In all likelihood, Donald Trump is heading for a smashing defeat, and the only question is, how large will the landslide be? This has led to comparisons between his campaign and Barry Goldwater’s electoral disaster at the hands of Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Evan Osnos, writing in the New Yorker, is only the latest to make the analogy. As Osnos points out: “Nominated over the objections of moderates, Goldwater, who voted against the Civil Rights Act, lost forty-four states to Lyndon Johnson, who took sixty-one per cent of the popular vote, the highest in Presidential-election history.”
Understandably, this comparison is joyfully, Schadenfreude-ly fun for liberals all too ready to dump the Republicans in their graves, and rightfully so. When you think of those men colloquially and erroneously known as “party leadership,” such as Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, Mitch McConnell, et al, the Trump suicide vest really couldn’t have been strapped to a nicer group of zealots, obstructionists, and reactionaries. Yet the more apt and ominous candidate comparison in this election is not between Trump and Goldwater, but rather their two opponents: Hillary Clinton and Lyndon Johnson. The first female president will arrive in office based largely on her (more or less) popular domestic agenda, but with looming decisions of peace and war likely to define her presidency.
Such as it was with LBJ. There is a contentious historical debate over what exactly John F. Kennedy’s intentions were with the French colonialist mess in Indochina. On the one hand, by the time of his assassination in 1963, he’d increased U.S. military advisors and training personnel to roughly 16,000. Yet there has been pushback from those who, like Robert McNamara, claimed Kennedy wanted to withdraw after his reelection (for an exhaustive look at this argument, check out this 2003 Boston Review article by James K. Gailbraith). Whether or not Kennedy would have bowed to the pressure to ratchet up American commitment is one of those historical counterfactuals best explored in Stephen King novels. What we do know is that even as Johnson passed landmark Civil Rights and voting rights legislation while also expanding the social safety net, he took a headfirst dive into the swamp of Vietnam.
The rest is horrific history—not only the 56,000 U.S. dead and 150,000 wounded, but the Vietnamese death toll, with estimates running as high as 3.8 million, according to a 2008 study conducted by the U.N. Johnson (and after him Nixon and, ahem, Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger) pounded Vietnam with more munitions than were dropped in all of World War II, defoliated millions of acres with toxic chemicals, rounded up villagers into internment camps, and generally unleashed utter barbarism on the Vietnamese people. In his must-read history of the Vietnam War’s brutality, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, Nick Turse documents the sordid and disgusting nature of the war; how only two decades after the Nuremberg Trials, American national security elites and their civilian leadership sent the U.S. on what amounts to a genocidal rampage through Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The only reason we don’t use that inflammatory word today is due to some heavy-handed historical whitewashing and a will to power for collective amnesia.
What’s that got to do with Clinton? Plenty. While the U.S. national security establishment may not be very good at bringing impoverished countries of farmers and nomads to heel, it has proved adept at not learning any kind of lesson whatsoever from its mistakes, as we saw earlier this decade with the debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Clinton’s hawkishness has been a matter of much scrutiny this election season. During the primary, Bernie Sanders’s challenge helped air all of this: Her support for intervention in Yugoslavia when she was First Lady, her use of the specter of 9/11 as a senator to justify an invasion of Iraq, her vote for that war and full-throated support for that vote up through the 2008 campaign, her support for the troop surge in Iraq and later in Afghanistan as a member of Obama’s cabinet, and her support of intervention in Libya in 2011. There has been some pushback against this narrative, most notably by Richard Sokolsky, who in his op-ed “Why Hillary Clinton Wouldn’t Be a Foreign Policy Hawk,” had to begin his argument by ticking off these many instances in which she very much was a foreign policy hawk.
Many of those voters who came of age during the catastrophe of Iraq flocked to Sanders’s campaign in no small part because Clinton gave us so little reason to believe she’s changed her mind at all about the efficacy of U.S. military power. It’s not that I think Clinton will get into office and immediately begin a Bush-Cheney-like propaganda effort to launch a ground invasion of Iran. What more concerns me is the case of Johnson, perhaps the worst example of a bull-headed frog who hopped into a pot and refused to hop out even as his skin was boiling off. Johnson’s example forever demonstrates how easy it is to dip a toe into a military commitment and how difficult it is to backtrack and extricate America from involvement once that commitment has been given. It’s why we have 5,000 troops in Iraq. It’s why, just days ago, the U.S. suffered its first combat death in the fight for Mosul, as the military attempts to defeat basically the same group of religious gangsters who pooled their Soviet-era AKs in the months after Saddam Hussein fell. It’s why Barack Obama has committed to maintaining 8,400 troops in Afghanistan when he leaves office. Even if a president sees the futility involved in these conflicts, the weight of imperial expectations, and of American “credibility,” creates a momentum of its own that even war-skeptical presidents have great difficulty pushing back against.
