Condemned to Repeat It

The actual quote from George Santayana is, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Those who cannot remember the quote are condemned to misquote.)

Today’s New York Times has a story about Ted Kennedy’s posthumous memoir, in which he says President John Kennedy’s “antenna” was up over the misbegotten situation in Vietnam and that he was “on his way to finding that way out,” but was killed before he could do so.

Instead, Vietnam was handed to Lyndon Johnson, a consummate politician, who enacted some of America’s most compassionate social legislation – including Medicare. Republicans of the day scorned Medicare as “socialized medicine” that would lead to the government dictating all aspects of life to its citizens.

Sound familiar? Medicare did not lead to a Soviet-style government oligarchy and neither would the boldest of the health care reforms under consideration today.

Again we have a young Kennedyesque president who looks more Johnsonian with each passing day. No one really knows what went on in Mr. Johnson’s mind regarding Vietnam – he was an unreliable source – but the generals clamored for more and more troops and being a strident anti-Communist hawk would balance his liberal tendencies on civil rights and health care, so Mr. Johnson waded deeper and deeper into the southeast Asian mire.

So Barack Obama, who campaigned to prevent Iraq from becoming a quagmire, now sends more and more troops to prop up a corrupt puppet state in Afghanistan. Troops who have no clear mission beyond killing or capturing Osama bin Laden.

This week, besides Sen. Kennedy’s take on Vietnam, has seen conservative pundit George Will publish a column Tuesday titled “Time to Get Out of Afghanistan” (although he frenetically dances around, trying to avoid typing the “V” word).

At the other end of the political spectrum, Garry Trudeau has devoted this week’s arc of “Doonesbury” to describing the unwinnability of the Afghan war. (He, on the other hand, makes direct comparison to Vietnam.)

The same day the Washington Post published Mr. Will’s column, the Times ran a piece in which Afghan president Hamid Karzai is accused of stealing 23,900 votes in Kandahar in the recent national election. Mr. Karzai’s brother is leader of the Kandahar provincial council and is alleged to have stolen the ballot boxes and stuffed them with votes for his brother. The opposition says that even fig-leaf votes for the opposition were not allowed in the boxes. Sounds the kind of accusations leveled against the Diem brothers nearly 50 years ago. (The complaint from Kandahar is one of 2,615 about the Afghan election received by press time Tuesday.)

Following the scandalous June election in Iran, Mr. Obama was excoriated by the right for not speaking more loudly about the clear thwarting of the will of the Iranian electorate. If that was the case with Iran, with which the US has a frosty relationship, what words does he owe the Afghan people when his political client seems to have stolen an election? And will the American right (or left) demand that he speak them?

So what will it take? Mr. Obama is getting drubbed on his health care efforts, becoming ever more gun-shy and pliable in the face of Republican opposition that is as fact-free as it is vociferous.

As it was in Mr. Johnson’s time, the generals clamor for more troops. Mr. Obama has increased our forces in Afghanistan from 47,000 to 68,000. There will be calls for more; the body count will begin to grow. American cannot afford another president with big ears who forgets how to use them

© Mark Floegel, 2009

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