The Obama Doctrine, and the end of the Kent State Syndrome

Back on the initial post about the death of bin Laden, I got into an argument with some of my liberal Democratic friends about the extent to which “credit” is due to President Obama for this development.

Don’t get me wrong — I thought the president performed superbly. I was in considerable suspense last night between the time we knew bin Laden was dead and the president’s speech, wondering how he would rise to the moment. I needn’t have worried. He met the test of this critical Leadership Moment very well indeed.

Also, he seems to have made the right calls along the way since this intel first came to light. That’s great, too.

Where I differed with my friends was in their assertion/implication that this success was due to Obama being president, as opposed to He Who Must Not Be Named Among Democrats. Which is inaccurate, and as offensive as if this had happened on Bush’s watch and the Republicans claimed it was all because we had a Republican in the White House.

ANY president in my memory (with the possible exception of Bill Clinton, who had a tendency to resist boots on the ground and go with cruise missiles, which would have been the wrong call in this case) would have made more or less the same calls on the way to yesterday’s mission, although few would have delivered the important speech last night as well. (Obama’s the best speaker to occupy the White House since JFK — some would say Ronald Reagan, but his delivery never appealed to me.)

That’s the thing — Obama, to his great credit, has generally been a responsible and pragmatic steward of national and collective security. As most people who actually get ELECTED president tend to be. The continuity that his tenure represents may frustrate some of his base, but I deeply appreciate it, and have from the start. (I first made this observation before he took office.)

But I hinted that I thought that maybe there was ONE way that they were right, although it was not for a reason they were suggesting…

Here is that one way: Obama has been far more aggressive toward going after the bad guys in Pakistan. Which I think is a good thing. I’ve always thought it was. In fact, I first wrote about that in August 2007. At the time, Obama was criticized by many — including Hillary Clinton — for this:

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obamaissued a pointed warning yesterday to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, saying that as president he would be prepared to order U.S. troops into that country unilaterally if it failed to act on its own against Islamic extremists….

The muscular speech appeared aimed at inoculating him from criticism that he lacks the toughness to lead the country in a post-9/11 world, while attempting to show that an Obama presidency would herald an important shift in the United States’ approach to the world, particularly the Middle East and nearby Asian nations…

I applauded it.

And now we see that proposed doctrine translated into reality. Actually, we’ve seen it for some time. Pakistan has gotten pretty testy with us for our across-the-border strikes, which have been far more common under Obama than under his predecessor.

On Sunday, convinced that our most prominent individual enemy was “hiding” practically in the open in a Pakistan suburb, Obama sent in the troops and got him — and didn’t bother telling the Pakistanis until it was too late for them to interfere.

For THIS he deserves great praise. But folks, that’s not the sort of things that folks in his Democratic base praise him for (aside from some nodding that he was right to say Iraq was the “wrong war” — just before they demand we get out of what Obama terms the “right war” immediately).

This was not Obama being sensitive, or multilateral, or peaceful, or diplomatic, or anything of the kind. This was Obama being a cowboy, and going after the guy in the black hat no matter where he was. This was out-Bushing Bush, to those who engage in such simplistic caricatures.

This is not a surprise to anyone who has watched Obama carefully, or even halfway carefully. But it should be a HUGE shock to the portions of his base who are still fighting the Vietnam War, the ones who backed him because they thought he was an “antiwar” candidate.

I’m reminded of Kent State. First, don’t get me wrong — the killing of those students was a horrific tragedy, that was in no way justifiable. I, too, feel chills when I hear Neil Young’s song. Shooting unarmed civilians is never excusable. I felt the full outrage of my generation when that happened. But I’ve always thought the tragedy was deepened by the fact that the protest that led to the shootings was to an extent wrong-headed.

Folks in the antiwar movement were SO angry that Nixon had pursued the enemy into Cambodia. This, to them, was a war crime of extreme proportions.

Me, I always thought it was sensible and pragmatic. You don’t let people shoot at you and then “hide” by crossing a political barrier, not unless you like having your own people killed with impunity.

Yeah, I realize there are important differences in the two situations (the most obvious being that the Cambodian incursion was on a much larger scale). But I think it’s very interesting that some of my most antiwar friends here — antiwar in the anti-Vietnam sense — are even more congratulatory toward our president than I am, when he, too “violated sovereignty” to kill Osama bin Laden. What if Nixon had sent troops to a mansion outside Phnom Penh to kill Ho Chi Minh? The antiwar movement would have freaked out — more than usual. Again, not quite the same — but you get the idea.

