Iran Election Guide

Donate to EAWV

Or, click to learn more


« "Pain" And "Suffering" As Distinct Concepts: The Waterboarding Memo Set To Music | Main | Latest from Iraq: When Violence Goes Beyond "Violent Semi-Peace" »

Saturday Special: Is Barack Obama Another JFK?

Our colleague Bevan Sewell of the University of Nottingham and Libertas is a leading young scholar on US foreign policy in the 1950s and 1960s. Taking some of the lessons from that research, he looks at the foreign policy prospects of the new American President:

obama-jfkThe rapid rise of Barack Obama to the White House has been accompanied by desire among leading commentators to find an appropriate historical analogy. The number one comparison so far has been between Obama and John F. Kennedy, President from 1961 until his assassination in 1963, who also rose to prominence at a comparatively young age. As early as 2007, Ted Sorenson, Kennedy’s leading speechwriter and one of his closest advisors, anointed Obama as a successor. In February 2008, William Rees-Mogg of The Times wrote:
[Obama] has built up an excitement such as no candidate has created since President Kennedy in 1960. He is, in my view, a better speaker than Kennedy. Like Kennedy, he combines personal magnetism with a strong appeal to American idealism.

Yet, beyond the immediate imagery of youthful leaders, accomplished speakers, and forceful men regenerating America politically, what do these analogies actually mean? Can any worthwhile comparison be drawn, or is this just the search by contemporary commentators for populist appeal?

At least with respect to US foreign policy, any analogy has to avoid the temptation of predictions about how Obama’s policy might work. Labeling him as the "new" Kennedy is not as hopeful as many commentators have suggested. In fact, the potential (if tentative) lessons of the Kennedy era are that, in a time of international flux, presidents are likely to make mistakes. Those errors may undermine the US national interest even if, ultimately, this does not result in disaster.

One of the most powerful moments of Obama’s Inaugural Address came when he spoke of those nations that wished America ill:
To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

In the summer of 1961, President Kennedy adopted a similar tone in the midst of an ongoing crisis over Berlin which had seen the Soviet Union and the US come to diplomatic blows over the future of the city. In an address to the American people, Kennedy sought to reassure them of the US commitment to waging the Cold War and of his willingness to use force if required. But he also included a message of conciliation and an offer to communicate with the Soviets if they acted appropriately:
So long as the Communists insist that they are preparing to end by themselves unilaterally our rights in West Berlin and our commitments to its people, we must be prepared to defend those rights and those commitments. We will at all times be ready to talk, if talk will help. But we must also be ready to resist with force, if force is used upon us. Either alone would fail. Together, they can serve the cause of freedom and peace.

In both speeches, there was a clear link between the American will to use force if required and the US willingness to negotiate given a suitable opportunity. Of course, the contexts were very different, but these examples suggest there are certain themes that repeat themselves during different eras. While it is going too far to take these as the basis for predictions about Obama’s foreign policies and possible outcomes, they can be useful in terms of moderating grandiose expectations.

Indeed, Kennedy’s foreign policy travails in his first year in office show the wisdom not expecting too much from leaders that have been heralded enthusiastically. They are, after all, human: mistakes will be made, readjustments will be necessary, and it takes time for a President to get a grip on the internal dynamics of the US foreign policy bureaucracy.

Upon entering the White House in 1961, the Kennedy administration wanted to jettison an over-reliance upon the threatened use of nuclear weapons and a fiscal conservatism that had limited the policies of President Dwight Eisenhower. Instead, Kennedy and his advisors would pursue a strategy marked out by the military concept of flexible response and by economic and social development based on modernization theory.

Clear intentions did not, however, make for clear policy. In its first year, the Kennedy administration faced crises in Cuba, Berlin, Laos, and Vietnam. Kennedy was verbally humiliated by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna and had to confront internal problems with his national security team.

The decision to give the go-ahead to a CIA-backed invasion Cuba, just three months into his term, was disastrous for Kennedy; the Bay of Pigs fiasco brought widespread criticism for the new president and undermined the credibility of the so-called “best and the brightest” that made up his coterie of advisors. Further problems were encountered in Berlin, where a lack of presidential leadership, an absence of a clear foreign policy structure, and too many competing voices crippled US policy. So chaotic was the situation in these early days that, in a candid and forceful memo, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy felt compelled to lay out a strident critique of the new president’s management of the foreign policy sphere:
The National Security Council, for example, really cannot work for you unless you authorize work schedules that do not get upset from day to day. Calling three meetings in five days is foolish-and putting them off for six weeks at a time is just as bad….Truman and Eisenhower did their daily dozen in foreign affairs the first thing in the morning, and a couple of weeks ago you asked me to begin to meet you on this basis. I have succeeded in catching you on three mornings, for a total of about 8 minutes, and I conclude that this is not really how you like to begin the day. Moreover, 6 of the 8 minutes were given not to what I had for you but what you had for me.

