Obama’s LBJ Moment



Just like Lyndon Johnson, Obama appears to be dedicated, most of all, to the welfare state at home, but, if for nothing but political reasons, committed to the agenda of escalating war. Like Johnson, he was elected partly on the implicit basis that he’d be more peaceful than his warmongering Republican opponent, only to quickly disappoint peaceniks nationwide. Like LBJ, will Obama only serve one full term as a result?

Already, there are efforts to rejuvenate the legacy of LBJ. Perhaps this is because the establishment recognizes the current president faces a similar situation: He is admired by his liberal base for his efforts to expand government at home, but these same voters, at best, only tolerate his foreign policy as a lesser of evils. But will he prove to be a lesser of evils?

In announcing the Afghanistan surge, Obama is conscious of the parallels. For months now, commentators on left and right have warned the president not to be another Johnson and not to let Afghanistan become another Vietnam. See this great column by rightwinger Tony Blankley, for example. Aware of the parallels, Obama in his speech attempted to dispel them. The president says: Vietnam had wide popular opposition to the American presence, the Vietnam war was less internationally popular and Vietnam didn’t attack America, unlike Afghanistan on 9/11.

The first two points are dubious, and the third is a stretch at best. October 2001 was a good time to debate whether Afghanistan was really the source of 9/11. Eight years later, Obama is simply rewinding back the debate to that time. But he is wrong in the sense that most of the planning was in the west, al Qaeda is not really in Afghanistan any more, and neither, probably, is Pakistan. And even if they were, how long a war on the Afghan people would be justified in retaliation for 9/11? If American troops were still occupying Afghanistan 20 years from now, would 9/11 still be the excuse?

Such factors may play into a most encouraging trend in public opinion. Isolationist — as in, non-interventionist — sentiment is wider and deeper in America than any time since 1964, according to a new poll.

As the war continues to escalate, I predict foreign policy will split the left and right. Some on the left will continue to support Obama, and even come to accept or even endorse his foreign policy, largely on the basis of partisanship and the hope of more socialism at home. On the right, many will continue to attack Obama for not doing enough, for neglecting Afghanistan—although they rarely made such a critique of Bush—but other rightists will come to an America First point of view, thinking this war has gone too long and without any meaningful purpose in sight. Already, I’m hearing rightwing radio split on Afghanistan. The question that interests me is whether many conservatives will come out in direct support of Obama, as the war rages on, or if there are more conspicuous attacks against American interests, and whether many liberals will come to outright oppose him.

That’s what we need for the longterm cause of liberty and peace: A realignment, with the more statist, establishment, pro-government and pro-war wings of left and right joining, and the more anti-state wings joining. Only by destroying the modern political spectrum, which is seemingly designed as a conspiracy against liberty—by splitting up dissent against the state into two factions and thus making it difficult to ever have a large-ranging populist revolution against the government—will the dialectic dynamic between statism and classical liberalism (libertarianism) of earlier eras be restored. Hopefully, Obama’s LBJ moment will have the silver lining of bringing this about.

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