What does it all mean? One possibility is that Obama, having once shunned Vietnam analogies, has reluctantly come to see America’s situation as quite analogous to that war. While reassessing his Afghanistan surge, Obama reportedly drew on lessons presented in a Vietnam history called Lessons in Disaster—which catalogued the war’s bureaucratic mistakes and argued that, had he survived and won reelection, President Kennedy would have withdrawn American troops or sought a negotiated settlement because he would not have had “to prove himself in Vietnam.” According to Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, Obama also listened to arguments from advisers like Richard Holbrooke and Joe Biden that the wars were significantly parallel. (Obama was irked by Holbrooke’s comparisons, but read Lessons, which Holbrooke had reviewed for The New York Times.) And several observers have reported that, at an off-the-record dinner, Obama told historians Robert Caro and David Kennedy he fears ending up like Lyndon Johnson: his great domestic achievements undermined by war overseas.
Another possibility is that Obama’s selection of Kerry (69) and Hagel (66) points to a generational hole in Democratic foreign policy circles. Many of the younger staffers who crafted the “new thinking” in Obama’s first-term foreign policy—the ones Mann calls “the Obamians”—apparently require additional seasoning before they can be nominated to a cabinet-level post. At the Pentagon, for example, Obama appears to have had few short-list options besides Hagel; the chief criticism of Michele Flournoy, the main alternative (who came of age after the Vietnam war had ended), seems to be that she needs a few years’ extra experience running a large organization.