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Commentary: Obama should listen to Biden

  • Story Highlights
  • Julian Zelizer: Biden is emerging as important voice on Afghanistan policy
  • He says Vice President Hubert Humphrey had similar role on Vietnam
  • Zelizer says Humphrey's doubts were ignored as Vietnam War escalated
  • Zelizer: Obama should consider wide range of strategies on Afghanistan
By Julian E. Zelizer
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book, "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security -- From World War II to the War on Terrorism," will be published this fall by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely about current events.

Julian Zelizer says Joe Biden is a useful voice for president to hear as he shapes Afghanistan policy.

Julian Zelizer says Joe Biden is a useful voice for president to hear as he shapes Afghanistan policy.

PRINCETON, New Jersey (CNN) -- Vice President Joseph Biden is emerging as an important voice within the White House on the war in Afghanistan.

The New York Times reported that during a meeting in the situation room on September 13, Biden urged the president to consider reducing America's troop presence in Afghanistan. Rather than embracing a mission to protect the Afghan population, the U.S., Biden reportedly said, should target al Qaeda cells in the region through special operations forces and targeted missile attacks.

The emerging relationship between Biden and President Obama brings back memories of Vice President Hubert Humphrey and President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1964, many congressional Democrats were strongly warning Johnson that it was not wise to escalate America's involvement in Vietnam.

While liberals such as Idaho's Frank Church were more predictably making this argument, so too were some of the most hawkish voices in the Senate. Georgia Senator Richard Russell, Johnson's mentor in the 1950s, privately told the president that Vietnam was the "damn worse mess I ever saw" and that if it came down to sending in American troops or getting out, "I'd get out." Russell added that the territory in Southeast Asia was not worth a "damn bit" to the U.S.

Russell was not alone. As the historian Fredrik Logevall has documented in his book "Choosing War," there were several prominent international leaders, such as France's Charles de Gaulle, who called for the U.S. to avoid sending forces into the region and embrace a policy of neutralization, which would attempt to negotiate an agreement to preserve the status quo of a country divided into communist and non-communist sections.

There were also secret memoranda from officials within the administration, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, warning of the high risks of escalation.

Johnson was sensitive to these arguments. In May, he had told national security adviser McGeorge Bundy that he had recently looked at a sergeant he knew, who had six children, and wondered why he should send him to Vietnam: "What in the hell am I ordering him out there for?"

Following the Democratic landslide in 1964, when Johnson decisively defeated Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater and Democrats gained huge majorities in the House and Senate, Humphrey wrote Johnson to urge him to call for a withdrawal from Vietnam, since 1965 was the "first year when we can face the Vietnam problem without being preoccupied with the political repercussions from the Republican Right."

Humphrey believed that the president had not made a case, as had been done with World War II and Korea, about why this conflict was essential to the national interest. He also said this war would increase the chance for another world war rather than diminishing it. These kinds of statements by Humphrey "infuriated" the president, according to Humphrey.

Johnson didn't listen to Humphrey. In response to the vice president, Johnson wrote "we don't need all these memos" and kicked Humphrey out of his inner circle of decision making. There were many reasons he decided against withdrawal, including his political fears that advocating for such a policy would play directly into the hands of Republican critics such as Richard Nixon, and because he did have some sympathy for the "domino theory," which stated that if South Vietnam fell to communism, neighboring countries would follow.

Last week there was evidence that Obama won't ignore the voices of colleagues who are disagreeing with him. Despite having called Afghanistan a "war of necessity" and ordering an increase of 21,000 troops after becoming president, Obama is now saying publicly that he is skeptical that more troops will have the desired effect in Afghanistan.

"I'm not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or, in some way -- you know, sending a message that America is here for the duration," the president recently said on television. He is taking this position even as Republicans like Sarah Palin are delivering speeches in which they warn that Democrats are failing to stand tough against terrorism.

With all the comparisons that have been made between the current war in Afghanistan and America's war in Vietnam, there are some differences that seem to be creating a willingness by Obama to be more receptive to the critics, including Biden.

Most importantly, the memories of Vietnam, and now Iraq, continue to shape all policymaking decisions. The disastrous consequences of the Vietnam War have continued to serve -- among leaders in both parties -- as a powerful check when there are calls for military escalation.

The impact is not just psychological. As a result of Vietnam, the U.S. dismantled the draft in 1973 under President Nixon. The absence of a draft created a permanent restraint on presidents when making decisions about the possibility of war. They no longer have unlimited manpower resources upon which to draw.

Another factor is the media. With all the disparaging comments that are made about the media, one effect of the 24-hour, instantaneous news cycle has been that the internal debates taking place within the executive branch and the military have been disseminated to the public in real time.

Politicians have not enjoyed much room to have these debates in private. The doubts have reached the airwaves and the Internet. Many reporters have also been determined to avoid repeating the passive path taken by many colleagues before the Iraq war, when tough questions were not asked.

Congressional Democrats are also refusing to keep their doubts private. In the 1960s, Democrats learned the cost of waiting until after a war was underway to publicly challenge a set of decisions. Similarly, many Democrats regret that they did not challenge President Bush more vigorously when the nation went to war with Iraq in 2003.

Finally, there is the state of the economy. Whereas in the early 1960s the nation was enjoying a period of historic economic growth, now the nation is only beginning to feel some stability after the financial collapse of the fall of 2008. And conditions are still far from good, given high rates of unemployment. Obtaining support for a substantial troop commitment is more difficult when voters are concerned about their economic security.

None of this is to say what the president should do in Afghanistan. But what is important is that Obama must not repeat LBJ's mistake of blocking out the voices of close advisers who were urging him to consider a wider range of alternative strategies to keep America safe.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

All About Barack ObamaJoseph BidenAfghanistan War

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