Don't do it, Hillary! Joining forces with neocons could doom Democrats

Clinton's Iraq vote kept her from the presidency in 2008. Staying hawkish could harm the party for decades. Ask LBJ

Published August 30, 2014 1:45PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi)
(Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi)

Has Hillary Clinton forgotten why she’s not president?  In light of her headline-making Atlantic interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, in which she seemingly echoed the neocons' “who lost Syria/who lost Iraq” line, it would seem that she has. There are numerous folks around to remind her how foolish such saber-rattling is in terms of foreign policy effectiveness, but  given how smart Clinton is, she has to already know this herself — as the Atlantic’s own James Fallows noted in a typically savvy and well-crafted piece just a few days later:

Of course everyone including Clinton “knows” that you should only do something when it’s smart and not when it’s stupid. In her books and speeches, she is most impressive when showing commanding knowledge of the complexities and contradictions of negotiating with the Russians and Chinese, and why you can’t just “be tough” in dealings with them….

But in this interview — assuming it's not "out of context" — she is often making the broad, lazy "do something" points and avoiding the harder ones. She appears to disdain the president for exactly the kind of slogan — "don't do stupid shit" — that her husband would have been proud of for its apparent simplicity but potential breadth and depth. (Remember "It's the economy, stupid"?)

But the problem isn’t  just that Clinton was acting deliberately stupid in foreign policy terms, for whatever reason. She was also acting deeply foolish in terms of domestic politics as well. Even if she can’t actually lose the Democratic nomination this time, such belligerent hawkishness could utterly wreck the Democratic Party, just as Lyndon Johnson wrecked it with his pursuit of the Vietnam War.

Of course it’s not popular to blame LBJ in that regard, but it’s impossible to ignore. Johnson won one of the most lopsided landslides in history in 1964, running as an anti-war candidate, and then, thanks to pursuing a war he didn’t even want, was driven out of office four years later, to be followed by 46 years now, in which Democrats have controlled the White House and both houses of Congress for a total of just eight years. Yes, it’s always been fashionable to blame anti-war forces for the wreckage Johnson wrought, but Johnson, as president, was the one who set it all in motion — by embracing a moral crusade that he didn’t even believe in.  The question is — why?  And what does this tell us about Hillary?

The most comprehensive answer I know to these questions comes from Robert Mann’s 2001 book, "A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent Into Vietnam." Mann, a professor at LSU's Manship School of Mass Communication, is a former Senate staffer, and his book is the only account of the Vietnam War to focus substantially on the role of the Senate, beginning in the Truman administration, as the “loss of China” and the unexpected outbreak of the Korean War suddenly thrust the Democrats into the minority for the first time in 20 years. Not only were Kennedy and Johnson both shaped by their Senate experiences in the aftermath of this loss, so were many other key actors as well — but none as much as Johnson, who unexpectedly became Senate minority leader in 1952.

The quickest way I can summarize Mann’s main thrust is to quote from my own Denver Post review of the book:

[Mann’s] approach illuminates a fundamental axis of power, because the Senate long has been the primary counterweight to the presidency in foreign affairs. If it proved an especially weak counterweight in preventing the war's often secretive and deceptive escalation, Mann's treatment of the early Cold War era makes it clear just how strong Senate influence was in establishing the basic parameters that later led to presidential secrecy and duplicity.

…. A majority of Senate Republicans, still isolationist at least as far as Europe was concerned, voted against NATO and the Marshall Plan, but enthusiastically rallied around Joe McCarthy's anti-communist crusade against the Truman Administration, especially after the Korean War began.

The opportunistic hypocrisy of their posturing crippled Truman's congressional support in 1950, and captured both houses of Congress when Eisenhower swept into office two years later. But it left Eisenhower boxed in with no practical alternative but to continue Truman's containment policies he and other Republicans had so mercilessly attacked.

The Truman-Eisenhower prelude takes up almost a third of the book, but it is time extremely well spent. Lyndon Johnson's Senate leadership was defined by the struggle to reverse Democratic losses stemming from alleged softness toward communism, particularly in Asia. Mike Mansfield's Senate leadership was shaped in reaction to Johnson's style, as well as in deference to his role as President and party leader. By following the story through this formative period we gain unique insight into later behavior, such as the obsessive blindness that repeatedly prevented John F. Kennedy and Johnson from heeding the growing chorus of warning voices from Vietnam itself, from inside their administrations and from Capitol Hill.

