Sure, the quote in the over-title is only my fantasy. No one in Washington — no less President Obama — ever said, “This administration ended, rather than extended, two wars,” and right now, it looks as if no one in an official capacity is likely to do so any time soon. It’s common knowledge that a president — but above all a Democratic president — who tried to de-escalate a war like the one now expanding in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, and withdraw American troops, would be so much domestic political dead meat.
This everyday bit of engrained Washington wisdom is, in fact, based on not a shred of evidence in the historical record. We do, however, know something about what could happen to a president who escalated a counterinsurgency war: Lyndon Johnson comes to mind for expanding his inherited war in Vietnam out of fear that he would be labeled the president who “lost” that country to the communists (as Harry Truman had supposedly “lost” China). And then there was Vice President Hubert Humphrey who — incapable of rejecting Johnson’s war policy — lost the 1968 election to Richard Nixon, a candidate pushing a fraudulent “peace with honor” formula for downsizing the war.
Still, we have no evidence about how American voters would deal with a president who didn’t take the Johnson approach to a losing war. The only example might be John F. Kennedy, who reputedly pushed back against escalatory advice over Vietnam, and certainly did so against his military high command during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In both cases, however, he acted in private, offering quite a different face to the world. [continued…]