October 20, 2009
By Julian E. Zelizer
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 in
December by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely about current events.
PRINCETON, New Jersey (CNN) -- During the recent interview that
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry gave to CNN, the chairman of the
Foreign Affairs Committee argued that it was still too early for the
United States to commit more troops to Afghanistan.
"It would be entirely irresponsible for the president of the United
States to commit more troops to this country, when we don't even have
an election finished and know who the president is and what kind of
government we're working ... with," Kerry told CNN's John King.
The decision about Afghanistan could become a defining moment for the
administration and the Democratic Party. As the White House
deliberates about what to do, it is under pressure from Republicans
who are criticizing Obama for not reaching a decision.
On CBS News, Texas Sen. John Cornyn said that "At some point
deliberation begins to look more like indecisiveness, which then
becomes a way of emboldening our enemies ... and causing our allies
to question our resolve."
On her Facebook page, Sarah Palin wrote, "Now is not the time for
cold feet, second thoughts, or indecision -- it is the time to act as
commander-in-chief and approve the troops so clearly needed in Afghanistan."
These kinds of political attacks won't go away. Indeed they will only
intensify in the coming months. Congressional Democrats will find
themselves in a difficult position.
On the one hand, there will be a strong political temptation to stand
firm behind whatever the White House wants in order to maintain a
united front. On the other hand, some Democrats will want to question
and keep open pressure on the White House.
On Capitol Hill, Kerry finds himself in a crucial position to shape
this debate within the Democratic Party. It is fitting that he
entered into the national spotlight in 1971 when, as a Vietnam
veteran, he testified before Sen. William Fulbright's Foreign
Relations Committee. During these hearings, he uttered the famous
question: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
Fulbright, who chaired Foreign Relations from 1959 to 1974, remains a
model to many legislators of congressional activism on decisions of
war and peace. One way in which the memory of Fulbright could shape
Kerry's tenure is by reminding him of the importance of acting as the
critic and the skeptic during times of one-party dominance of government.
In addition to the hearings where Kerry appeared, Fulbright conducted
famous hearings as early as 1966, where he was one of the first
legislators to openly challenge the policies of President Lyndon
Johnson's administration, grilling administration officials like Dean
Rusk about their decisions and conduct in Vietnam.
While long-haired college radicals reshaped the consciousness of many
young Americans, Fulbright touched middle America, helping to make
antiwar criticism legitimate in suburban homes.
But there was another part of Fulbright's legacy that Kerry and other
congressional Democrats should also remember, one that Kerry should
avoid and a role that will be tempting as the president's opponents
intensify their attacks.
This was Fulbright in 1964, the loyal partisan who put aside his deep
reservations about American involvement in Vietnam to help Johnson
push the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution through the Senate in August.
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was a critical step in the escalation
of the Vietnam conflict. The resolution granted Johnson broad
authority to take military action if necessary; Johnson compared it
to "grandma's nightshirt" because it covered everything.
Fulbright had been extremely critical in 1964 about American foreign
policy. In a famous speech on March 25, he called on Americans to
consider "unthinkable things" and rethink what were seen as
"self-evident truths" about the Soviet Union, China and other parts
of the country. "We are clinging to old myths in the face of new
realities," he said.
During these months, there were many Democrats such as Sen. Frank
Church of Idaho on the left and Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia on
the right who were telling the president in private that war in
Vietnam would be a huge mistake: a military operation that could bog
down American troops for years and a war that was not essential to
containing the Soviet Union and China.
The conservative Southern Democrat Sen. George Smathers of Florida
told Johnson that he could not find almost any colleague in Congress
who thought "we ought to fight a war in that area of the world."
Johnson met with Fulbright and asked him to support the resolution
regardless of his concerns. He assured Fulbright that he would not
misuse the authority and argued that responding to the alleged
attacks on U.S. ships was essential for the upcoming election.
Republican Barry Goldwater was attacking the administration, saying
it was lying to the public about its intentions to increase the
American role in Vietnam and also being too timid to use the force
that was necessary to win.
Fulbright agreed to support Johnson. On the floor, many senators were
very dubious about granting this extension of power. They worried
that it would be misused and feared the possibility of war.
Fulbright assured them that the president would approach Congress if
he wanted to increase U.S. involvement in Vietnam and that, most
importantly, this was needed to give Democrats cover from Republican
attacks that Johnson and the party were weak on defense. Goldwater,
he said, would undoubtedly bring the nation into war, so everything
possible had to be done to stop him.
The arguments were convincing. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed
with only two dissenters.
Fulbright would forever regret his decision, later admitting that
political considerations led him to the wrong path. In a best-selling
book published in 1966, Fulbright would explain the "mistake" that he
and his colleagues in Congress made.
In dealing with Afghanistan, Kerry and his fellow congressional
Democrats must act more like the Fulbright of 1966 than of 1964. This
does not mean they should oppose or support military force, but they
must not refrain from asking hard-hitting questions.
As Democrats start to think more about 2010 and 2012, and the
political pressures intensify to prove that they are tough on
defense, congressional Democrats must maintain the role of the
watchdog, questioning and interrogating a White House that is under
the control of their own party.
Kerry has often shown a proclivity toward making decisions based on
political calculations and he has been extremely loyal to Obama
throughout the 2008 campaign. Now his role has changed and the costs
of blind loyalty are rising. Democrats must keep Obama's feet to the
fire and do everything possible to make certain that Congress does
not give a blank check to the White House to wage a bigger war.