Streetwise Professor

September 18, 2014

Note to BHO: LBJ Is Not A Role Model for Commander in Chief

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 1:33 pm

At the outset of intense American involvement in the Viet Nam War, the US military devised a robust bombing campaign to be deployed against the North. The campaign focused on petroleum, oil and lubricants (“POL”) facilities and ports. The objective was to deal a decisive blow to Hanoi’s war making capability. It was a military plan focused on military objectives.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson rejected the military’s plan. He viewed bombing as a political instrument to be calibrated to achieve negotiated outcomes:

I saw our bombs as my political resources for negotiating a peace. On the one hand, our planes and our bombs could be used as carrots for the South, strengthening the morale of the South Vietnamese and pushing them to clean up their corrupt house, by demonstrating the depth of our commitment to the war. On the other hand, our bombs could be used as sticks against the North, pressuring North Vietnam to stop its aggression against the South. By keeping a lid on all the designated targets, I knew I could keep the control of the war in my own hands. If China reacted to our slow escalation by threatening to retaliate, we’d have plenty of time to ease off the bombing. But this control—so essential for preventing World War III—would be lost the moment we unleashed a total assault on the North—for that would be rape rather than seduction—and then there would be no turning back. The Chinese reaction would be instant and total.

LBJ micromanaged the bombing campaign. Often hunching over maps, he chose individual targets, mainly at a lunch every Tuesday with his national security team. He famously said that the military couldn’t bomb an outhouse without his permission.

It is almost universally recognized that LBJ’s micromanagement was an unmitigated disaster. The North Vietnamese interpreted the relatively diffident bombing campaign as an indicator of LBJ’s lack of commitment and resolve: they weren’t deterred, but were encouraged. The campaign inflicted little military damage on the North, and the NVA used the respite to bolster their air defenses.

In brief, the LBJ “Rolling Thunder” campaign, and his meddlesome control over it, is widely held up as an example of how not to wage a military campaign, and especially an air campaign.

Fast forward exactly 50 years, from 1964 to 2014. Then read this, and weep:

The U.S. military campaign against Islamist militants in Syria is being designed to allow President Barack Obama to exert a high degree of personal control, going so far as to require that the military obtain presidential signoff for strikes in Syrian territory, officials said.

The requirements for strikes in Syria against the extremist group Islamic State will be far more stringent than those targeting it in Iraq, at least at first. U.S. officials say it is an attempt to limit the threat the U.S. could be dragged more deeply into the Syrian civil war.

. . . .

Through tight control over airstrikes in Syria and limits on U.S. action in Iraq, Mr. Obama is closely managing the new war in the Middle East in a way he hasn’t done with previous conflicts, such as the troop surge in Afghanistan announced in 2009 or the last years of the Iraq war before the 2011 U.S. pullout.

LBJ redux, to the last jot and tittle. Repeating the exact same errors. It will not end up any better. Probably worse, given that the situation in Syria is worse (as bad as it was in SVN in 1964). Talk about forgetting the past and being condemned to repeat it.

Just what during a career of community organizing and voting “present” in the (notoriously corrupt) Illinois Senate qualified Barack Obama to be generalissimo, making tactical (and operational) decisions in a military campaign waged in an extremely complex environment? There is no greater testament to his overweening (and almost totally unjustified) sense of superiority than this decision to run a bombing campaign out of the Oval Office.

The WSJ article says that Obama is hellbent on making sure operations in Syria and Iraq are a glorified counterterrorism (not even counterinsurgency) operation at best. His model is the <sarcasm> wildly successful </sarcasm> operations in Yemen and Somalia.

Anybody read about Yemen and Somalia lately? Yeah. If those are successes, I’d hate to see what failure will look like. But I’m pretty sure we’re going to find out.

The military is already off the reservation, with Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey and the retired Marine general assigned to coordinate operations with the Iraqi and Syrian forces, James Mattis, openly (though implicitly) criticizing Obama’s steadfast refusal even to countenance the use of ground forces. Usually it takes a military disaster to spark such open questioning of presidential policy by military commanders. Here we have it before the operation has even fairly started. That speaks volumes, and bodes very ill for the future.

