E.J. Dionne reports that at a White House dinner with a group of historians this summer, Robert Dallek asserted that “war kills off great reform movements.” He cited World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the War in Vietnam. The message, of course, was that by escalating the war in Afghanistan, President Obama would risk his (yet-to-be-established) legacy as a great reformer.
Dallek’s analysis isn’t very persuasive. The two World Wars were massive undertakings, and Korea and Vietnam were large-scale efforts. At the peak of the fighting in Vietnam we had more than 500,000 troops there. No one is proposing anything like that for Afghanistan.
Furthermore, three of the four presidents in question, Wilson, FDR, and LBJ, had already pushed through substantial reform packages by the time their reform efforts ground to a halt. Indeed, Dallek would be hard-pressed to identify any president who accomplished more domestic reform than these three.
I would argue that their inability to accomplish more was a function of the fact that they had already done about as much as was possible under any circumstances. There is only so much reform that can be achieved in a democracy under one leader. That’s one reason why presidents, including peace-time ones, rarely enact major reform in their second term.
It should also be noted that Johnson pushed through substantial domestic reform in 1965 even as the American troop presence in Vietman approached 200,000.
Dallek may be arguing not so much that wars thwart the reform efforts of particular presidents, but rather that they halt reform movements. But his reference to Harry Truman undercuts that argument. Whatever momentum for reform was lost in the wake of World War II was promptly regained, in Dallek’s telling, in Truman’s “fair deal.”
Dallek may not be the “shrewd student” of presidential history Dionne says he is, but he’s a shrewd student of Barack Obama. If you’re hoping that President Obama will pull back in Afghanistan, it’s hard to imagine a better way to promote your objective than by planting the notion that Obama cannot become a great reformer if he vigorously pursues the war.
It need hardly be added that Dionne himself has radically shifted his position on Afghanistan. ( Peter Wehner documents this with his customary precision). For example, In the past, Dionne has said:
Our failure to help rebuild Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviet Union in the 1980s laid the groundwork for the rise of the very forces we now oppose. We shouldn’t make the same mistake this time.
He has also referred to defeat in Afghanistan as a “potential disaster.” But these statements, like similar ones by Obama himself, were delivered back when he was trying to convince a skeptical public that the Democrats are serious about fighting terrorism and objected only to doing so in Iraq.
Dionne concludes his piece, as usual, with an ad hominem attack on conservatives: “Those most eager for a bigger war have little interest in Obama’s quest for domestic reform. As he ponders his options, theirs are not the voices he should worry about.”
In other words, only domestic liberals should be taken seriously when it comes to discussing foreign policy. This from the same E.J. Dionne who constantly complained that President Bush rejected bipartisanship in foreign policy in order to promote his conservative agenda.
There may be a less intellectually honest pundit than Dionne, but I can’t recall encountering one.