War as the Enemy of Reform: Biden’s Dilemma or His Excuse?

Posted on by

Yves here. Although Andrew Bacevich does a very good job of documenting how military spending undermines social safety net spending, it’s frustrating to see it take the notion of Biden reformist/activist claims at face value. Biden is engaging in an only marginally improved version of the Obama strategy, of conceding 75% of what the Republicans want before he starts negotiating (Biden seems to start at 60-70%). However, even before you get to the usual budgetary excuses that wind up prioritizing war spending, Bachevich is correct to point out that a President has only so much political capital. Pushing an aggressive domestic agenda (charitably assuming Biden had one) becomes difficult if an Administration has too many foreign policy irons in the fire. Bacevich is also too kind to Biden here, underplaying his aggressive moves shortly after entering office, such as the disastrous Alaska summit with China, calling Putin a killer, and placing non-cosmetic conditions on Iran for the US to rejoin the JCPOA.

Is President Biden afflicted with the political equivalent of a split personality?  His first several months in office suggest just that possibility.  On the home front, the president’s inclination is clearly to Go Big.  When it comes to America’s role in the world, however, Biden largely hews to pre-Trumpian precedent.  So far at least, the administration’s overarching foreign-policy theme is Take It Slow.

“Joe Biden Is Electrifying America Like F.D.R.”  So proclaimed the headline of a recent Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times.  Even allowing for a smidgen of hyperbole, the comparison is not without merit.  Much like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his famous First Hundred Days in office in the midst of the Great Depression, Biden has launched a flurry of impressively ambitious domestic initiatives in the midst of the Great Pandemic — an American Rescue Plan, an American Jobs Plan, an American Families Plan, and most recently an environmental restoration program marketed as America the Beautiful. 

Biden’s Build Back Better domestic campaign qualifies as a first cousin once removed of Roosevelt’s famed New Deal.  To fix an ailing nation, FDR promoted unprecedented federal intervention in the economy combined with a willingness to spend lots of money.  As then, so today, details and specifics took a back seat to action, vigorous and sustained, not sooner or later but right now.

Of course, FDR’s Hundred Days did not actually end the Great Depression, which lingered on for the remainder of the 1930s.  From the outset, however, the New Deal captured imaginations, especially among progressives.  It invested national politics with a sense of hope and excitement.  As historians subsequently came to appreciate, the New Deal was also rife with internal contradictions.  Nevertheless, in terms of both style and substance, Roosevelt became and remains the beau ideal of the activist president.  As press depictions of Joe Biden as our latest FDR proliferate, one can easily imagine the president happily filling his scrapbook with newspaper clippings.

That said, any political leader who embarks on an aggressive domestic reform program has to prevent the outside world from getting in the way.  Roosevelt largely succeeded in doing so through his first two terms.  Activism at home did not translate into activism abroad.  Eventually, however, the outbreak of war in Europe and in the Far East famously prompted FDR to retire “Dr. New Deal” and don the mantle of “Dr. Win-the-War.”  In doing so, he was bowing to the inevitable.  The New Deal was already running out of gas when the danger posed by a global struggle against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan brought it to a screeching halt.  FDR wisely chose to accommodate himself to that reality.

In the ultimate irony, defeating those enemies made good on various unfulfilled New Deal aspirations, restoring both American prosperity and self-confidence.  Yet war inevitably imposes its own priorities and creates its own legacies.  World War II did so in spades.  If postwar America bore the imprint of the New Deal, it also differed substantially from what New Dealers back in the 1930s had envisioned as the purpose of their enterprise. 

Not least of all, during the ensuing Cold War, standing in immediate over-armed, over-funded readiness for the next war became a permanent priority.  As a consequence, domestic matters took a backseat to a fundamentally militarized conception of what keeping Americans safe and guaranteeing their freedoms required.  As the self-designated guardian of the “Free World,” the United States became a garrison state.

“That Bitch of a War”

A generation later, a reform-minded president fancying himself FDR’s rightful heir faced a variant of Roosevelt’s dilemma, but demonstrated far less skill in adapting to it. 