Obama is a control freak with no military competence or background or experience, and is also terminally afflicted with the Jupiter Complex. He is beyond loath to get involved in the bloody, dirty business of combat on the ground, but feels obliged to do something: he is therefore tremendously attracted to the idea that he can be, in the words of historian Paul Johnson, a Jupiter, a “righteous god, raining retributive thunderbolts on his wicked enemies.” It seems clean and detached and bloodless. So it may seem from the delivering, rather than the receiving, end of the thunderbolts. But it is also strategically vacuous and ultimately tactically and operationally indecisive. It also tends to breed resentment and hostility among those it is intended to help.

(As an aside, I consider it beyond ironic to remember that during Viet Nam, and the years after, the left routinely criticized the morality of the US air war, pointing out that war looked so sanitized from the cockpit of a B-52 at 30,000 feet. Now that they command the B-52s-and F-15s, F/A-18s, F-16s, B-1s, etc.-they are entranced by the allure of waging war at such distance from the blood and chaos on the ground.)

As I wrote the other day, I do not support a vigorous military operation in Syria. But if we are going to get involved, it must be done the right way, in a militarily sensible way. What Obama is hell-bent on doing is the exact wrong thing. He is repeating the LBJ mistakes, and adding some of his very own making. This is why, even overlooking the meager security stakes and the daunting obstacles involved in Syria and the Middle East generally, I blanche at the idea of a military campaign conducted by Obama, especially when he stubbornly insists on maintaining tight control over it.

Not too long after LBJ got involved in Viet Nam, and bungled it royally, he was routinely taunted by a chant: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” It is probably one of the things most strongly associated with Johnson’s sad legacy. I am not by nature a protest poet, so I can’t fill in the rest, but I know someone will: “Ho, Ho, BHO . . . ” The jingle will not end well for Obama, but the real tragedy is that what is about to unfold will not end well for the US, or the world.

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9 Comments »

  1. Obama’s been president for what, six years? If he were a professor, he’d be up for tenure now. That’s certainly more experience than most presidents have when they launch their first military campaign.

    Comment by aaa — September 18, 2014 @ 3:10 pm

  2. On the one hand, our planes and our bombs could be used as carrots for the South, strengthening the morale of the South Vietnamese and pushing them to clean up their corrupt house, by demonstrating the depth of our commitment to the war.

    Good grief, seriously?! We’ll bomb someone else and our lot will become less corrupt and self-serving? I can’t believe somebody would be this stupid.

    Comment by Tim Newman — September 18, 2014 @ 11:26 pm

  3. @Tim. Believe it or not, that was the view of the Best and Brightest. They are the ones who got us into that mess and messed it up in their own special way.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 18, 2014 @ 11:32 pm

  4. It’s worse than that, Prof.

    I think there’s a case to be made that Johnson’s diversion of the B-52s to Hanoi and away from the battlefields of the south may have cost the us the war:

    http://stebbingheuer.wordpress.com/2014/09/14/costs-of-failing-to-think-outside-the-square-us-military-tactics-in-vietnam/

    Would be interested in your thoughts.

    Comment by Ex-regulator on lunch break — September 18, 2014 @ 11:50 pm

  5. @Tim-Changing subjects, what do you think of the odds of Yamal getting completed any time soon or close to on-schedule? This Reuters article prompted the question.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 19, 2014 @ 12:55 am

  6. I disagree, Perfesser: LBJ **is** a role model for a CinC, he’s just not a successful one.

    As a former chief I served with once said, “Remember, you can always be an example for someone. Now, sometimes, you’re an example of a cautionary tale, but that’s still an example.”

    Comment by Blackshoe — September 19, 2014 @ 7:41 am

  7. If you can’t be a good example, be a terrible warning!

    The Pilot

    Comment by The Pilot — September 19, 2014 @ 9:07 pm

  8. Well looks like the Prez of Golf has successfully created another so called frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine. Talk about dancing to the Russian tune….

    Comment by Andrew — September 20, 2014 @ 7:34 am

  9. […] those of his predecessors, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta. And of course, there are many other stories (some discussed here) that provide further […]

    Pingback by Streetwise Professor » Helluva Way to Run a War: The Pentagon & Obama Go to the Mattresses — December 29, 2015 @ 1:25 pm

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