His supporters continually liken him to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in their hopes that he will usher in a second New Deal and to John Fitzgerald Kennedy for the youthful idealism they hope he will set loose upon the land. But with his decision to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan over the next few months, Barack Obama runs the risk of being remembered less in company with those two than as a latter day Lyndon Baines Johnson. All three of those presidents were "war presidents" as Obama's immediate predecessor in the White House once famously identified himself and as Obama himself now has apparently also chosen to be. But their wars had immensely different impacts upon their administrations and their legacies.
FDR, of course, was at the helm when the United States entered the Second World War, a conflict remembered as perhaps the last "Good War," as the title of the late Studs Terkel's oral history had it. At the time it enjoyed overwhelming support and post war revelations of the atrocities of the German extermination camps have only increased it. And even the more dubious aspects of the Allies' conduct of the war such as the mass killings of civilians in cities such as Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred for the most part after FDR's death during the administration of Harry Truman. In short, not only was FDR's prosecution of the war not seen to be at cross purposes with his domestic goals, but many look back at his administration as confronting the challenges of the Great Depression and World War II seamlessly.
JFK and LBJ, on the other hand, pursued the Vietnam War, one which history has not judged so kindly. It was, as Iraq War apologists might put it, a "war of choice," a civil war that the United States very simply did not have to enter and which some critics would say it should have entered on the other side if it was going to enter at all. Of course, "war of choice" is a sanitized phrase only used in a country that launches one - much of the rest of the world preferred to call Vietnam an American war of aggression and our country has been trying to restore its reputation ever since.
Vietnam was, of course, a disaster. The proposals that constituted LBJ's Great Society agenda arguably amounted to the broadest social program put forward by any president since FDR's New Deal. And yet, by the end of his term, LBJ couldn't appear in many major American cities without fear of setting off massive protests. This was LBJ's fate because he inherited the war from JFK and embraced it. And given that JFK had also embarked upon escalating it when Dwight Eisenhower bequeathed it to him, this might well have been his fate as well, had he not been assassinated.
This is still a pretty uncomfortable topic with a lot of Obama's supporters. They voted for Hope and all of this talk questioning his foreign policy is so negative. Certainly it's not their fault if they voted for decency at home and peace abroad and don't seem to be getting both, but it is their responsibility to recognize that fact. And unfortunately it may soon be the case that there are more Americans fighting Bush's wars than there were when Bush left the White House.
Anyone who has ever served in a legislative body lives with the maxim "No permanent friends; no permanent enemies," meaning that the person you disagree with profoundly on one issue may be your close ally on the next. Obama enthusiasts would do well to absorb that truism - and in a hurry. It takes nothing away from their belief in Obama's fundamental decency, their pride in his being the first African-American elected to the White House, or their hope that his administration will create a fairer nation to recognize that he is wrong on Afghanistan.
Right now, as the government of Pakistan is making accommodation with the Taliban while candidates in the next Afghanistan presidential election say they could do the same, Obama has chosen to embrace continuing war with them. As Harry Truman said, "the buck stops here" and it is now Obama's responsibility to explain to the 17,000 soldiers about to go to Afghanistan, those already there, their families, and the rest of the nation just what it is that they have been sent to kill and die for.
At the moment, any hope for a saner foreign policy comes not from the White House but from a newly reforming antiwar movement struggling to come to grips with that fact - an antiwar movement that needs to keep two things in mind. The first is that we shouldn't limit ourselves to peripheral issues like Obama's continuing the Bush Administration's policies on secrecy and the treatment of prisoners of war. All of this would fall away if the new administration would break with the fundamental proposition that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are justified.
The second caution is not to underestimate the difficulty of the task in front of it. Although many of his supporters chose to turn a blind ear to it, candidate Obama embraced the possibility of expanding the war into Pakistan and President Obama has been doing that. And the retention of Bush's Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, would have been a particularly perverse move for a truly antiwar candidate.
Unfortunately, when you govern a country that spends forty eight cents out of every dollar spent on the military worldwide, war can come to seem the norm. It will be up to us to convince Obama that making the Afghanistan War his own will only come at a political price higher than he is willing to pay.