Friday, November 27, 2009

Moyers' Journal

Bill Moyers' weekly Public Broadcast System (PBS) hour long Journal last Friday (November 20th) was an interesting retrospective by Moyers of the critical 1964-1965 discussions among members of the informal “war cabinet” President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) assembled to advise him how to continue the U.S. presence in South Vietnam without wrecking the Great Society.

The choice and format of that episode of the Journal was predictable. In the 1960s, Moyers was not caught in the maelstrom generated by the Pentagon as his forte dealt with the domestic plans and proposals for legislative action that were to launch the “Great Society.” But it was not long before those developing Johnson’s “Great Society” became acutely aware of the havoc that South Vietnam could inflict on Johnson’s domestic agenda.

Skip over the next 45 years to November 2009. The U.S. is at war again – this time fighting not three countries (North Vietnam, Cambodia, the People's Republic of China) but a loosely knitted, multi-faceted ideological-based sub-national movements or groups operating in three (or more) countries ((Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan) hoping to implement their vision of a future paradise. Other countries oppose these groups but do not relish being engaged in a civil dispute. Their stance and the indecision of the White House on what to do becomes the basis of Moyers critique -- one that is rooted in his history as a well-known and respected commentator on U.S. foreign and domestic issues.

Forty-five years is akin to two generations. In the 1960s – the time during which Moyers served in the White House – international relations centered on fusing the idea of human dignity with the practice of individual rights leading to civil liberties for all against the traditional concentration of economic production and the exercise of social, cultural, and psychological power to control the observance of mores that are strictly enforced.

What Moyers remembered about the 1960s was virtually what he was seeing reproduced in the 2000s, to include the past ten months of the Obama administration. Last week’s glance backward rises from a brooding sense that the present commander-in-chief is confronting a set of foreboding circumstances that could torpedo his domestic agenda as Vietnam did the Great Society. Just as Johnson searched in vain for the formula to escape the Vietnam quagmire, Obama has been unable to garner public support for a pragmatic drawdown (not an increase) of forces. Soldiers are not trained to act as police. Neither do they understand the pillars of culture, customs, taboos, and principles of governance which are the bases of a foreign civilization.

If Vietnam was Johnson’s failure, Obama faces a similar dilemma with Afghanistan. Missing at the heart of this war is a rational and lucid statement of why U.S. military forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 and an equally rational and lucid statement as to why in November 2009 the United States is about to add a further 34,000 troops to the same country.

It is not too much to insist that Johnson’s inability to break the Cold War mentality that dominated Congress and many “advisors” immobilized the national security decision-making mechanism throughout his presidency. This Tuesday at West Point Obama will have his turn.

So will Moyers.

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