous results for the Vietnamese people on the receiving end of American firepower. Drawn deeper and deeper into Vietnam, LBJ would soon lose his way and eventually his will, refusing to run for re-election in 1968.
President Obama now stands at the edge of a similar precipice. Should he acquiesce to General Stanley A. McChrystal’s call for 40,000 to 60,000 or more US troops for Afghanistan? Or should he pursue a new strategy, downsizing our commitment, even withdrawing completely, a decision that would help him focus on national healthcare, among his other top domestic priorities?
The die, I fear, is cast. In his “war of necessity,” Obama has evidently already ruled out even considering a ” reduction” option, no less a “withdrawal” one, and will likely settle on an “escalate lite” program involving more troops (though not as many as McChrystal has urged), more American trainers for the Afghan army and even a further escalation of the drone war over the Pakistani borderlands and new special operations actions.
By failing his first big test as commander-in-chief this way, Obama will likely ensure himself a one-term presidency, and someday be seen as a man like LBJ whose biggest dreams broke upon the shoals of an unwinnable war.
The Conventional Wisdom: Military Escalation
To whom, we may ask, is Obama listening as he makes his decision on Afghanistan strategy and troop levels? Not the skeptics, it’s safe to assume. Not the freethinkers, not today’s equivalents of Mary McCarthy or Norman Mailer. Instead, he’s doubtless listening to the generals and admirals, or the former generals and admirals who now occupy prominent “civilian” positions at the White House and inside the Beltway.
By his actions, Obama has embraced the seemingly sober, conventional wisdom that senior military officers, whether on active duty or retired, have, as they say in the corridors of the Pentagon, “subject matter expertise” when it comes to strategy, war, even foreign policy.