Obama catches flak for keeping troops home.
  • Obama catches flak for keeping troops home.

Articles in Tuesday’s Tribune and New York Times dwell on President Obama’s troubles defending a nonbellicose foreign policy, with the Times saying that the president, while visiting the Philippines, “lashed out at those he said reflexively call for the use of force.” The Times described Obama as “visibly frustrated” as he complained that his critics “had failed to learn the lessons of the Iraq war.”

But who can blame the critics? I mean, what American doesn’t want Washington to somehow give Vladimir Putin a bloody nose? Maybe it’s time Putin learned a lesson of his own, if you get my drift.

Anyway, there’s nothing more common than an unlearned lesson. When the 50th anniversary of the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was celebrated earlier this month, journalism looked back and both praised and mourned the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. The praise was for getting the act passed—and much other game-changing domestic legislation besides. But then, alas, the Vietnam war cost Johnson the country.

LBJ would say later: “I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I really loved—the Great Society—in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs. All my hopes to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. All my dreams to provide education and medical care to the browns and the blacks and the lame and the poor. But if I left that war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser and we would find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on the entire globe.”

Historians—and the rest of us looking back—who want to cut Johnson some slack say he never did figure out how to move. Maybe the worldlier Kennedy would have known what to do—Kennedy, who thanks to the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis had taken the measure of the same Pentagon brass that would cow Johnson. Kennedy might have walked away from war. But all Johnson could do was wade in deeper and deeper.

If we make LBJ a tragic figure, that was his tragedy. But was it his or America’s? Today, when there’s not even a cold war ratcheting up the stakes, see Obama catch grief anyway for trying to keep U.S. troops home. That goes against our grain, doesn’t it? We’re so deeply invested in thinking ourselves the ultimate peace-loving country, perpetually at war only because freedom always needs defending, that we just can’t stand it when a strutting cacique like Assad or Putin isn’t cut down to size.

They’re calling Obama “feckless.” LBJ would have been called treasonous. What president would have resisted what he couldn’t?