One of my antiwar friends recently was arguing with me that the antiwar movement has, indeed, faded away. I had said it had not. But the more I think about this, the more I think Phillip was right. I try to imagine how the antiwar left would have reacted to such a move as this 40 years ago. And yes, we have changed. Then, college students rioted in outrage. Today, they gather outside the White House and party down with American flags. Both reactions seem to me inappropriate, but I’m hard to please.

One thing does please me, however: I do approve of President Obama’s performance on this (as I do, increasingly, on many things).

31 thoughts on “The Obama Doctrine, and the end of the Kent State Syndrome

  1. Brad

    That provocative enough for y’all? Well, I do try to provide views on the news beyond the obvious…

    Just hit me that I used neither “Obama Doctrine” nor “Kent State Syndrome” in the actual post. That’s the peril of writing one’s headline first. But you get the idea…

  2. bud

    Ho Chi Minh never attacked American soil. That makes the two not a comparison between apples and oranges but the difference between raisins and Talapia. Not even close.

  3. Brad

    Which one is the raisin?

    Seriously, the difference is that Ho Chi Minh (while every bit as much an enemy of this country as bin Laden) was a national leader, and Osama bin Laden an international outlaw. THAT’S the difference.

    And I thought of that in making the analogy, but used Ho because people would have heard of him. Who it was was not the point, of course. It was the part about going after somebody in a house outside Phnom Penh, and how that would have caused the antiwar movement to freak out.

  4. Doug Ross

    “(the most obvious being that the Cambodian incursion was on a much larger scale). ”

    Yeah, other than that, they are almost the same. Your link to the Wikipedia details kind of blows away your whole premise. Two months, 90,000 troops, 6000 sorties engaged in all out war is a whole lot different than one day, a Navy SEAL unit, and 4 copters performing a very specific seek-and-kill mission.

    We get it. You still think we could have won Vietnam. You grew up surrounded by people who thought the same thing. Many other military children were similarly indoctrinated.

  5. Phillip

    Let’s get past this thing of “antiwar.” I’m not “antiwar.” I’m anti-dumb-war, anti-immoral-war, anti-strategically-goofy-war. And while there are true pacifists out there who I respect, they are relatively rare. I think most Americans, if they are provided the proper information (and that’s a BIG if), are not antiwar nor prowar, but rather are able to make the distinctions that I’ve just mentioned. That’s why I said the “antiwar” movement was not as strong today as during Vietnam, for 2 reasons, one being that at least vis-a-vis Afghanistan, even many on the left sense the rationale behind that war whereas the “logic” behind Vietnam was so clearly tortured (and wrong, of course)…the other distinction had to do with sheer numbers of casualties, which were so much heavier during Vietnam than in any of our Gulf adventures or Afghanistan (at least on the American side).

    I’ll second Bud here: I’m not recalling Ho Chi Minh sending forces over to the USA to kill innocent American civilians. He was never the enemy of this country that Bin Laden was; he never espoused a global-based program of death and killing such as Bin Laden embraced and implemented; there never was the national unity in detestation of HCM the way that there very naturally was against OBL, immediately following 9/11 and really sustained to now, as evidenced by the unified national sense of (somewhat) resolution in his killing.

  6. Brad

    No, Doug, you don’t get it, even though I explained that the one thing these two incidents had in common was the cross-border incursion, which back then galvanized passionate, self-righteous protest as a violation of sovereignty, but does not today. Which is a huge shift. The principle is completely the same.

    And you’re wrong on the other points. Burl, help me out here: Do most of our fellow brainwashed military brats think we could have won Vietnam?

    I don’t. Even though I saw our involvement as a rational extension of the containment policy that was our overarching Cold War strategy, I don’t think it was winnable. And to the extent that our involvement was wrong, it’s BECAUSE it was unwinnable. But then, I have the advantage of hindsight that JFK and LBJ and McNamara lacked.

    Depends on how you define your speculation, of course. The actual Vietnam War that we actually fought was unwinnable. One could say it was winnable IF this or IF that, but to me, this is the one thing that made it unwinnable: We were not there to win.

    To the antiwar ear, that sounds like some Ramboesque assertion, as in “If the pinkos and radicals in Washington had just LET us win, we would have won.”

    But that’s not what I mean. I mean that we weren’t there to win. No one involved, from the hawks to the doves, intended for us to win.

    That’s because it was about CONTAINMENT. We were trying to keep the communists from winning. They, on the other hand, were there to win — and didn’t care how long it took. It was unwinnable because it was always a defensive action on our part, in the strategic sense. If we’d been there to win the way we had against the Germans and Japanese, or against Saddam Hussein, we would have won. But we weren’t there for that, and we couldn’t be.

