Obama's Sixties Flashback
Why David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest should serve as a cautionary tale as Obama reconsiders the Iraq war—and Iran.
Some in the media have glibly referenced the title of David Halberstam’s book The Best and the Brightest to describe the storied intellect of Lawrence Summers and other members of the president-elect’s economic team. Halberstam’s masterpiece is of course about John Kennedy’s foreign policy team and how their brainy group-think created the disastrous war in Vietnam. Anyone who has influence with Barack Obama would be well advised to read it as a cautionary tale as he faces the inevitable pressures from the next iteration of liberal or conservative hawks to expand the war in Afghanistan or start one against Iran.
In recent years both liberal and conservative hawks solemnly aver, “Iran cannot be permitted to possess nuclear weapons,” without any debate or analysis about what the word “permitted” means.
Halberstam recalls that the “best thing about JFK was his modernity, his lack of being burdened by myths of the past.” Of Kennedy’s establishment superstars like McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara “there was a sense that these were brilliant men [with] brains and intellect harnessed to great force, the better to define a common good.” The favorite word these men used to describe themselves was “pragmatic.”
Yet Kennedy’s foreign policy elite were also haunted by dark hidden forces. “Long after McCarthy himself was gone the fear of being accused of being soft on communism lingered among Democratic leaders. That was the terrible shadow of the McCarthy period.” According to Halberstam, the Vietnam War was “an ill defined commitment, one made in stealth and in considerable secrecy, because those making it were uneasy about their path and feared an open debate exposing the policy to any serious scrutiny.”
It all is eerily familiar. While there may have been some naïve Iraq war hawks motivated by “bad intelligence” or the notion that the war would reduce the world’s total of human rights abuses, there is little question that the cabal who effectively pushed for a second Iraq war intentionally obscured their motives, and that many of those well-funded, well-connected elites are still well-connected and well-funded and still have their cell phones and their agendas.
Such agendas often start as macho litmus tests. In Kennedy’s day, orthodoxy insisted that the “domino theory” was real and that it was a sign of weakness to “recognize Red China.” The Clinton administration gave us “regime change,” and in recent years both liberal and conservative hawks solemnly aver, “Iran cannot be permitted to possess nuclear weapons,” without any debate or analysis about what the word “permitted” means.
Most influential insiders in Washington, D.C., maintain their power by accommodating powerful pressures. Although some Democrats in Congress like Joe Lieberman supported the Bush-Cheney foreign policy because they actually agreed with it, many voted for the war because they feared looking “weak.” (When Bill Clinton said it was a “fairy tale” that Obama was more anti-war than Hillary, he meant that Obama had been able to make a prescient anti-war speech because he was not subject to the same pressures that presumably influenced Hillary and many other Democrats to act differently.)
This syndrome, often fueled by ideological journalism, can affect presidents as well as senators. Halberstam writes that the hawkish columnist Joseph Alsop “could make the case for holding the line in a way which implied that manhood was at stake. Those years would show, in the American system, how when a question of the use of force arose in government, the advocates of force were always better organized, seemed more numerous, and seemed to have both logic and fear on their side, that in fending them off in his own government, a President would need all the help he could possibly get.”
Chester Bowles, who was forced out as Kennedy’s undersecretary of state for being too dovish (and who in retrospect was right about almost everything, including Vietnam) wrote in his diary after the Bay of Pigs fiasco about the limits of the obsession with pragmatism. “The question that concerns me the most about this new administration is whether it lacks a genuine sense of conviction about what is right and what is wrong.” Halberstam recounts a moment at which Kennedy’s UN ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, told Secretary of State Dean Rusk to delay a resumption of nuclear testing because it would give the country moral leadership. “I wouldn’t make the smallest concession for moral leadership,” Rusk snapped at him. “It’s much over-rated.”
Of course the Democratic president whose foreign policy Obama would least like to be compared to is Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, about whose foreign policy team Halberstam wrote, “The options they would deal with in 1965 were artificial ones. Given their outlook and their conception of the country and their own political futures they would be driven to certain inevitable highly predictable decisions but they still had the illusion that they could control events…If someone in those days had called them aside and suggested that they…were tied to a policy of deep irrationality, layer and layer of clear rationality based on several great false assumptions, and buttressed by a deeply dishonest reporting system which created a totally false data bank, they would have lashed out sharply.”
The neocons and their allies have lost their administration but not their agenda or their wiles. Halberstam’s book reminds us that intellect and resumes are not sufficient to forestall disastrous policies.
Obama will need a rigorous re-analysis of many of the foreign policy assumptions of the last several administrations. In addition to the dazzling political skills that got him nominated and elected, Obama has an advantage that neither Kennedy nor Johnson had. Millions of voters who identified with his early opposition to the Iraq war are well-organized and passionately opposed to a more “competent” version of the Bush-Cheney mission. Obama will need all of these assets as well as moral courage to withstand the hawkish pressures of a wide array of political and intellectual interests that rival anything JFK and LBJ had to contend with.