LBJ

Presidents and War

This post is prompted by a recent exchange with former think-tank colleagues about H.R. McMaster‘s Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I’ve just started it, having until now steadfastly eschewed rehashes of the Vietnam War since its ignominious end. My assessment of LBJ’s handling of the Vietnam War is based entirely on my knowledge of the war as it unfolded and unraveled, and subsequent reflections on that knowledge. I’ll review McMaster’s book in a later post.

The president’s role as commander-in-chief is a two-edged sword. It was wielded ably by Lincoln and FDR (until the end-game in Europe), and badly by Truman, LBJ, Bush I, Bush II, and Obama.

Starting with Bush II, I believe that he made the right strategic decision, which was to bring the Middle East under control instead of leaving it hostage to the whims of Saddam. (Some will say that Saddam was contained, but — in my view — he was a threat to the Middle East if not to the U.S. as long as he was in power.) That may not have been what Bush intended, but that’s what he could have achieved, and would have achieved if he had committed the forces necessary to bring Iraq firmly under control. Instead, he followed Rumsfeld’s do-it-on-the-cheap advice for too long. Anyway, Bush got bogged down, much as LBJ had done with his “signalling” and gradualism in Vietnam. The 2007 surge might have turned things around, but Bush had run out of political capital and couldn’t commit the forces needed to stabilize Iraq for the long haul (and neutralize Iran), even if he had wanted to.

Obama then followed his anti-colonial impulses and converted potential stability into the mess that we see today.

Bush I set it all up when he declined the golden opportunity to depose Saddam in 1991.

Truman’s handling of the Korean War could be defended as making the best of a bad situation. But Truman’s decision to accept a stalemate instead of taking on the Chinese, as MacArthur urged, was a strategic miscalculation of the first order. It signaled to Russia and China the unwillingness of U.S. leaders to push back against Communist expansion. LBJ reinforced that signal in Vietnam. It took Reagan, who pursued a defense buildup in the face of chicken-little screams from the defeatist left, to push the USSR to its breaking point.

To paraphrase Andy Granatelli, you can pay now or pay later, but pay you will. I fear that the long-run price of the defense build-down under Obama will be high.

Save Me from Self-Appointed Saviors

A recent NYT piece by Richard Zacks (“How Dry We Aren’t“) highlights the antics of Theodore Roosevelt:

When Theodore Roosevelt was police commissioner [of New York City], from 1895 to 1897, he tried to stop the sales of beer, wine and liquor on Sundays in saloons.

Men and women, who worked six days a week in that era, were not amused. New York State Sabbath laws already forbade attending sporting events or theater performances, or selling groceries, after 10 a.m. on Sundays; the excise laws also made it illegal to sell alcohol in bars, saloons and taverns all 24 hours of the Lord’s Day.

New Yorkers in droves defied that particular edict. (Sunday actually marked the barkeep’s biggest sales day.) Saloon owners handed a bribe to precinct cops who forwarded some loot to Tammany politicians, and the city’s thirsty could discreetly slip in the side doors of saloons. For almost 40 years, it was a popular pragmatic compromise.

Enter Roosevelt. Fearless and bullheaded, the new commissioner vowed to enforce the law, both to root out bribery in the Police Department and also to reunite families on Sundays….

Roosevelt’s liquor crackdown backfired…. The city’s spirit of place, what Stephen Crane once dubbed New York’s “wild impulse,” refused to be tamed.

Theodore Roosevelt the reformer was deeply proud of his efforts to clean up New York but in his illustrious later days, running for governor, then for vice president, then president, he never won a majority vote in the city. Never take a beer away from a New Yorker.

If only it were that easy to subvert the intentions of zealous office-holders.

In another recent NYT piece (“The C.E.O. in Politics“), David Brooks observes that

great leaders tend to have an instrumental mentality. They do not feel the office is about them. They are just God’s temporary instrument in service of a larger cause. Lincoln felt he was God’s instrument in preserving the union. F.D.R. felt he was an instrument to help the common man and defeat fascism.

Whatever FDR felt, he was not a great leader. Nor was his distant cousin, Teddy Roosevelt. What they shared with other so-called great leaders was overwhelming ego: the belief that their wishes should be everyone’s wishes. And, with the help of compliant Congresses and Supreme Courts, they made it so.

TR spoke and acted as if he were God’s instrument. As president, his aspiration to savior-hood led him to embrace Progressivism (e.g., trust-busting). His actions brought an end to 40 years of rapid economic growth, which — contrary to myth — had uplifted the masses as well as the “robber barons.” After a too-brief respite from dictatorship, under Taft, Woodrow Wilson (another “leader” who thought he was an instrument of God) extended the Progressive state, and economic growth slowed further.

The Great Depression, predictably enough, swept out Hoover, whose “do something” ethic turned a recession into a depression, and brought in FDR, with his second-rate mind. He soon enough began to think of himself as a savior, empowered (by perverse logic) to uplift the downtrodden by running roughshod over America’s businesses. What he accomplished, in fact, was a deeper and longer depression. (By contrast, the economy quickly rebounded from the deep recession of 1920-21 because “do nothing” Harding did nothing but encourage business.) LBJ’s deliberate mimicking of FDR’s New Deal put in motion the Great Society, the aftermath of which has been economic growth on a par with that of the TR-Wilson era.

Now comes Barack Obama, a storefront version of TR, FDR, and LBJ. “Bush fatigue” elected him and presented him with a Democrat-controlled Congress. He took his luck for a kind of divine mandate, which he exploited to impose upon Americans his ruinous visions of universal health care, Keynesian deficit-spending, and defensive weakness (masked by the inconsequential if satisfying erasure of bin Laden).

God save us from “leaders” who want to be our saviors. For every Lincoln — whose principal legacy was the forcible stitching up of a union that has yet to heal — there are too many TRs, WWs, FDRs, LBJs, and BHOs.

Related posts:
The Price of Government
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
The Price of Government Redux
The Real Burden of Government
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
The Mega-Depression
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
Money, Credit, and Economic Fluctuations
A Keynesian Fantasy Land
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate
Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession
Regulation as Wishful Thinking
Vulgar Keynesianism and Capitalism
Why Are Interest Rates So Low?
Don’t Just Stand There, “Do Something”
Economic Growth Since World War II
The Commandeered Economy