From the moment Lloyd Bentsen uttered it, none could disagree with his televised jab that Dan Quayle was “no Jack Kennedy.” Few remember, however, that in ascending to the presidency, Jack Kennedy had his own damning comparison. He was no Dwight Eisenhower.
It took a disaster at the Bay of Pigs, and then resolve in the Cuban Missile Crisis, for Kennedy to find his inner Eisenhower.
Ironically, a big part of being “like Ike” was having the fortitude to listen intently to the generals — and reject their advice.
So, too, apparently with Barack Obama.
In Robert Gates’ new memoir he criticizes the president, and Vice President Joe Biden, for their open skepticism of the mission they inherited in Afghanistan.
The assumption his political enemies would want you to make is that, you know, Obama is soft, and ignorant about military matters, and not inclined to “support our troops.”
That slur Gates takes pains not to employ. However, he writes disapprovingly of the feeling that Obama did not trust the brass on the wisdom of further digging in on Afghanistan after an initial surge.
It should seem to all involved that skepticism and detachment in the face of ribbons, stripes and metallic chest jewelry is exactly what a commander-in-chief should model.
Apparently Biden has been most vigorous in criticizing an open-ended anti-insurgency role that’s exceeded a decade. He has asserted that our military would be better focused on anti-terrorism. That meant less of an emphasis on Afghanistan, with its minimalized al Qaida presence, and more emphasis on Pakistan, Yemen, or wherever its leaders could be isolated and confronted.
Whatever the case, let’s acknowledge that terrible things have happened in our history when commanders in chief listened too intently to those whose function is to activate the war machine.
Kennedy did not ask enough tough questions when the CIA engineered the futile operation at the Bay of Pigs. When the ragtag invasion force was crushed by Castro, Kennedy’s military advisors wanted the nation to jump into the fray full force and engage Cuba militarily. Kennedy said no.
When missiles were discovered in Cuba a year later, the brass again wanted to invade. Gen. Curtis LeMay criticized a naval blockade as weak tea. Not invading Cuba, he said, would show weakness to the Soviets and encourage them to move militarily on West Berlin.
It turned out that in Kennedy’s measured and steely response, he could not have been more right. If LeMay and militarists had their way, the world war that so many feared could have been set in motion.
Fast-forward to this century and the hysteria that led to the invasion of Iraq. It is curious to hear Gates talk about political motivations in Obama’s military decisions, when the Bush administration’s rush to war — “Why now?” “Ah, heck, why not?” — had all those markers.
Gates wrote admiringly about Bush’s “passion” about said matters, and said he was disappointed to see Obama’s lack of it. This should not surprise anyone. Obama ran for president opposing U.S. military adventurism.
So is this lack of “passion” a criticism of Obama? Or is Congressman James Clyburn right when he observes that the attitude for which Gates criticizes Obama is right out of Eisenhower’s playbook — he warned future generations against the power of the military industrial complex.
We call it the Defense Department, but in the years that preceded this president, it was not that at all. In Iraq, we went to war not because we had to but because we could.
Our military must be devastatingly effective when situations demand. But a demanding military should never drive situations.
Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.