    It’s not a matter of George W. Bush being tougher than LBJ. It’s just that LBJ, in the midst of a Cold War, could not go all-out on the offensive against Hanoi. In a bilateral superpower world, our hand was always stayed to a certain extent, because we wanted to avoid Total War.

    After the fall of the Berlin Wall, once we found ourselves in a unipolar world, we could with relative impunity topple a foreign regime. We’ve still only done it once, in Iraq, and there we failed to follow it up properly, causing the fighting to drag on for years. And doing it that ONCE still freaked out the world (and a lot of people in this country), to the extent that we’re not all that likely to do it again in the near future — although it’s interesting to see how “mission creep” is coming along in Libya.

    But back then, we were far more constrained by the existence of a superpower rival.

    So we went on the defensive, and hoped to outlast the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. In retrospect, that doesn’t seem like it was ever realistic. But I think it’s easier to see that now than it was then.

    Of course, we could argue this forever, using different assumptions. That’s what happens when you enter Harry Turtledove territory.

  7. martin

    You should have seen Colin Powell on The Situation Room on CNN this PM saying Bush chose not to go after bin Laden when we first went into Afghanistan. He did not know why that choice was made. Wolfe Blitzer is not sharp enough to shut up long enough to fully explore THAT statement.

    What I surmise is that the neo-cons were already planning Iraq and a dead bin Laden might have slowed them down or even stopped it.

    Obama appears to want to get in, get it done and get out rather than just having it drag on indefinately for the benefit of mercenaries and military contractors.

  8. bud

    I don’t even like this “winning v not-winning” construct. Does anyone really ‘win’ a war. The allies prevailed in WW I. Where did that get them? A second world war that’s what. The Union won the Civil War, but did it matter to the families of the 300,000 killed in that awful conflict. The Europeans finally realized the best outcome in war is just not to wage it in the first place. Too bad the U.S. hasn’t reached that all too obvious conclusion yet.

  9. Brad

    Like I said, Martin — Obama has been FAR more aggressive about going after the bad guys in Pakistan.

    I don’t know what you’re referring to about Powell’s statement about Afghanistan. I do know that there was a lot of ambivalence in those early days — such as the time we had Mullah Omar in our sights, and Gen. Franks let him go, apparently uncertain about the ROE. But I’d be VERY surprised if Bush himself had been reluctant to get bin Laden.

    Of course, I never considered getting bin Laden personally to be one of our main strategic goals. A good thing to do, but not of the kind of importance as, say, killing Hitler would have been. Bin Laden is an extreme expression of a movement. Hitler WAS the movement.

  10. Brad

    For that matter, I don’t think killing Hitler was key to our strategy then, either. But it would probably have saved a lot of lives if one of those assassination attempts had been successful.

  11. Doug T

    I may be wrong, but I always considered Kent State one of a series of anti Vietnam war protests. I don’t think students back then were in favor of the war and protested only because fighting spilled over into Cambodia. I don’t get the connection with Pakistan. Not a lot of protesting over Afgahanistan…some displeasure, but I haven’t seen an Abbie Hofffman wannabe lately.

    On a related subject, I stumbled across the Vietnam Memorial website the other day. By the luck of a high draft lottery number, I missed that war. To scroll through the names and to see all those kids who were over there for 2 weeks, a month and were killed. (unconfirmed that 997 died on their first day).

    What a waste. So sad.

  12. Burl Burlingame

    Actually, Ho Chi Minh was not the enemy of the United States. He was the enemy of whatever outsized power messed with his little country. France, Russia and China didn’t get along with him either.

  13. Phillip

    Brad, I fail to see how a rational, intelligent man like yourself can still talk about “the communists were there to win,” still lumping together in your mind Ho Chi Minh, the Chinese, the Russians, in this same deluded “The Commies are all in this together” mindset that crippled our thinking 40, 50 years ago. The leaders of the time at least have the excuse of having come out of WWII mentality, and still being so shocked by the sudden nuclear rise of the USSR and China. We don’t have that excuse, especially with the benefit of perspective.

    Burl is right, Brad…that is, HCM was our enemy by choice. OUR choice. Osama was a very different case.

    Brad, it pains me to say this, but your continued desire to justify the Vietnam war in retrospect reminds me of nothing so much as those “celebrating” the 150th anniversary of the “noble cause” of the Confederacy, still trying to say that war was about something other than what it really was about.

  14. Brad

    Who says I’m “a rational, intelligent man”? I’ve had about enough of your insults, sir!

