The Johnson Legacy Haunts Obama

President Barack Obama’s presidential heroes are Lincoln and FDR, but if Afghanistan spins out of control, he is more likely to find himself compared to Lyndon B. Johnson. The latter’s major agenda of social change at home — the Great Society — was undercut by a war in Vietnam he couldn’t win. Like Johnson, Barack Obama came to the White House with the promise of social change — and a war in Afghanistan inherited from his predecessor that shows no signs of resolution.

Recently, the New York Times reported that in June Obama invited a number of American historians to the White House for dinner, including Robert Caro, a Johnson biographer. According to the Times, the president explained his dilemma: He felt he could not turn his back on Afghanistan, but at the same time realized that it could undermine his administration.

Obama has called Afghanistan “a war of necessity,” not of choice, a determination that was promptly disputed by Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in an op-ed article in the New York Times. Haas was head of policy planning at the State Department in the run-up to the Iraq war. The eight-year Afghan war is “not just a war of choice, but a tough choice,” Haas wrote. A war of necessity involves vital national interests, and a lack of viable alternatives to protect those interests.

Still, he went on, “American interests are sufficiently important, prospects of achieving limited success are sufficiently high and the risks of alternative policies are sufficiently great to proceed, for now, with Mr Obama’s measured strategy,” while at the same time carefully monitoring progress. Haas’s list of wars of choice included Vietnam, Bosnia, and today’s Iraq.

The analogy with Vietnam can be overstated. At the height of the American involvement, there were close to half a million U.S. troops deployed in Vietnam, the majority of them draftees. Following the current boost of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, American troop levels will soon total 68,000, all of them members of a volunteer army. Casualty figures are not comparable: Upwards of 58,000 U.S. troops lost their lives in Vitenam: 809 have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, according to the iCasualties Web site.

But with the death toll rising — 45 in August, the deadliest month yet — and the polls showing public support waning for what was once regarded as a good war, time is not on Obama’s side.