In the mid-1960s, Lyndon Baines Johnson conceived of a domestic reform plan that would, he believed, out-do the New Deal.  His vision of a Great Society would guarantee “abundance and liberty for all,” while ensuring “an end to poverty and racial injustice.”  And that, Johnson insisted, would be “just the beginning”:

“The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.”

Here was a promise of nothing less than a federally designed and federally funded utopia.  And for a brief moment, it even seemed plausible.

Winning the presidency in his own right in 1964 — he had first gained it as vice-president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated — elevated LBJ to a position in American politics not unlike FDR’s 30 years earlier.  Senator Barry Goldwater’s abysmal showing as the Republican presidential candidate that year left his party in disarray.  Democrats enjoyed clear majorities in both houses of Congress.  Assuming he could steer clear of complications related to the ongoing Cold War, the way seemed clear for LBJ to Go Big as a domestic reformer.

As it turned out, this was not to be. Within a year of unveiling his Great Society, Johnson made a fateful decision to escalate U.S. military involvement in an ongoing war in Vietnam.  In effect, LBJ laid down a huge bet, calculating that Going Big on the home front would prove compatible with fighting a major war in Southeast Asia.  He wagered that “Dr. Great Society” could simultaneously serve as “Dr. Win-the-War,” so long as that war remained manageable. 

Over the course of several agonizing years, Johnson discovered that the two roles were incompatible.  The conflict he came to call “that bitch of a war” doomed his Great Society, destroyed his presidency, and left a legacy of bitterness and division from which the nation has yet to fully recover.  Rather than ranking alongside his hero FDR, Johnson ended up being roundly despised by conservatives and liberals alike, by those who had served in Vietnam and those who had opposed the war.  In the estimation of many, “Dr. Great Society” ended up as “Dr. Callous and Cruel.”

Recall, however, that Johnson chose to go to war in Vietnam, even while persuading himself that politically he had little choice but to do so.  The trivial Tonkin Gulf Incident of August 1964 did not even faintly replay Pearl Harbor, yet LBJ pretended otherwise.  His misguided decision to use that pseudo-event as a pretext for armed intervention stemmed from a wildly ill-advised reading of contemporary politics.  An ostensibly savvy pol, Johnson backed himself into a corner from which he could find no escape.

The imperatives of the Cold War seemingly dictated that, if the United States allowed Vietnam to “go Communist,” the sitting commander-in-chief and his party would incur unacceptable political damage.  In Washington and across much of the country, the prevailing mood demanded toughness in confronting the Red Threat.  Better to fight them in the jungles of Indochina than in the suburbs of San Francisco — so went the thinking at the time.

That a conflict between two recently minted Southeast Asian nations, neither of them democratic but each claiming to represent the Vietnamese people, could determine the fate of the entire Free World will strike most readers today (schooled by more recent debacles like the invasion and occupation of Iraq) as preposterous.  In the mid-1960s, however, Lyndon Johnson judged the risks of saying so out loud too great for him to chance.  So he sent hundreds of thousands of G.I.s off to fight an unwinnable war and put the torch to his own presidency.

Will Joe Biden Be Dr. Build Back Better?

To most Americans today the Vietnam War has become a distant memory.  Let me suggest that its lessons remain notably relevant to our reform-minded administration of the present moment. 

Johnson’s mistake was to defer to an entrenched but deeply defective national security paradigm when the success of his domestic reforms demanded that he reject it.  President Biden should take heed. To preserve his status as the latest reincarnation of FDR, Biden will have to avoid the errors in judgment that consigned LBJ’s Great Society to history’s junkheap.

On the foreign-policy front, the Biden team can already claim some modest, if tentative achievements.  President Biden has indeed preserved the New Start nuclear agreement with Russia.  Unlike his predecessor, he acknowledges that climate change is an urgent threat requiring concerted action.  He has signaled his interest in salvaging the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal.  Perhaps most notably, he has ordered the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, ending the longest war in American history.  Implicit in that decision is the possibility of further reductions in the U.S. military footprint across the Greater Middle East and much of Africa, all undertaken pursuant to a misguided post-9/11 Global War on Terror.

