Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

David Sirota Headshot

Obama and the Ghost of Vietnam-Era Politics

Posted: Updated:

The New York Times this weekend profiled my old boss Rep. David Obey (D-WI) and his efforts to force the Obama administration to change course in Afghanistan. You can -- and should -- read it here.

I worked closely with Obey on a daily basis during the darkest of the dark Bush years. And I grew to really love the guy. He is a lot of things -- prickly, intense, brilliant and loyal, all at the same time. And, to say the least, he doesn't suffer fools gladly. He's not perfect, by any stretch. But he's one of my heroes for his political stands, conviction and fearlessness, and for his humility. This is a guy who -- unlike most politicians -- does not see himself as any better than the average person, and, as you'll see in the Times piece, does not treat other politicians like they are royalty, either. And that's a good thing these days.

In particular, the Times article details a phone call between Obey and President Obama, and here's the part that really stands out:

Mr. Obey used the conversation to ask the president if he had seen a documentary by the public television journalist Bill Moyers featuring archival audiotapes of President Lyndon B. Johnson wrestling with escalating the Vietnam War...

If Mr. Obama objected, he did not say. But in a speech at West Point outlining his Afghanistan strategy, he pointedly rejected the Vietnam analogy, saying it "depends on a false reading of history."

Mr. Obey came away from the speech unconvinced that Mr. Obama's strategy could succeed...After 40 years in Congress, a career that has spanned eight presidents, he is not about to quit asking questions now.

"I didn't come here to be Richard Nixon's congressman, Reagan's congressman, Obama's congressman," Mr. Obey said. "I'm here representing the Seventh District of Wisconsin."

We can debate whether Afghanistan is or is not like Vietnam. There's no correct answer on that -- it's a matter of opinion. However, there are some clear similarities in the politics of the moment -- specifically in the political tensions between the military and the civilian leadership of this country. The Times seems to have missed this point in its story -- but it is an important point that Obey seems to be trying to make.

Many weeks ago, I wrote a column about how the military has been trying to bully President Obama into escalating the Afghanistan War. In my column, I suggested that this was a serious challenge to the constitutional authority of the executive branch -- and to the founding principle of civilian decision-making about issues of war and peace. And in the last few weeks, this has only intensified, as various military officials have tried to undermine President Obama's insistence that we will begin commencing an Afghanistan exit strategy in July 2011.

Unfortunately, I did not have the column space to examine how this military pressure on presidents is nothing new. That's really what Bill Moyers shows in devastating detail a few weeks ago.

Moyers, who worked in the Johnson administration, goes back through White House tapes, and plays the haunting phone conversations between LBJ and his aides during the Vietnam decision making process. It is haunting, to say the least -- and part of the story revolves around him being aggressively pushed by the military establishment and right-wing Republicans like Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater to continue escalating the conflict. LBJ is reluctant to escalate, but ultimately opts for the buildup -- and the rest, as they say, is awful history.

Watch Moyers' piece -- and think of Afghanistan as you do. I hope Obama will as well. Those who insist President Obama must reflexively rubber stamp the demands for escalation might do well to remember a bit of this history, as Dave Obey suggests.