    The only problem with the statement, “the communists were there to win” was that it ignores the fact that WHATEVER you choose to call them (communists, nationalists, anti-imperialists, brave defenders of the homeland, guys who just didn’t like round-eyed guys with M-16s, whatever) were THERE, period. To win or lose, they were there. Our guys wanted to go home. The VC and North Vietnamese WERE home. I’m reminded of that line from “Apocalypse Now,” which goes, “Charlie didn’t get much USO. He was dug in too deep or moving too fast. His idea of great R&R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death, or victory.”

    Actually, even before I got to your observation about the Recent Unpleasantness, I was going to refer to it myself…

    Your and Burl’s objections to my characterization of Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh and his minions reminded me of that earlier conflict.

    The great irony of neo-Confederates trying to claim that the war was about something other than slavery is that yeah, you can argue all day about the causes of ANY war. Very few have a clear cause.

    In ancient times, among primitive people, wars would sometimes be about a clear aim — such as obtaining women for mating, or captives for sacrifices. (Wouldn’t you like to see a photo of that Helen, to know what sort of face launched a thousand ships?)

    I like the fanciful description from White’s “The Once and Future King,” in which St. Toirdealbhach tells the Orkney boys, “War… be’s a good thing if there doesn’t be too many in it. When there’s too many fighting, how would you know what you are fighting about at all? There did be fine wars in Old Ireland, but it would be about a bull or something, and every man had his heart in it from the start.”

    But in modern times, it’s usually more complex. For the U.S., from the 30,000 foot view, Vietnam was about containment — about keeping “dominoes” from falling. But you could characterize it lots of other ways, from lots of other perspectives.

    As for other recent wars… quick, tell me in five words or less what WWI was about. And WWII. Nowadays, we would have called that “two wars” or more, each with a multitude of reasons. Americans spoke of Pearl Harbor, but that was an oversimplification.

    Back to the Civil War, and my point: In US history, there is probably no clearer case of a war being about one thing. Yep, it was ABOUT whether states, having freely joined a union, were free to leave it. The South said yes, Lincoln very emphatically said NO — and would have left slavery intact, if it meant preserving the union. But that’s all a distraction from the fact that we wouldn’t have been talking about the “right” to leave the Union, or tariffs, or nullification, or any of those other things, if it weren’t for the tremendous split in the country over the issue of slavery, and the economic system built upon it.

    But I think I’ve said that before…

  15. Doug Ross


    Brad is his father’s son. That probably accounts for 90% of his views on Vietnam. Not saying it’s wrong, just predictable.

    My father (a pre-Vietnam Navy and Coast Guard veteran) was anti-Vietnam from as early as I can remember. He made it clear that had my older brother been drafted, he would have done anything to make sure he ended up with relatives in Canada instead.

  16. Brad

    Doug: Oh yeah? Well, crank this into your calculations… My Dad was opposed to our going into Iraq. So how does that fit in your neat hypothesis?

    I think my Dad’s involvement in that war opened me to a broader view of it than many in my generation. But that’s just a piece of it. The biggest FEELING I have about Vietnam is a gut reaction against the kind of emotional, non-analytical response I’ve seen among my generation — an emotional response that unfortunately spills over and pollutes that generation’s attitude toward many other things, such as the military in general, and the use of force even when it’s clearly called for.

    I see people reacting by reflex rather than analysis, and it bugs me no end. And I know that what I’m seeing is a habit of nonthought that got burned into them at an impressionable age.

    I bought into the music of my generation, but not the worldview. And it’s probably because of that that I have the iconoclastic political inclinations that cause me to reject the parties today. I learned early on to make up my own mind about every issue, rather than buying a set of opinions off the shelf.

    Civil rights movement — good, right and just. The Identity Politics movement that started replacing it in the 70s — not so good.

    Vietnam — I fully get why we were there, and it made sense strategically. But in the end, probably unwinnable because of constraints imposed upon us by the realities of the very Cold War of which it was a part. So, great ambivalence on my part, rather than the moral clarity that others think they see.

    As long as we’re analyzing Brad, let’s look at what Phillip said about the JFKs and McNamaras: “The leaders of the time at least have the excuse of having come out of WWII mentality.” Well, it may not be an excuse, but I’m a very, very WWII kind of guy. I have often felt that I missed my time. No, I’m not trapped in that time in my judgments — the fire-bombing of cities appalls me (but then, I live in the era of “smart bombs,” which at least give the illusion of precision). But I miss…

    Well, I miss the clarity, the certainty, that a lot of people (mainly the antiwar types) feel about Vietnam, and Iraq, and a lot of other things that to me are way complicated. You know, like the “Bush lied, people died” people. Me, I never heard him lie, and in any case to ME, the invasion wasn’t about WMDs. It all seems really complicated to me, and when I analyze it all, I come up with a different answer from that of the clarity crowd.