Bundy’s depiction of an incoherent national security structure suggested obvious difficulties for an incoming administration. Adversaries abroad and the situation inherited from Eisenhower were the catalyst for many of the problems that the administration faced, but there were also internal difficulties that had to be addressed if the administration’s foreign policy was going to function effectively.

For President Obama, similar problems are all too obvious. The renewed US support for the war in Afghanistan, a deteriorating situation in Pakistan, ongoing crises in the Middle East, the debate over diplomatic openings to Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, and a state of flux in US-European affairs all provide ample evidence of an administration yet to establish a clear foreign policy identity. Reports of turf battles between Obama and his military advisors, echo the Kennedy era where factionalism and a lack of coherent command within the administration could strain the implementation of policy. And while Obama has been handed the poisoned chalice of the legacy of eight years of Bushian foreign policy, the struggle to learn how to ‘do’ foreign policy in his first months inevitably complicates matters for US officials.

Though Obama has a set of foreign policy priorities that he wants to pursue, his attempts to achieve these will be accompanied by ongoing difficulties. Shaking hands with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez is an obvious example. The depth of enmity that existed between Bush and Chavez means that a rapprochement is welcome, but the wider connotations also need to be factored in. Chavez divides opinion in Latin America as much as among other nations of the world; therefore, the US relationship with him needs to be managed carefully lest it have an adverse impact on the already strained inter-American relationship.

Likewise, attempting to broker a diplomatic opening with Iran has multi-faceted elements that must be considered. For while Obama scores highly for trying to open constructive diplomatic links with Tehran, it is a gambit that can backfire if Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to make inflammatory international statements like his recent pronouncement to the UN World Conference on Racism.

Yet it is the internal schisms in the Administration that are potentially most damaging. During the Kennedy era the debates that arose between new advisors like Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and older hands like former Secretary of State Dean Acheson pointed not just to a lack of internal harmony but also to an absence of presidential leadership. The Berlin crisis was a clear examples with Kennedy prevaricating between policy alternatives while canny advisors like Acheson and General Lucius Clay used a bureaucratic vacuum to advance their own agendas. Obama’s disagreements with General David Petraeus and more broadly the Pentagon, vident in discussions over Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, are reminiscent of this.

Of course, the history of the Kennedy era does not suggest that there will be an episode as damaging as the Bay of Pigs or as climatic as the Berlin crisis during the Obama Presidency. But they do suggest that, however talented and however capable, Obama may struggle to develop a fully effective foreign policy until he can eradicate some of the difficulties that blighted the early hope of his Democratic predecessor almost fifty years ago.

Reader Comments (3)

Ahhhh the 60's, nothing was sub prime then!...

So, given different circumstances, different people from different political perspectives and different congressional make-up and oversight, there isn't much of a comparison?

I would say that in foreign policy the analogy with LBJ is much better, certainly in terms of circumstances following previous administrations polices.

Also, I would think that the main lesson of a comparison between JFK and Obama in FP is that post Bay of Pigs the Kennedy admin figured out it was wisest to ignore the military chiefs bluster most of the time (they had a habit of forgetting where spy planes were). This seems to be a comparison and lesson Obama will hopefully follow given that the Constitution and Congress allows him to.

Unfortunately of course LBJ started listening to the military again with its annoying habit of describing everything as 'turning the corner'. I wonder if Westmoreland ever thought of the phrase 'a surge'?

Anyhoo, the other slight difference might have been the fact that JFK wasn't faced with an undermining of his entire economic model, which does, sort of, have something to do with FP. Oh and JFK was really a bit of a crappy domestic president...lets hope that one doesn't pan out.

April 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWhither Big Papi?

Excellent post. It makes me realize the energy of words and pictures. I learn a lot, thank you! Wish you make a further progress in the future. lzmzip lzmzip - Tory Burch Shoes.

October 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteribywtq ibywtq

I'm looking for a great quotes that i can use on my everyday task and duties. Lucky enough to drop by on your blog. Thanks. ihgdyy ihgdyy - yves saint laurent sandales.

November 26, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterzssbgi zssbgi

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>