Will Obama Be a President Defined by War?

Will Obama Be a President Defined by War?

By David Paul Kuhn - March 2, 2009

Barack Obama's greatest fear may be that his presidency will be overcome by war, not the economy. It's taken for granted that Obama will preside over far reaching social reform. His address to Congress last week was received as a philosophical shot across the bow of Washington. Ronald Reagan's conservative covenant is now to be reversed by Obama. Liberalism is on the march. That may all come to pass. But history reveals that war tends to bankrupt the ambitions of reformers.

Active state liberals like Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson all saw the pendulum of their presidencies swing from domestic to foreign affairs.

"American history teaches us that the world has a way of unexpectedly catching a president's attention and priority," said Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University.

Johnson called Vietnam "that bitch of a war" stealing him away from the "the woman I really love," which was the Great Society.

It's the unfinished agendas of domestic reformers that have lately been on the minds of presidential historians like Robert Dallek. Dallek has in recent months become a Cassandra about Obama's plans for reform, prophesying the potential undoing of Obama's domestic agenda by affairs abroad. He tends to reference the foreboding historical adage, "war kills reform." Dallek and Lichtman will recite the list: progressive reform felled by World War I, New Deal with World War II, Truman's Fair Deal by Korea and Johnson's Vietnam. Even George W. Bush's promise to turn away from nation building and enact a compassionate conservative agenda ended with the September 11 attacks.

Today there are roughly twice as many American soldiers in Afghanistan as there were in Vietnam the day Johnson became president. By May 1964, Johnson was a president wrestling with escalating the war. He, like Wilson, had campaigned on promises to keep the nation's boys out of a foreign war. Johnson privately told Senator Richard Russell, "I haven't got the nerve to do it and I don't see any other way out of it."

By the end of July 1965, Johnson declared that the land war was underway. Troop levels were raised to 125,000 from 75,000. There were promises of more soldiers if needed. Two days later Johnson traveled to Independence, Missouri, to sign Medicare into law. With an elderly Truman at his side, Johnson had accomplished the reform Truman could not. He would have his Great Society and his war, or so he thought.

It was at the next year's state of the union address that Johnson, true to character, told America, "I believe that we can continue the Great Society while we fight in Vietnam." Critics immediately derided Johnson for quixotically pledging both "guns and butter." Johnson would not raise taxes. The bill came due. The cost was Johnson's domestic agenda and eventually his presidency.

Obama has long promised to deescalate the wrong war and escalate the right one. The same week Obama told Congress about his domestic ambitions--universal college education and health care, a green economy and even curing cancer--he announced the draw down of troops in Iraq. He appeared to be heading in the opposite direction of Johnson.

Obama has pledged to reduce U.S. forces in Iraq to less than 50,000 from 145,000 by the end of summer in 2010. A few weeks earlier, Obama upped the American troop deployment in Afghanistan to 55,000 from 38,000. There are hints from the Pentagon that some 30,000 additional troops could still be deployed to Afghanistan.

"If Obama gets drawn too deeply into Afghanistan it can be very destructive to his reform agenda," Dallek said.

Obama believes Afghanistan is the war America must win. Like the "wise men" of Johnson's day, Obama's circle--Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to Vice President Joe Biden to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton-- seemingly agree. But then there is the nation at hand. It would be difficult to select a more difficult country to stabilize than Afghanistan. It is the world's largest producer of opium. The country has a life expectancy rate of 44 years. Four in ten of its citizens are unemployed. Hardly more than a quarter of the population is literate.

These statistics are not unfamiliar to the Obama administration. Gates said in a recent Senate hearing that, "If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose, because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience and money."

So it may be that Obama will follow the conservative war of George H.W. Bush, who has now been redeemed by history for pushing troops out of Kuwait but not pushing on to Baghdad.

The danger Obama faces, however, is the temptation of presidential power. The most clearly enumerated power of the presidency, both constitutionally and by precedent, is to shape foreign affairs.

The nation has been focused on what Obama will do about the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Meanwhile, there has been little discussion of the limited ability of the president to shape that economy.

Congress has always been more apt to assert itself on the economy than issues abroad. Truman, for example, was still able to enact his foreign agenda, from the Marshall plan to the Truman doctrine overall, despite a Republican Congress. Historians also generally agree that a president is more often a bystander of the economy rather than its steward.

"Not only do presidents have limited power to control the economy but limited power to predict the economy," Lichtman said.

It was on the eve of Dwight Eisenhower's inauguration in 1952, that Truman is said to have remarked that Ike "will say, 'Do this! Do that!' and nothing will happen. Poor Ike--it won't be a bit like the army." Foreign affairs, especially the waging of war, are generally the exception to Truman's warning.

For Obama, the blessing and problem of the wars on his horizon are that they won't require the great industrial mobilization that was World War II, but therefore cannot economically lift the nation as Roosevelt's war did.

Obama's supporters take some comfort in his deliberative intelligence, so unlike Johnson's bullish street smarts. Though even Wilson, who served as president of Princeton University, was forced to learn the limits of a president's capacity to focus exclusively on domestic reform.

Wilson famously remarked, as he left Princeton for his inauguration, that "it would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs, for all my preparation has been in domestic matters."

It would be no less ironic for Obama.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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