Clinton will be faced not only with the prospect of propping up fragile, corrupt governments in those two countries in the midst of sectarian violence, but will also come into office with the ready-made quagmire of Syria just itching for U.S. involvement. Lost in the spectacle of Trump’s staggeringly incompetent debate performances was the fact that the woman who is actually going to be president clearly favors a no-fly zone and “safe havens” in Syria, which are benign-sounding ways of saying that she’s intent on taking the first step into the muck.
There is a large faction of the foreign policy world that bemoans Obama for not taking action in Syria, and it seems as though Clinton is among them. “The Blob,” (the name coined by controversial Obama advisor Ben Rhodes for militarily-inclined establishment thinking), despite the examples of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, still can’t believe Obama refused to jump into a multi-sided war between radical Salafists and the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad. Yet the “no-fly zone” and “safe havens” are the same as terms like “targeted airstrikes” or “kinetic action” that sound about as sanitized and palatable to a war-weary nation as the lexicon allows, but which actually mean, “Let’s have ourselves a military adventure.” These steps could potentially produce (and these are only the most foreseeable unintended consequences) the need for tens of thousands of U.S. ground troops, a confrontation with Russia, or the empowerment of the most savage of the rebel factions.
The problem with a policy of regime change—and it’s sad that we still have to point this out—has always been the power vacuum left in the regime’s wake. You know who’s good at stepping into power vacuums? Brutal thugs who cut off the heads of the people who don’t back them. You know who’s not good at it? Moderate, Western-educated diplomats, doctors, and dentists who believe that what the Middle East really needs is foreign direct investment and deregulation of the energy sector.
This is by no means a call for isolationism. The U.S. owes every humanitarian and diplomatic effort to the Syrian and Iraqi people for opening this Pandora’s box in the first place back in 2003. But direct American military might is not a good in and of itself, as the people who control its levers often think. Intervention may in fact actually prolong the civil war in which 400,000 people have already died. By tipping the scales against Assad, the U.S. could bolster radicals (while still desperately seeking the “purple unicorn” of moderate rebels) and create a Cold War-era proxy battle throughout the region. The military can drop bombs, send drones, and let the bullets fly, yes, but as always, it will have almost no control over the direction—or escalation—of the violence in a multi-party conflict. In these asymmetric wars in distant foreign theaters, small groups can sow chaos indefinitely with a few homemade explosives and an endless supply of jobless young men looking for glory.
Syria is not the only Vietnam-like quagmire in waiting. You wouldn’t know it from the news, but there is also a civil war going on in Yemen, in which the U.S. military is helping Saudi Arabia incinerate funerals and hospitals because the vicious theocratic, authoritarian regime (and our good ally!) fears Iranian influence in the Houthi uprising that has forced the American-backed Yemeni dictator into exile. It’s another 27-sided conflict in a region with no employment and no water. Yet my fear is that despite what the Jeremy Scahills of the world believe about the bi-partisan military consensus, the Obama administration, with its drone assassinations and regular use of special forces, actually (and depressingly) represents the left-most edge of American electoral possibilities. And that as president, he was actually fairly skeptical of military power, when the historical record mostly shows generals and CIA chiefs getting carte blanche for everything except their most outrageous notions of covert and overt war, from Chile to Iran, Panama to Indonesia, Cuba to Vietnam.
Of this “legacy of ashes,” Johnson’s Great Society was another casualty. The inflation-adjusted cost of that conflict was approximately $790 billion, and with that came a strain on U.S. production capacity, a falling dollar, and budget deficits that would lead to inflation, and eventually Ronald Reagan’s neo-liberal fanaticism that persists to this day. Johnson entered office with an enormous mandate, an aggressive domestic agenda, following on the heels of a popular president, and squandered much of it on an utterly pointless military misadventure. There’s a striking similarity between the Cold War mindset that roped Johnson deeper and deeper into Vietnam and the one that endlessly demands the application of military force in the Middle East.
A President Trump would almost certainly be a total disaster, a true horror show, just as Barry Goldwater would have been. Any candidate who openly promises state-sponsored torture and assassination of non-combatants as policy should be kept as far from the presidency as possible. As the saying goes, “A vote for the lesser of two evils, still means you get less evil, dummy.”
Yet as she coasts to victory, it’s deeply troubling that Clinton seems to represent a kind of politician we’ve very much seen before: Steeped in an ideology of American military superiority, fearful of an enemy that is real but vastly overhyped as an existential threat, and just hubristic enough to think that this time, we can do it cleanly, easily, quickly.