That said, so far President Biden has left essentially untouched the core assumptions that justify the vast (and vastly well funded) national security apparatus created in the wake of World War II.  Central to those assumptions is the conviction that global power projection, rather than national defense per se, defines the U.S. military establishment’s core mission.  Washington’s insistence on asserting global primacy (typically expressed using euphemisms like “global leadership”) finds concrete expression in a determination to remain militarily dominant everywhere.   

So far at least, Biden shows no inclination to renounce, or even reassess, the practices that have evolved to pursue such global military dominion.  These include Pentagon expenditures easily exceeding those of any adversary or even plausible combination of adversaries; an arms industry that corrupts American politics and openly subverts democracy; a massive, essentially unusable nuclear strike force presently undergoing a comprehensive $1.7 trillion “modernization”; a network of hundreds of bases hosting U.S. troop contingents in dozens of countries around the world; and, of course, an inclination to use force unmatched by any nation with the possible exception of Israel.  

Military leaders like to say that the armed services exist to “fight and win the nation’s wars,” a misleading claim on two counts.  First, based on the results achieved since 9/11, they rarely win.  Second, their actual purpose is to satisfy various bureaucratic and corporate interests, not to mention ideological fantasies, all captured in the awkward but substantively accurate phrase military-industrial-congressional-think-tank complex.  

Put simply, ours is a nation in which various powerful and influential institutions are deeply invested in war.  If President Biden genuinely aspires to be “Dr. Build Back Better,” he would do well to contemplate the implications of that fact, lest he willy-nilly find himself sharing LBJ’s sad fate. 

In Washington and various quarters of the commentariat, an eagerness to get tough with China and/or Russia and/or Iran — a veritable Axis of Evil! — is palpable.  Biden ignores these tendencies at his peril.  Indeed, if genuinely committed to prioritizing domestic reforms, he should actively resist those intent on diverting him onto a path pointing to military confrontation.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, says that his boss has “tasked us with reimagining our national security.”  Of course, reimagining presumes a high level of creativity along with an ability to cast aside obsolete habits of mind.  Whether Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Pentagon chief General Lloyd Austin, or Biden himself possesses the requisite level of imagination remains, at best, an open question.  Little in their collective backgrounds suggests that they do.  In the meantime, somewhere out there in the South China Sea, the Donbas region of Ukraine, or the Persian Gulf, some variant of a Tonkin Gulf event lurks, ready to sink the administration’s domestic agenda. 

If Biden wants to be “Dr. Build Back Better,” he should assume the additional role of “Dr. Curb the War Habit.”  That means rejecting once and for all the illusions of military dominion to which too many in Washington still pay tribute, whether cynically or out of misguided conviction.  Doing so will require not only imagination but gumption.  Still, if President Biden intends to Go Big at home, he will need to Go Big in changing U.S. policies abroad as well.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Sound of the Suburbs

    The Americans need to be very careful elsewhere to ensure they can afford their military budget,
    There is nothing like wasting money on futile wars, that they are incapable of bringing to any successful conclusion.
    This is where the Americans like to waste their money.

  2. Sound of the Suburbs

    We stepped onto an old path that still leads to the same place.
    1920s/2000s – neoclassical economics, high inequality, high banker pay, low regulation, low taxes for the wealthy, robber barons (CEOs), reckless bankers, globalisation phase
    1929/2008 – Wall Street crash
    1930s/2010s – Global recession, currency wars, trade wars, austerity, rising nationalism and extremism
    1940s – World war.
    We forgot we had been down that path before.

    Everything is progressing nicely and we are approaching the final destination.
    This is what it’s supposed to be like.
    Right wing populist leaders are what we should be expecting at this stage and it keeps on getting worse.

