Presidents continually stumble over wars


By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Contributing Columnist

The Afghan debacle should have been the classic object lesson about how things will always go wrong when you fight the wrong war, the wrong place at the wrong time.

Unfortunately, that lesson escaped former President Barack Obama, who inherited former President George W. Bush’s war in Afghanistan.

For Obama, the folly started in August 2007. Then-Sen. Obama, fresh on the presidential campaign trail, made an impassioned promise at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to wage what he called the war that had to be won. The war was the war in Afghanistan.

He promised to quickly get out of Iraq, corral America’s allies in a partnership to wipe out the terrorists and their weapons of mass destruction, end corruption, hold free elections and ensure a stable government in Afghanistan.

Two years later, after shelling out $230 billion and with more than 700 U.S. servicemen dead, not one of these goals had been met.

Military analysts, Pentagon insiders and the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed that to attain anything faintly close to Obama’s goals in Afghanistan would have taken a long hard slog that would cost billions more and take thousands of more American troops (with increased casualties).

From his early speeches that set administration war policy in stone, Obama was doggedly convinced that the Afghan war could be won, no matter the cost. And he was willing to stake the credibility of his administration on that, no matter the price.

The price was high. A mid-August 2009, Washington Post-ABC News poll found that more Americans than ever said the war was pure folly.

A majority of Obama’s most fervent backers said the same. These were the supporters who Obama needed to beat back the mounting Republican counterinsurgency against him, make gains and or at least cut potential Democratic losses in the 2010 mid-term elections, and vigorously pump his health care reform package.

With grumbles from liberal Democrats and progressives getting louder about Obama’s willingness to fight hard on his campaign promises, Afghanistan loomed even larger as Obama and the Democratic Party’s Vietnam.

Vietnam was the dreaded word. It had been a political tipping point for presidents. It soured public opinion, drained the economy, fueled public dismay and anger, hampered passage of domestic programs, fractured political parties and stirred big losses in Congress.

Public shell shock over unpopular wars always rebounds to the advantage of an incumbent challenging a president whose name is linked to the war. In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower ran on the pledge to visit Korea if elected.

Though Eisenhower never directly promised to bring the troops home if elected, the implicit commitment was that if elected he would do that. He didn’t have to make that promise; public weariness over the war was so great that his generic oath to visit the troops was enough to help sink Harry Truman, who didn’t seek reelection.

In the public’s mind, the Korean War had become Truman’s war, or more accurately Truman’s failure to win the war.

Similarly, Nixon learned from Eisenhower. During the presidential campaign against Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Nixon dropped carefully calculated hints of a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War if elected. Like Eisenhower, he didn’t spell out in any real detail just what his secret plan was. And like Eisenhower, he didn’t have to.

Public revulsion over Vietnam, as in Korea, was building so that even the scintilla of a suggestion that Nixon could end the war aroused voter optimism for him and even greater fury against Humphrey who was widely seen as the caretaker of Johnson’s war (Johnson saw the handwriting on the wall and declined to run).

Those two unpopular wars did in Truman and the Democrats in 1952, and President Johnson and the Democrats in 1968. They also had a tsunami effect on Democratic elected officials.

In both election years, the Democrats had a decisive edge over the Republicans in Congress, a wide body of public support and political prestige. Eisenhower, and later Nixon, painted Korea and Vietnam as a hopeless muddle that Truman and Humphrey (in tandem with Johnson) made a mess of. The two Democratic presidents paid dearly for it, and Bush and the Republicans paid just as dearly for the Iraq quagmire.

Obama knew that history well. He embedded that history into his presidential campaign and continually reminded voters of the history of the Iraq war failure. Financially draining wars take a huge toll on the economy, drag down public morale and cause a steep plunge in American prestige internationally. It also whips up greater anti-American sentiment.

 The tortured history of trying to fight those kind of wars has been hazardous to the political health of those who occupy the Oval Office. The same public distaste for the Afghanistan war served notice on Obama and U.S. officials of the same peril. Yet, Bush, Obama, and former President Donald Trump still barged ahead. And we saw the result.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “Bring Back the Poll Tax!—The GOP War on Voting Rights” (Middle Passage Press). He also is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.