But that’s only a brief summary. The real story has different layers of moving parts. Mansfield, for example, was so knowledgeable, Mann notes, he had been teaching Asian history as early as 1933, and in 1954, he saw everything wrong with the direction in which America eventually headed:

In his most prescient of moments, Mansfield warned that sending the American military to enter China would involve the nation "in every sense" in a "nibbling war." "The terrain of the Indochinese conflict – the flooded deltas, the thousands of scattered villages, the jungles – is made to order for the nibbling of mechanized forces," he said. "The French have been nibbled and chewed for years."

The heart of the problem, Mansfield believed, was that Eisenhower continued to apply military solutions to a political problem.… Mansfield faulted the administration for having placed too much emphasis on the military power of Western nations. "Asian freedom," he insisted, "must be defended primarily by Asians. A people whether in Asia or in the Americas, can preserve their independence only if they have it in the first place and if they are willing to fight to keep it."

This reveals what I’m really afraid of — not so much that Clinton will swagger into quicksand over her head, like Johnson did, but more likely that she, like Mansfield, could nonetheless end up trapped into doing something that she could once have foreseen as folly.

Having been so concerned with Clinton’s reckless talk, I decided to do the sensible thing, and see if Mann saw things similarly. Unfortunately, he did.

In an interview, Mann first reaffirmed some major themes of his book. “The Truman and Democratic Party, in general, and congressional Democrats, in particular, took huge beatings at the polls in 1950 and 1952 and most of their problems involved the advance of Communism -- particularly in Asia -- and national security,” he said. “The public was persuaded -- first by Joseph McCarthy and then by Eisenhower and Nixon -- that they were weak on both.” As a result, Republicans won control of both the White House and Congress for the first time in 20 years.

“Democrats paid dearly,” Mann said. “Their defeat was catastrophic and the painful memories of it were long lasting for some leaders, particularly Lyndon Johnson. Future presidents Johnson, Kennedy, and Nixon were all in Congress at the time and the lesson was abundantly clear — don't be weak on national security and don't allow an inch of Asian soil to fall to the Communists.”

Mann pointed to the tapes of LBJ’s phone conversations with Georgia Sen. Richard Russell in 1964 and 1965. “It's clear that Johnson is persuaded that he might lose his presidency unless he takes the strongest stance possible on fighting Communism in Southeast Asia,” he said. But it was a deeply misguided form of “political realism.”

“What Johnson didn't realize is that the public had much shorter memories than the politicians,” Mann observed. “For Johnson, the electoral punishment the Democrats took in 1952 was severe and personal” — which is rather the opposite of realism. “Among his many mistakes in Vietnam was assuming the public still cared deeply about fighting Communism in Asia,” Mann continued. “It's always perplexed me that Johnson forgot that by 1952 the public was already tired of fighting in Korea. In fact, one of the reasons the Democrats lost the 1952 elections was that Eisenhower promised to go to Korea and end the war,” which, of course, he did.

Of course, there is one line of counter-argument which Mann’s own book would support — that the Republicans  were unsurpassed in opportunistically switching positions, while keeping their moral outrage intact. Eisenhower, after all, didn’t have Nixon accusing him of treason when he made peace — just as Nixon didn’t have Nixon calling himself a traitor when he went to China. Just to underscore how convoluted and opportunistic the Republicans were during this era, consider Mann’s account of how a leading Republican senator — and presidential hopeful — responded to the 1950 elections:

The 1950 elections only confirmed [Ohio Senator Robert] Taft’s  decision to strike an even more partisan, hard-line position against Truman and the new 82nd Congress…

Taft wasted no time. In January, he launched his renewed campaign against Truman by embracing the nationalistic “Fortress America" sentiments of former Pres. Herbert Hoover, who had only recently advocated a drastic reduction of America's military commitments around the world, especially in Europe and Asia. "We Americans alone," Hoover said, "with sea and air power, can so control the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that there can be no possible invasion of the Western Hemisphere by Communist  armies."

