Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The hubris of the Obamites on Vietnam: Just because you weren’t there doesn’t mean you won’t make the same mistakes

Vietnam? What’s that? Obama administration officials ask the estimable James Mann. "What does that have to do with me and the world we’re living in today?" inquires Susan Rice, American ambassador to the United Nations. Remarks like that worry me. Just because you weren’t alive during the Vietnam War doesn’t mean you won’t go down ...

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Flickr

Vietnam? What’s that? Obama administration officials ask the estimable James Mann.

"What does that have to do with me and the world we’re living in today?" inquires Susan Rice, American ambassador to the United Nations.

Remarks like that worry me. Just because you weren’t alive during the Vietnam War doesn’t mean you won’t go down that road. I generally am a fan of the Obama administration, on both domestic and foreign policy. But the one thing that gives me the creeps is their awkward relationship with senior military officials. Mistrusting the Joint Chiefs, suspecting their motives, treating them as adversaries or outsiders, not examining differences — that was LBJ’s recipe. It didn’t work. He looked upon the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a political entity to be manipulated or, failing that, sidelined. That’s a recipe for disaster, especially for an administration conspicuously lacking interest in the views of former military officers or even former civilian Pentagon officials.

In our system, White House officials have the upper hand in the civilian-military relationship, so it is their responsibility to be steward of it. That’s the price of "the unequal dialogue." If the relationship is persistently poor, it is the fault of the civilians, because they are in the best position to fix it. The first step is to demand candor from the generals, and to protect those who provide it. Remove those who don’t.

Anytime anyone tells me that the lessons of Vietnam are irrelevant, that’s when I begin looking for a hole to hide in.

Vietnam? What’s that? Obama administration officials ask the estimable James Mann.

"What does that have to do with me and the world we’re living in today?" inquires Susan Rice, American ambassador to the United Nations.

Remarks like that worry me. Just because you weren’t alive during the Vietnam War doesn’t mean you won’t go down that road. I generally am a fan of the Obama administration, on both domestic and foreign policy. But the one thing that gives me the creeps is their awkward relationship with senior military officials. Mistrusting the Joint Chiefs, suspecting their motives, treating them as adversaries or outsiders, not examining differences — that was LBJ’s recipe. It didn’t work. He looked upon the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a political entity to be manipulated or, failing that, sidelined. That’s a recipe for disaster, especially for an administration conspicuously lacking interest in the views of former military officers or even former civilian Pentagon officials.

In our system, White House officials have the upper hand in the civilian-military relationship, so it is their responsibility to be steward of it. That’s the price of "the unequal dialogue." If the relationship is persistently poor, it is the fault of the civilians, because they are in the best position to fix it. The first step is to demand candor from the generals, and to protect those who provide it. Remove those who don’t.

Anytime anyone tells me that the lessons of Vietnam are irrelevant, that’s when I begin looking for a hole to hide in.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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