    The Americans were lucky last time, and they got an FDR, this time they got an Obama.
    He promised “Hope and Change”, but didn’t deliver the goods.
    Trump seized the opportunity that had been presented to him.

    Luckily, Trump wasn’t that smart.
    If he had given more to the people, he would have got a second term, but he just looked after the very wealthy, and they don’t have that many votes.

    I really can’t imagine Biden changing anything that much.
    The Americans are desperate for change, and are ready to support anyone that offers real change.
    If Trump had delivered any meaningful change, he would be in power now.

    The situation is extremely dangerous.

    The establishment always fear change from the Left, more than change from the Right.
    Wall Street preferred Trump to Sanders
    In Germany, in the 1930s, there were the Communists on the Left and the Nazis on the Right.
    The Nazis seemed like the best option at the time.

  3. PlutoniumKun

    Sanders got a lot of criticism during his campaign for ignoring foreign policy issues, but I think his choice was based on a judgement that its impossible to take on the foreign policy establishment and be a domestic policy radical. I think any POTUS, of whatever ideological perspective is caught in that trap.

    1. cocomaan

      This is my takeaway too. America is a global empire presiding over a so called Pax Americana. A US president becomes a chief executive of that military dominance whether they like it or not. And this chief executive has a board of directors called the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

      1. Alfred

        I would go further and say that presidential candidates are chosen on the basis of “whether they like it or not.” Biden certainly has a record TPTB can not really object to. And he was willing to say that nothing would fundamentally change under his administration. There’s a lot of talk, but that seems like it’s turning out to be more gaslighting.

      2. Mike Elwin

        And it’s likely that the US won’t abandon that role voluntarily. Empires rarely do, right?

  4. Alfred

    “America” was founded on colonialism, by settlers schooled in colonialism. How can Biden, chosen as a leader of a country founded on colonialism, criticize and try to stop Israel, which is part of what was a British Mandate, from colonialising? And how are things to change here in America when it is true that the law of the land is based on the colonization of America? IMO, it’s a lie that “equality” and “equity” are aims here.

    1. Carolinian

      Colonialism, yes.as well as slavery and lots of other things that we now view as morally repugnant. And all that colonialism in the 19th century led to a rather horrific 20th century including the above mentioned Vietnam where America stepped up to defend France’s colonization of Southeast Asia. This line of argument is not a defense of what Israel is doing or of what the new imperialists in Washington are doing but a condemnation.

      That said, perhaps the real lesson of those two centuries is “that which cannot continue will not.” Roosevelt got this but Bacevich’s notion that Biden can also be a revolutionary thinker seems quite naive. The best we can hope for is that he doesn’t make things worse.

      1. Alfred

        I recall Biden telling his donor class “nothing will fundamentally change.” My feeling is that colonialistic behavior is baked into the idea of the elite’s success. I think Biden knows this full well, and doesn’t give a toss. That’s how he gets along in this ol’ world.

    2. Synoia

      …try to stop Israel, which is part of what was a British Mandate….Only from 1918 to 1948, 30 Years.

      I seem to recall the Romans evicted the Jewish People from Jerusalem in AD 70.

      These people, the Ottomans, had a longer ruling period: (From Wikipedia) April 637 to 1918.

      The Siege of Jerusalem lasted four months, after which the city agreed to surrender, but only to Umar personally. Amr-bin al-Aas suggested that Khalid should be sent to impersonate the caliph, due to his very strong resemblance. However, Khalid was recognized and Umar had to come himself to accept the surrender of Jerusalem in April 637

      Now one has to consider the Zionist movement which was a reconquer process by people of the Jewish faith, who rally hand no claim to Israel all.

      The Hovevei Zion, or the Lovers of Zion, were responsible for the creation of 20 new Jewish cities in Palestine between 1870 and 1897.. The movement’s central aim was the re-establishment of a Jewish sh national home and cultural centre in Palestine by facilitating Jewish return from diaspora, as well as the re-establishment of a Jewish state (usually defined as a secular state with a Jewish majority), attaining its goal in 1948 with the creation of Israel.

