What has led the United States, the greatest power in history, to collapse in abject, humiliating failure twice in 40 years, running from Vietnam and our Saigon embassy in 1975; begging for the friendship of Iran’s bloody ayatollahs in the treaty of 2015? In Iran, we caved gracelessly on our key demands: Without snap inspections, a deal with confirmed liars is worth nothing. Every ten-year-old knows that. (“You guys be on your toes; we do pop inspections anywhere, anytime – with only three and a half weeks’ notice!”) By dint of further heroic negotiating, Kerry and Obama got the Iranians to accept a hundred billion dollars in hitherto frozen assets, and to reenter the international arms market, so they can more effectively destroy governments that are friendly to us, and kill Americans whenever (Allah willing!) the opportunity arises. How could this have happened to the world’s only superpower?
Because of a president’s natural, human desire to be loved instead of feared — especially by Europeans, for whose good opinion Democrats are always pining. Because of the delusions that come from isolated grandeur, unless you are careful and smart. Because of the arrogance of power. Why should I care what my opponents say? Who’s president around here, anyway? With a stroke of my pen, with a tap on my phone, I alter destiny. Reality is whatever I say it is.
Our goals in Vietnam — to contain the spread of Communism and maintain American influence in Southeast Asia — were reasonable and right. But military strategy under Kennedy and Johnson was tragically wrong. General William Westmoreland believed he could break the Communists in pitched battles. But they trickled and floated through the jungles, and skipped the battles Westmoreland had in mind. By the time he was relieved by General Creighton Abrams in June 1968, American troop strength was over half a million men — and the U.S. military had thrashed the Communists repeatedly. But the enemy’s will to fight was unbroken; the Communists could accept devastating losses and keep on wafting down through the jungle like mustard gas.
Lyndon Johnson was a brilliant politician. But he allowed himself to be hypnotized by the majestically self-assured liberal intellectuals, especially McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara — whom JFK had brought to Washington, and who conceived and staged the Vietnam War — and by Westmoreland himself. They all thought the war was going fine. But the opinion-making segments of the U.S. public, and their draft-age sons, increasingly disagreed. Senator William Fulbright published a book about Vietnam in 1966 called The Arrogance of Power. No one reads it today, but the title was exactly right. LBJ allowed the arrogance of power to override his sense of reality. He saw what he wanted to see in Vietnam instead of what was true. General Abrams changed our fighting strategy and ran the war successfully. But Vietnam had already become a catastrophe in search of a tragic end.
Obama sees himself as Reagan come again. His disdain for American power, his naïveté, and his incompetence suggest Jimmy Carter as the obvious point of comparison. But Lyndon Johnson is his true soulmate. Johnson like Obama burned to use the federal government to remake the country — but unlike Obama, LBJ succeeded in changing American society with the nation’s support. Unfortunately for Obama, he lacks Johnson’s skill with Congress and his feel for the trajectory of American history. And it’s no longer 1964.
But Obama will be remembered ultimately for the Iran treaty, as Johnson is remembered for Vietnam. Like Johnson, Obama is wrapped in a warm blanket of advisers who flatter his earnest, high-school views of world politics. Like Johnson, he lives in his own delusional world in which he’s commander-in-chief not merely of the military but of the whole blessed nation. Like Johnson, he has been destroyed by the arrogance of power; and his blindness has endangered America. Unlike Johnson, he was never big enough for the job in the first place.
Iran’s Supreme Leader reeks of blood. Obama’s treaty reeks of disgrace and surrender. Vietnam did disastrous damage to America’s military, its intelligence services, and its international standing — damage compounded by Richard Nixon’s crookery and Jimmy Carter’s entire presidency. It took Ronald Reagan to repair the wreckage. Will there be a Reagan to clean up after Obama? — to the extent the damage is reparable? Reagan was the man he was because he was unbudging at the core, and because his sunniness and cheerful decency lifted the nation’s spirits. Have we got a candidate today with an unbudgeable core and a winning, sunny, gigantic personality? Those are the criteria that matter at this sobering low point in modern American history.
— David Gelernter is professor of computer science at Yale University and contributing editor at The Weekly Standard.