Sunday, March 31, 2019

Lyndon and Bobby

Lyndon and Bobby
Peter Schultz

            In reading the book Mutual Contempt, I learned that, allegedly, RFK had a “Lyndon problem.” That is, Bobby Kennedy could not afford to be too critical of Johnson’s Vietnam policies without it costing him politically, that is, electorally. So Bobby compromised, didn’t express himself as candidly as he might have were he not a political actor or not seeking the presidency.  

            However, Bobby had another political problem, viz., his agreement with our “politics of credibility,” whereby the US had to be “involved” in the world and had to stay “involved” to prove its “credibility.” Once such a politics is accepted, then if that led to large-scale bombing in Vietnam or to large-scale troop infusions, then so be it. These things had to be done.

            Bobby did try to distinguish himself from Johnson, in a way summed up as follows: “We have erred . . . in regarding Vietnam as a purely military problem. . . . [p. 267] While this may be true, there is a greater “error” Bobby doesn’t mention, viz., the assumption that Vietnam was an American problem. And of course this error stems from the idea that America must be “involved” in the world almost everywhere. As Bobby put it: “My only concern is that we emerge from these crises [Vietnam and the Dominican Republic] in an honorable position to continue our leadership in the world at large.” [p. 268]

            Once you decide, as both Bobby and LBJ did, that America’s honor requires her “leadership in the world at large,” the only question is “how should the US be in Vietnam?” There other question, which our “involvement” in Vietnam should have raised, viz., “should the US be in Vietnam?” is ignored. And because Bobby did not raise this other, more important question, he was compelled to compromise with Johnson about how the US should be involved in Vietnam, as well as the Dominican Republic.

So RFK was not boxed in simply by LBJ and electoral politics; he was also boxed in by his own politics, a politics of “involvement,” or a politics of “credibility.” Without questioning such politics, which are essentially euphemisms for imperialism, Bobby was compelled to compromise with LBJ because he remained “committed” to the war in Vietnam, that is, to American imperialism. As Francis Fitzgerald has written, the US didn’t get caught in the quagmire of Vietnam; Vietnam got caught in the quagmire of American politics. Our politics of “credibility, “ of “honor,” of imperialism was the quagmire into which the Vietnamese stumbled in their pursuit of national unity.

And the “feud” between LBJ and RFK, as presented by the press, only served to obscure the more important issue, the issue of the character of American foreign policy in general. Their “feud” was essentially over the details of US imperialism, whether it should be “purely military” or both military and political. Whether one or the other, it would still be imperialism. And to get to the more important question it would be necessary to get beyond the politics of credibility, beyond our politics of imperialism.  


Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Politics of Credibility
Peter Schultz

            “Vietnam itself meant virtually nothing; it was a ‘little piss-ant country,’ [Lyndon] Johnson scoffed. What truly hung in the balance was American credibility in the larger war against Communist expansion….” [Mutual Contempt, p. 261, emphasis added]

            If Vietnam meant almost nothing and American credibility meant almost all, the sacrificing the lives of Americans and Vietnamese in large numbers makes perfect sense, even without a victory. In fact, to prove US “credibility,” to prove US constancy, reliability, the more Americans that are sacrificed, the better. “Look how credible we are – we are willing to sacrifice our youths, lots of them, for a country that in itself means almost nothing to us. We sacrifice our own to prove our credibility. You can trust us to sacrifice our own for almost nothing.”

            This is the result of a “politics of credibility,” a politics that not only LBJ embraced but many, many others as well. And this is why so many felt betrayed by their own government. They were being sacrificed for "a little piss-and country" that meant virtually nothing. 

What would be an alternative kind of politics? How about a “politics of justice?” Maybe it would be worth a try.

[The book cited is Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud that Defined a Decade, by Jeff Shesol]

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Stagnant Politics and Trump

Stagnant Politics and Trump
Peter Schultz

            The US political system is stagnant – it is, as Trump called it, “a swamp” – and “we the people” are seeking change, even significant change. The signs are everywhere, from the White House where Trump is president, to the Congress where a Muslim black woman from, of all places, Minnesota and another woman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, from the Bronx, are serving, while such people being in office would have been inconceivable not so many years ago. Throw in Bernie Sanders and his challenge to establishment faction of the Democratic Party and it seems pretty clear that our established political order is stagnant and has lost its legitimacy.

            Just as interesting, that some of these people won electoral victories illustrates that the only way out of our “swamp,” our stagnant political order, is electorally. The kind of change that is necessary and desirable can only come about by way of elections, not by way of institutional adjustments, so to speak. And this is why the movement to impeach Trump, for example, or moves to institutionally silence and disempower Omar or Ocasio-Cortez, should be resisted. Such moves would not, could not create the changes needed to overturn our stagnant political order. Impeach Trump or indict him and force him from office via resignation and the status quo powers, those who are invested in our stagnant political order, our “swamp,” will have their power reinforced, perhaps even extended. Resisting the impeachment of Trump then should be embraced, not for Trump’s sake, but for our own and the health of our political order.