  5. David

    There’s no reason of principle why you can’t have a large military machine and pursue imaginative social policies at the same time. One does not preclude the other unless you let it. It’s really a question of priorities, and also of the amount of time there is in a day, and the amount of political capital there is to spend.

    The difficulty is that national leaders rarely get to choose their inheritances: you start with what your predecessor left you. In Johnson’s case, as I remember, he was left with a situation in which escalation seemed to be a smaller risk than de-escalation. If he opted to leave Vietnam (with the then certainty of a communist victory) there was theirs of allies around the world starting to ask how good the famous US security guarantee actually was. Similarly, his domestic opponents would be emboldened to challenge his social programmes. Like many politicians, he found that it was easier to pursue continuity than change.

    The other problem is that for politicians, the media, the think-tanks and opinion formers, national security issues are just more fun. The most ambitious people go in to the national security area, the best media stories are there, the best research projects are there. It’s much more satisfying to wave a stick at Iran, or chair a conference on the latest world crisis. Domestic reform, by contrast, is boring, tedious and full of technical detail.

    1. Alfred

      It’s necessary to mention huge profits from the mechanisms of war, and the manipulations of leaders’ and others’ egos to get them to buy in. “We’re all going to make money, and have the “upper hand”.” While ostensibly also improving everyone’s lives…

    2. Synoia

      True, its more fun to run an empire where there is no accountability.

      Any errors can be blamed om the locals, who don’t get with the secret, unstated, program.

  6. John

    Until the Military-Industrial-Congressional-Intelligence et al complex or juggernaut (it is after all crushing us.) or parasite (it sucks the substance from everything else.) is dethroned, the USA will continue down its path to immiseration for the many while those who are fattening from it will go blithely on their way and I see nothing that gives me even a shred of hope that this will change ahead of collapse.

    It is not a comfortable frame of mind.

  7. NotTimothyGeithner

    “America is Back”

    Biden would like one go big on both domestic and foreign sides, but he simply doesn’t have a clue what to do and doesn’t want to work to build support or end recalcitrant Senators’ opposition. His fp promises aren’t as good as his domestic claims, but they are running into Biden being Trump. He’s lazy and has no one but neoliberals to rely on. Like the delayed Covid package, the flurry of America is Back stories is running into the simple reality that America is at its limits in hegemony and the low hanging fruit was trashed with bipartisan acclaim. Like the deranged announcements to smile and toss masks, Biden will simply make banal pleas to worry about civilians while selling weapons because he won’t ever upset a donor or cell trust friend. Biden probably sent the Delaware Senators to vote against the minimum wage hike, probably to reassure Manchin.

  8. tegnost

    On the foreign-policy front, the Biden team can already claim some modest, if tentative achievements. President Biden has indeed preserved the New Start nuclear agreement with Russia. Unlike his predecessor, he acknowledges that climate change is an urgent threat requiring concerted action. He has signaled his interest in salvaging the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. Perhaps most notably, he has ordered the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, ending the longest war in American history.

    Biden may have “preserved” new start….basically a non action, combined with calling putin a killler.
    His views on climate change include continued fracking, sooooo…..lying?
    The dems stopped trump from withdrawing so that they could do it, later on, like every promise dems make, later on we’ll do something good, but don’t make us promise because we can’t do promises.
    He doesn’t want to build back better, he wants to preserve the status quo “america was already great” fantasy in spite of all indications to the contrary. Let’s see how this article weathers the coming long hot summer.
    Conflating JRB to FDR is ludicrous, FDR welcomed the banksters hatred, JRB takes his marching orders from them. A presidential historian should be embarrassed to make the claim.

    1. orlbucfan

      I agree completely: SloMoJoe will never be a FDR. Just the mere suggestion insults every politically informed American!

    2. lyman alpha blob

      Biden says a lot but all he’s actually done is get out a relief package that was already in the works, while managing to give people less than he promised and less than Trump did.

