Good War vs. Great Society

Posted December 31, 2009

Categories: Articles

The Vietnam War ruined everything. It not only destroyed Vietnam and killed a huge number of its inhabitants. It not only killed so many American soldiers and destroyed the futures of so many veterans. It not only spread into Cambodia and Laos and wrecked those countries for generations.

The Vietnam War also killed the Great Society. President Lyndon Johnson, with a large Democratic majority in Congress after the 1964 elections, enacted sweeping reforms in education, health care, and transportation, along with landmark civil rights legislation. But the pressure of spending on the Vietnam War — the guns vs. butter debate of the 1960s — eventually brought this last, great program of genuine American liberalism to a halt and scuttled the hopes of its architect for a second presidential term.

Will the Afghanistan War drive a similar stake through the heart of President Barack Obama’s ambitious domestic program?

The two major issues currently on the public agenda are health care and the war in Afghanistan: the guns vs. butter debate of the 21st century. This year, the annual cost of the Afghan War has jumped to $60 billion. In total, we’ve spent over $220 billion on the nearly eight-year conflict. If General McChrystal gets his way and the administration sends even more troops, the bill will only grow. Meanwhile, Obama has his own version of Great Society reform on the table in the form of an ambitious health care initiative. It won’t come cheap. The president has promised to cap the costs of his plan, the Holy Grail of liberal reformers since FDR’s time, at $900 billion over 10 years.

The question is: Can Obama have his guns and eat his butter too? We’ve already laid out huge chunks of money for the financial sector bailout followed by the economic stimulus package. The Pentagon is continuing to spend as though we aren’t facing a $1.6 trillion government deficit for 2009. The military budget for 2010, 4% larger than last year, clocks in at $636 billion.

Johnson believed that he could have both guns and butter. “We are a country which was built by pioneers who had a rifle in one hand and an ax in the other,” he proclaimed. “We can do both. And as long as I am president we will do both.” His hubris was not unprecedented. The other great liberal reformers, Woodrow Wilson and FDR, also tried to balance their ambitious domestic programs with military engagements overseas.

Johnson, of course, did not remain president for long. He pushed through most of his Great Society reforms in his first two years in office, when he had large Democratic majorities in Congress. By 1968, the war in Vietnam had led to considerable criticism of the president’s record and a major drop in his popularity, and Johnson decided not to run for reelection. As Irving Bernstein writes in his probing study of the era, Guns or Butter: The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson, “One may speculate over what might have been if the country had remained at peace. Economic policy was working superbly in 1965 and it is likely that prosperity would have continued into 1968. In Chicago the Democrats would have renominated the Johnson-Humphrey ticket and it would have won easily. This might have launched a long period of Democratic control of the White House and the Congress. The Great Society would have survived and might have been expanded.”

This expansion might well have been global. A few years after the end of the Vietnam War, ministers from 134 countries gathered in Kazakhstan and issued a declaration calling on the international community to reduce the gap in health care between the industrialized and developing worlds. “They considered the slogan ‘Health for All by the Year 2000’ as a laudable and achievable goal,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Adam Parsons in The Global Health Debate. “Not only did it involve guaranteeing access to essential health care at a community level for all people of the world, but primary health care services were to work closely with health-related sectors responsible for other essential needs including education, safe water, sanitation, and food security.” This attempt at a Global Great Society foundered with the rise of neoliberal economic programs in the late 1970s.

History could have marched down a different path in 1965. After all, as a candidate in 1964, Johnson argued that “we don’t want to get involved in a nation with 700 million people [China] and get tied down in a land war in Asia.” As president, however, Johnson did exactly that: committing U.S. ground forces to Vietnam in 1965. This decision ultimately doomed his presidency and the Great Society. We’ve been living with the Considerably-Less-Than-Great Society of the neoliberals and neoconservatives ever since.

Obama, as a candidate in 2008, promised to refocus the U.S. military on Afghanistan. As president, he now has a chance to reverse himself and end the war. According to some recent indications, the president is willing to rethink his approach to Afghanistan. If he does, he can rescue his own Great Society ambitions, secure himself a second term of office, and acquire an enduring legacy as the first president to resolve the guns vs. butter dilemma in the only sustainable way possible.

