Obama-JFK: No end to similarities

Drawing parallels between Kennedy and Obama, it is evident that the US needs a very different way of thinking of ‘war’.

Al-Qaeda has baited the US into self-defeating behaviour again and again [Getty Images]

The day after the US marked the 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy’s assassination, President Barack Obama achieved what could be his most significant foreign policy accomplishment – an interim nuclear weapons deal with Iran. The coincidence of timing reminds us again of the parallels between the two men, and the parallels, in turn, may help us shed light on the differences – differences not just between two individual leaders, but between two different incarnations of what the US means, not just to itself, but, more importantly, to the rest of the world. That, in turn, may lead to plumbing even deeper mysteries.

At his best, Obama promised to be a JFK-like president, inspiring a new generation both at home and abroad, and indeed, support from key members of the Kennedy family played a significant role in Obama’s presidential run. Kennedy was the US’ first Catholic president; Obama, its first black president. Both built their own outsider networks of political supporters, catching more established candidates by surprise. Both were young senators with meagre legislative records, yet with compelling best-selling books that struck intentionally trans-partisan chords. Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights – hobbled though it may have been – clearly connects the two men. So does his role in signing the first major nuclear treaty – the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty – as Obama has long been concerned with reducing the nuclear weapons threat.

Same page on military

But there are other, more troubling parallels as well. Most notably, for present purposes, they share an illusory promise of peace, with a similar underlying dynamic. It begins with a shared estrangement from a faltering military establishment, which they then compensate for via a fascination with covert special operations, and the gadgetry that goes with it. This makes them both less visibly hawkish figures, yet it belies the simplistic notion that they are dovish, overly reliant on diplomacy, or overly committed to multi-lateralism. 

LeVine concluded that the price of Obama’s breakthrough would be numerous reassurances and concessions to existing allies.

In Kennedy’s case, it was the elevation and de facto creation of the Green Berets, the exclusive use of special forces and military advisers in Vietnam, and the use of special forces to train irregular ethnic forces. This was the fore-runner of the strategy that lead the US to help build up the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, which in turn, eventually resulted in the Taliban takeover and the their partnership with al-Qaeda. It was, in the long view of history, a profoundly reckless and ill-conceived approach. But at the time, it was genuinely sober, thoughtful and measured, compared to the existing alternatives.

In Obama’s case it can be seen in his heavy reliance on drone warfare, his about-face on intrusive surveillance, and his intense prosecution of whistle blowers, as well as the evident disappointment of the US’ European allies and the Muslim world, both of which had hoped and expected a much more decisive and fundamental break with the long-war policies of the Bush Administration. These strategies have degraded “core al-Qaeda” as promised, but at the cost of substantially enhancing a broader disaffection with the US, and contributing to a broader range of anti-US hostilities. Most tellingly, the US has not regained the moral high ground it had when attacked on 9/11, the high ground it abandoned when it lashed out indiscriminately against individuals, groups and nations that had nothing to do with 9/11.

Hits and misses

The deeper policy context for Kennedy’s mistakes only became fully evident in 2000, with the publication of David Kaiser’s American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War. Using newly available archival material, Kaiser argued that Kennedy was responding to Eisenhower-era planning for a conventional land war in Southeast Asia, possibly even a nuclear war. Kennedy’s first success lay in avoiding a war in Laos, negotiating for its neutrality instead. Kaiser emphasises how Kennedy repeatedly rejected his advisers’ pressure towards an all-out war in Vietnam, but does not reflect on Kennedy’s failure to replace those advisers with ones more compatible with his more nuanced views. The hawkish advisory establishment that Kennedy left in place readily convinced Johnson to do what Kennedy had resisted – with the additional motivation of stark political survival, as Johnson saw it.

Johnson’s tragically flawed policy further split the Democratic Party – an enduring split that helped gain Obama the nomination as a putative anti-interventionist, a severe misreading of his actual stance, which is far more similar to Kennedy’s modestly nuanced liberal hawkishness. Tragically, however, Obama seems to have learned nothing from the failures of Kennedy’s approach. 

Counterinsurgency failed in Vietnam – a fact that Kennedy could not have known, but that Obama surely should have. Instead, he endorsed a similar strategy in Afghanistan, based on misleading arguments that it had succeeded in Iraq (the so-called “surge”), ignoring the multiple other factors involved, as well as the profound differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, at the same time that Obama seems to have made a major breakthrough with Iran, there is talk of the US keeping troops in Afghanistan for another decade or more. 

This one example is part of a broader pattern that historian Mark LeVine highlighted just after the Iran nuclear deal was announced. LeVine concluded that the price of Obama’s  breakthrough would be numerous reassurances and concessions to existing allies, “policies hew[ing] to the classic rationality of Realpolitik [that] will give little comfort to the citizens across the region who should expect even less US support for real democratic reforms in the near future.”

A smarter way of fighting the wrong war is not enough to win the right one.

Embrace of Realpolitik

This brings us to the unexamined core problem of US foreign policy from the Cold War era, which has remained to this day – the relationship of the US’ progressive democratic ideals to its de facto embrace of Realpolitik. As Efstathios Fakiolas described in “Kennan’s Long Telegram and NSC-68: A Comparative Analysis“, two very different conceptions, by George Kennan and Paul Nitze, existed as to how the US should respond to the Soviet Union. He also explained how both conceptions were based on a Realpolitik approach, but with different models of what constitutes the bedrock reality of international relations. As I explained in 2005:

“While superficially similar – both warn against the threat of Soviet militarism – the two documents differ sharply in their conception of the nature of the Cold War struggle. NSC-68 sees it primarily as a military contest between two self-interested superpowers. The ‘Long Telegram’ sees it in terms of moral communities: we will win in the long run by being true to our values, and creating a global moral order that the Soviets will ultimately want to be a part of.”

Although the US and the West did not intentionally fight Kennan’s war, it nonetheless won it accidentally, in spite of itself, more through the actions of its spirited – even rebellious – citizens than through the actions of state. But things are not going nearly as well in the “war on terror”, where the same logic applies, but only al-Qaeda seems to realise it’s engaged in a war of ideas. What’s more, they’ve used that realisation again and again, to bait the US into self-defeating behaviour.

Rethinking war

Kennedy had a smarter way of fighting the same global war as Eisenhower’s advisers – “a military contest between two self-interested superpowers”. Similarly, Obama has a smarter way of fighting the same global war as Bush’s advisers – a full-spectrum military contest between the only global superpower and a shadowy network of “others”. Both men abandoned proven losing strategies – but for what alternatives? A smarter way of fighting the wrong war is not enough to win the right one.

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.