      Rising noted today that our annual and completely unnecessary donation to Israel is currently going through without a hitch. Nothing will fundamentally change. And we’re never getting that other $600, are we?

    3. Telee

      The acceptance of the comparison of Joe Biden with FDR is pure BS. If he’s another FDR, where is the will to increase the minimum wage, where is the support for single payer let alone the public option? The irony is that during the primary we had a candidate who was closer to FDR, Bernie Sanders. As soon as Bernie won some early primaries op-eds from the NYT, WaPo etc. came out against Bernie Sanders for being too radical, proposing plans that were deemed to far left for the American people. In other words the fear of reform by the establishment was a call to circle the wagons and kill Bernie’s candidacy. Preventing significant reforms is the reason for Biden, who promised Wall Street and the health industry that there would be no fundamental changes. A pledge which was rewarded by financial support. As far as defense expenditures, his budget for the military even exceeded Trump. Where is Bacevich coming from? Who knows. One thing for sure, the present democratic party will never allow another FDR to run for office.

  9. The Rev Kev

    ‘Perhaps most notably, he has ordered the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, ending the longest war in American history. Implicit in that decision is the possibility of further reductions in the U.S. military footprint across the Greater Middle East and much of Africa, all undertaken pursuant to a misguided post-9/11 Global War on Terror.’

    I am afraid that I may have to disagree with Andrew Bacevich here as much as I enjoy his work. This not a retreat but a redeployment. After reading recent articles by Michael Hudson, I am going with the idea that Washington, having been a unipolar power for the past generation, is determined to ensure American hegemony for the rest of the 21st century, no matter what the cost – internationally or domestically. Sure, the US can print dollars until the cows come home (or the chickens come home – to roost) but it cannot print people & material. Afghanistan being a lost cause and those troops being need elsewhere explains the pullout. But there is no withdrawal. Far from it. Consider the following.

    In the past year we are watching the militarization of the Indo-Pacific which has been a long time backwater. We are seeing the militarization of the Arctic and the US has already said that they will send warships to exercise “freedom of navigation” by sailing along Russia’s arctic shores. We are seeing the militarization of the Black Sea as NATO bases are established and NATO warships go on patrol into those waters. Then there is the militarization of Australia’s top end into a future base for US operations. We have seen the militarization of Africa with its own Africa Command. Then there is the partial militarization of the Scandinavian countries as well as a new US Fleet being formed for those waters. And don’t forget the militarization of Russia’s western borders from Poland through to the Ukraine. Then there is the militarization of the South China Seas with warships from countries like the US, UK, Australia, France, Germany and the Swiss Navy for all I know. And if that is not enough, we are now watching the militarization of space itself and the formation of the US Space Force was only a formality. No, this is not a pullback but a doubling down in an attempt at winner take all. Dangerous times ahead.

  10. shinola

    I’ve noticed that many post WW2 narratives lately seem to overlook that U.S. “police action” on the Korean Peninsula in the early 50’s. The USAF still maintains a base in S. Korea.

    Also, IIRC, there was some chatter in the early 60’s about the political consequences of being viewed like Truman who “lost” China to those Godless Commies. LBJ was certainly aware of that.

    Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had a bit of experience in war and politics, warned us of the dangers of the “Military Industrial Complex” 60 years ago. The warning remains unheeded; war is just too profitable.

  11. Susan the other

    When you get tired of parading down the street playing your own marching songs and look over your shoulder to see the long tail of followers. None of them very astute. And you’re getting tired and you’d just like to take a break. And the parade slows down and the music isn’t very bombastic any more. The dust begins to settle. That’s a good thing. Lyndon Johnson didn’t have the luxury of that perspective. He was too close to the lingering hysteria of WW2. But we are far removed. Technology is very far advanced. We can actually let the dust settle. And make new logistical decisions. Inclusive ones. As far as “National Security” goes… there are some things that will need to be taken apart completely. And reconfigured with actual security as a goal. Gotta define that one to actually have some relevant meaning.

Comments are closed.