    Actually, clarity isn’t the right word. What I miss, what I’ve never gotten to experience, is UNITY.

    Which brings us to this moment. Maybe what those kids were celebrating outside the White House was unity — something all Americans could agree on. On that basis, I’m with them…

  17. bud

    As for other recent wars… quick, tell me in five words or less what WWI was about. And WWII.

    WWI – Imperial Expansion Meets it’s limit

    WWII – Great War Dishonerable Peace Treaty

  18. bud

    Doug, my dad was a Citadel graduate and WW II veteran having spent most of his time in the Aluetuan Islands. Yet he was one of the most adament opponents of Vietnam of just about anyone I knew. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree does it?

  19. Brad

    Bud, I wasn’t saying it couldn’t be done — I was saying it couldn’t be done ADEQUATELY, the way you can summarize the Civil War as being about slavery.

    I almost, in that earlier comment, offered an inadequate summary of WWI of my own in five words or less: “Collapse of old European Order.” But only to emphasize its inadequacy.

    Several years ago, I read, or started reading (I think I sort of bogged down in the trench warfare) John Keegan’s overview of that war. One thing that intrigued me was his characterization that BEFORE that war, Europeans thought that war was a thing of the past, something they’d outgrown. What with sophisticated trade ties and modern communications (the telegram, the telephone), it just couldn’t happen…

    And then BAM! — They’re all killing each other, on a grand mechanized scale…

  20. Brad

    Keegan’s five-word assessment of The Great War: “a tragic and unnecessary conflict.” Still doesn’t explain much, does it? Not the way “slavery” does…

  21. Doug Ross

    I thought we were talking about Vietnam and not Iraq? As I said, I believe your views on Vietnam were influenced by your upbringing. You didn’t grow up in Switzerland as the son of a sheep farmer.

    And I don’t apologize for having an “emotional” response to killing innocent people in an undeclared “war” on foreign soil against an enemy that did not threaten us. We went in, screwed up, and came out a damaged nation because of it.

  22. bud

    Nothing is ever likely to be crystal clear and completely unambiguous. That’s why I like to boil things down to a cost/benefit analysis. If done properly it can at least provide a framework by which we can view decisions regarding war. In both Vietnam and Iraq the pro-war folks just did not make any reasonable attempt to include the costs of those wars. For Iraq the going price was about $80billion going in with very few lives lost. Even at that price I didn’t believe the war was worth it. And it turns out the cost may eventually exceed $3trillion. And of course Vietnam was even more costly and less justifiable in cold, hard dollars.

    This analysis is, of course an over simplification and I can see Brad rolling his eyes now. But if we actually will be realistic on the cost side of things it will illustrate what an illusion the term “good war” really is.

  23. Brad

    I’m not rolling my eyes at all. I think Bush did one thing majorly wrong from the very start, from 9/12 on — he didn’t ask us to sacrifice. And that includes paying for the war.

    Joe Biden has made this point a lot over the years, and he’s completely right. That was an opportunity to institute a real energy plan, for instance. We could have done everything in the Energy Party manifesto, including higher gasoline taxes — and then some. I think gasoline rationing would have been supported. People were ready to do ANYTHING; they wanted to help. We should have been asked to do something that would have put the nation in a stronger strategic position, that would have enabled us economically to move away from the Saudis and others and start demanding real change in that region (starting with them no longer funding the radical madrassas).

    Money from a raised gas tax could have gone partly to fund the war, partly to fund real, national-priority research into new energy sources (a la Manhattan or Apollo).

    Instead, he asked us to go shopping. All that unified spirit in the days after the attacks just deflated and went away, because we were asked to leave it all to the pros in the volunteer military. “Homeland security,” but no “homefront.”

    Whether it was that or something else, we needed a way to pay for the war.

    As for Vietnam — different time, different economic conditions. It was in a time of great economic expansion… Beyond that, I don’t know how to characterize it. I wasn’t really watching the economy and tax policy in those days…

  24. Burl Burlingame

    Not just the failure to pay for the war, but the refusal to institute clarity of purpose was Bush’s albatross. It’s as if they mandated chaos on purpose. We “lost” Iraq the day the Abu Gharaib scandal went public, and we’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

    As for Uncle Ho, the poor bastard fought the Japanese during WWII, then asked the US for help establishing a new country afterwards, even patterning the Vietnam constitution on the U.S. constitution. But instead we helped the French. The only help he got was from the Commies.


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