German Anguish over Afghanistan

Germany is currently involved in an anguished examination of its own involvement in Afghanistan. The German public is up in arms over the recent incident in northern Afghanistan in which German Colonel Georg Klein called in U.S. air support to bomb a fuel convoy hijacked by the Taliban. An unknown number of Afghan civilians died as a result of the attack. Now it turns out that:

  • The fuel tankers were stuck in the mud for several hours and so posed no immediate threat, despite Klein’s report to the contrary;
  • Klein should have authorized the F-15s to do a low-altitude pass over the convoy as a warning to give civilians a chance to flee;
  • Klein didn’t have the authority to order the strike in the first place since there hadn’t been any contact with the enemy and there wasn’t an imminent threat.

“An airstrike like this certainly isn’t something that you’d expect in a tactical stabilization operation, which is what the Bundeswehr is supposed to be doing,” observes Winfried Nachtwei, a German Green and military expert, in an interview with FPIF contributor Paul Hockenos. “Indeed, the ISAF mandate is for stabilization and support of the government. The new U.S. policy is to avoid civilian deaths if at all possible. Yet the situation in and around Kundus has deteriorated dramatically since last year alone and the Germans have begun to call for tactical air support. This air raid represents a watershed in the escalation of conflict in the north. In no uncertain terms, there is war in the Kundus province and Germans are part of it.”

German opposition to the war is growing. “The Germany peace movement is currently conducting many actions to end the war in Afghanistan, most recently several regional public meetings on September 9,” writes FPIF contributor Reiner Braun in Afghanistan and the German Peace Movement. “It will continue these actions even after the presidential elections on September 27. Die Linke, the only party in Germany that supports immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, has seen its support rise from 10% to 14% in the wake of the bombing. It is time for Germany to withdraw its troops and for the minister of defense to step down.”

Middle East Peace Still Elusive

News from the Middle East peace process has not been good. U.S. envoy George Mitchell returned empty-handed from his recent tour of the region. His big failure: securing an agreement from Israel to freeze the expansion of its settlements in occupied territory.

Don’t expect the Obama administration to simply give in to Israel on this issue, argues FPIF contributor Ira Chernus. “Now we are in a new political world,” he writes in Obama’s Israel-Palestine Gamble. “Obama signaled the change when he invited J Street and APN to his White House meeting with leaders of major Jewish organizations. Obama owes groups like these a political debt, because the pro-Israel, pro-peace community is now beginning to provide a counter-balance to AIPAC and other right-wing groups, who have traditionally defined what it means to be ‘pro-Israel.’ That gives Obama more room to make whatever policy choice he wants — a luxury previous presidents have not enjoyed.”

Should the Obama administration decide to exert pressure on the Israeli government, it has several options. “The key is to find a form of leverage that is costly enough to impact Israeli behavior without threatening their security and is also relatively cheap for the administration to apply,” writes FPIF contributor Shana Marshall in Beyond Muscle. “Defense ‘offsets’ — incentives granted by private companies to facilitate the purchase of military goods — satisfy all these conditions, and may be especially effective in the struggle for Middle East peace.”

IMF: Reform We Can Believe In?

The International Monetary Fund has recently introduced several new twists to its lending programs. FPIF asked two experts to evaluate the Rapid Credit Facility and the Flexible Credit Facility, which the IMF promotes as ways to get money fast to countries in dire need.

“The Fund is positioning itself to be less of an adversary and more of a cheerleader to member countries,” argues FPIF contributor Martin S. Edwards in The IMF’s New Toolkit. “For some countries that need loans more for reassurance than reform, these changes to the Fund toolkit are welcome. Instead of providing the same medicine to all countries regardless of their particular problems, these new loan facilities are intended to aid reform-minded governments by provide short-term resources to reassure investors. In this manner, they help politicians in developing countries manage the downside costs of integration.”

Soren Ambrose is not so sanguine about the changes. “Civil society groups have been calling for a reorientation toward medium- and long-term economic planning,” he writes in Mere Tinkering or Change We Can Believe In? “This means prioritizing the services and development priorities that low-income countries desperately need. The temporary loosening the IMF has practiced recently is merely a pragmatic leniency in a time of crisis; it is unlikely to allow sustained additional spending on services or development.”

In our Strategic Dialogue on this topic, Edwards challenges Ambrose’s caution and Ambrose takes on Edwards’ optimism.

FPIF, September 22, 2009

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