“Are we going to give up in South Vietnam?” That was the question President Kennedy posed, then tried to answer, in what would be his final news conference in 1963. “The most important program, of course, is our national security. But I don’t want the United States to have to put troops there.” Kennedy was killed eight days later, giving rise not just to 40 years of grassy-knoll conspiracy theories but also to a lingering debate over whether he might have averted his successor’s tragic plunge into the jungles of Southeast Asia. Kennedy came to public life as a staunch anti-Communist, but his experiences as president — most notably the failed invasion of Cuba and the perilous standoff over Russia’s missiles there — reinforced in him a natural skepticism of go-get-’em generals and armchair extremism. In a 1995 memoir, a repentant Robert McNamara at last concluded that Kennedy most likely “would have pulled us out of Vietnam.” For liberals of a certain age, this is a comforting version of history, because it places some reassuring distance between the president who first inspired their idealism and the war that shattered it. The left would prefer not to believe that modern American liberalism, defined by an unshakable faith in the social justice and antiwar movements, derived from a martyred hero whose commitment to both causes was, in fact, considerably more nuanced.
As it happened, Kennedy would turn out to be the last Democratic president of the era who demonstrated an obvious comfort with war and foreign policy. In the decades after Vietnam, despite having been proved right about the war itself, a generation of Democrats who opposed the war nonetheless struggled mightily to find a credible response to armed conflict, to reconcile the breach that separated the antiwar left from the broader swath of Americans who disdained reflexive pacifism. Democratic policy groups preached the term “muscular” so often over the last decade, in describing the kind of image their candidates needed to project, that it sometimes seemed they were trying to market a health drink rather than a foreign policy.
This problematic legacy explains, in part, why another young Democratic president now finds himself at a crossroads similar to the one Kennedy was preparing to negotiate in 1963. Barack Obama’s dilemma in Afghanistan has its roots in the conundrum that Democrats faced during the last two presidential campaigns: how to oppose the war in Iraq without being fatally caricatured, yet again, as feckless heirs to the McGovernite left. Their solution was to stress their fervor for a different war. Sure, they wanted to withdraw from Iraq, but they wanted to shift more troops and treasure to Afghanistan, where the true aggressors of Sept. 11 were still evading capture. Who could call that weak? It was a sensible policy that also made for irresistible politics.
Now that Democrats are in firm control of the nation’s foreign policy, however, the prospect of stepping up a war in Afghanistan is conjuring the ghosts of men like McNamara and McGeorge Bundy. A recent book about Bundy’s view of Vietnam is practically required reading in the West Wing these days. As in those early days of Vietnam (like Afghanistan today, a war-hardened country with a history of expelling foreign powers), no path seems especially clear or promising. The generals want an infusion of 40,000 more troops — a move that could lash Obama’s presidency to Afghanistan almost as tightly as George W. Bush’s was bound to Iraq. Liberals in Congress are equally adamant about cementing a plan for withdrawal, which would most likely lead to the return of the Taliban. (The 1960s left might have believed that the Viet Cong was, in fact, a people’s uprising, but no one can make that case about the Taliban, whose violent repression of women and nonbelievers while in power alienated most Afghans and shocked the world.) Judging from a recent poll by ABC News and The Washington Post, war-weary American voters are divided almost evenly on a course of action. The only thing they agree on is that they want the president to act soon.
Obama’s response to all this, instead, has been to slow down and reassess what had seemed, back in the spring, to be a steady march toward escalation. In doing so, according to the poll, he has disappointed a fair number of voters who used to support him on Afghanistan. But Obama has also demonstrated, not for the first time, two things about his emerging governing style that contrast sharply with that of his predecessor. The first is that he means to draw a distinction between useful campaign rhetoric and the realities of governing, even if it makes him look inconstant. The second is that he doesn’t seem especially bothered by the perception that he’s dithering. Bush often seemed to measure leadership by the number of seconds it took to make a decision. Obama displays a different kind of spine — the capacity to take his time, even when allies and critics are pounding at the door.
Ultimately, Obama’s course in Afghanistan is likely to reaffirm something else about him too: despite the Republican hype about his radical nature, Obama is a leader who instinctively seeks the center lane of American politics. And in this way, more than any other, Obama is very much like the John Kennedy who emerges in historical accounts today, a self-confident president who governed at a time of heightened insecurity and proved himself insufficiently doctrinaire for both bellicose cold warriors and the new generation of liberals who considered him their own. (Perhaps Kennedy would have pulled the plug on Vietnam, but it seems just as likely that he would have chosen a more subtle option, moving ahead slowly and with greater caution than those who followed.) Since November 1963, through a succession of politicians who inspired and then dashed their hopes, boomer liberals have been pining for a leader who would reignite the spirit of their youthful idol. With Obama, they may yet end up closer to the reality of Kennedy, as opposed to the ideal, than they actually might have wished.