Taft, of course, had long held that the Far East was "more important to our future peace than is Europe." He demonstrated just how much he agreed with Hoover when he formally opposed Truman's plans to implement the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. Taft voted against NATO and now he stood adamantly opposed to Truman's plan to send four divisions to protect Western Europe from the Soviet Union. In early January 1951, Taft told the Senate that the US should “commit no American troops to the European continent at this time." When Illinois Democrat Paul Douglas reminded Taft that the fall of Western Europe would leave the Continent’s industrial potential in Soviet hands, Taft replied that, in that event, the United States could destroy those industrial facilities with bombs. Taft’s extraordinary logic was too much for J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, who interrupted to say that it was “a very shocking thing for Europeans to realize that we are willing to contemplate their destruction."

Those who may think that today’s neocons are unprecedentedly unhinged should take note. If Republicans could make such whack-job “policy” work for them even then, the argument might go, then perhaps Clinton isn’t so crazy after all?  But that sort of thinking ignores the Democrats' real advantages — most notably the deep popularity of their domestic political agenda. Even in 1952, Democrats still won slightly more House votes than Republicans did, and they quickly retook Congress. Eisenhower embraced the New Deal programs that earlier GOP candidates had opposed, and even Richard Nixon, two decades later, signed so many Democratic domestic bills that he’s often held up as a secret liberal — not because he was, but because he had to go along, in order to survive and focus on what mattered to him most. In the long run, Nixon was able to start bending politics in a whole new direction — but only because Johnson, acting out of fear, had opened the door for him by fracturing his own party.

And that’s what Clinton could be doing once again — only she would be undermining an emerging majority that hasn’t even gelled yet, rather than one that’s been around for a generation.

“I think you could argue that Clinton is still operating from a mindset that once influenced many Democrats to support war in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Mann said. “They got beat up badly in the early 1990s for opposing GHW Bush in Iraq and they vowed never to be caught being weak on terrorism (and use of military force) again. After 9-11, there was nothing to be gained, and everything to be lost, by appearing weak on terrorism/Iraq.”

But isn’t ISIS really evil? Well, yes, they are. Maybe even evil enough to make it clear how over the top some earlier claims of absolute evil were. And certainly evil enough to be at war with half a dozen other Muslim outfits. Which bring us to another lesson Mann points out.

“Another key lesson from my book is the mistake of looking at communism as a monolithic worldwide force,” Mann said “There were Soviet Communists, Chinese Communists, Vietnamese Communists, Yugoslavian Communists, etc. Fulbright spent a lot of time talking about how we needed to take a more sophisticated, nuanced approach to the communists. Some of his colleagues and Johnson thought he was crazy.”

And now? “Fulbright's lesson applies to terrorists and the Muslim world,” Mann pointed out. “Not every radical Muslim is an enemy of the U.S. Not every terrorist is out to attack the U.S. Not every Muslim is radical and violent, etc. We never seem to have the capacity for any kind of sophisticated, informed assessment of the world around us. Like George W. Bush, you're either with us or with the people who want to destroy us.” That sort of mindset is what created most of the enemies we’re facing in the first place.

In his article, Fallows made a very similar point:

Yeah, we should have “done something” in Syria to prevent the rise of ISIS. But the U.S. did a hell of a lot of somethings in Iraq over the past decade, with a lot more leverage that it could possibly have had in Syria. And the result of the somethings in Iraq was … ? A long story in the NYT tells us that the current leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph himself, drew his political formation from America’s own efforts to “do something” in Iraq….

Here’s the dirtiest of dirty little secrets — and it’s not really a secret, it’s just something no one ever talks about: The entire jihadi mess we’re facing now all descends from the brilliant idea of “giving the Soviets their own Vietnam” in Afghanistan. How’s that for learning a lesson from Vietnam? Well, that’s the lesson that Jimmy Carter’s crew learned — and Ronald Reagan’s gang was only too happy to double down on.

“Finally,” Mann told me, “is the unwillingness to learn much if anything about our foes. We failed to learn about Vietnam, its people, culture and history. We refused to understand that we were fighting a nationalist insurgency that cared more about independence (mostly from China hegemony) than it did about Communism.”  Tragically, Mann quotes Kennedy on several occasions clearly seeing this — at a time when we were still merely assisting the French.

“Ho took help from the Communists because they were willing to help him fight for independence,” Mann continued. “He eventually became a committed Communist, I believe, but I don't think he started out as one. He tried to get us to help him, because he actually thought we were serious about self determination.”

Something very similar happened when we missed the opportunity to fully support the Arab Spring. If we don’t have the courage of our own convictions, it’s folly to expect others to believe in them for us. That goes for voters here in America, too.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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