Cameron’s Presidential Precedents

19 03 2011

Category: Politics, Middle East

President Carter and President Johnson

David Cameron is surrounded by people massively knowledgeable about recent American history. I wonder if they’ve been discussing the two former Presidents I’ve been reminded of in the last week or two.

The first was Jimmy Carter. That came as a surprise; it’s not an obvious comparison. But sending helicopters into the Libyan desert triggered a great big alarm. Even before a British plane was peppered with bullets, and before a British team was, briefly, taken prisoner.

Thirty years ago Carter, in an ill-conceived and ill-executed operation, sought to recover American hostages being held at the U.S. Embassy in Iran. It was an absolute failure that ended in the Iranian desert. A failure that Carter felt was the major contribution to his defeat in the election later that year.

The other President is more obvious, as he holds lessons for every leader: Lyndon B. Johnson. Few leaders have had the vision and determination of Johnson, who surprised many with his fierce desire to transform an America desperately in need of transformation.

He did more than anyone to reform that broken society with his vision of the Great Society, but much of what he sought to achieve, and all of his reputation, fell with his pursuit of victory in Vietnam.

A conflict he felt absolutely no passion for, that he saw as a distraction from his true goals, but was slowly dragged into. The further he was sucked in the more committed to it he was.

Cameron must surely know about Johnson; his Big Society is a self-conscious echo of Johnson’s Great Society. But does he know more about LBJ than that catchy phrase? If he doesn’t, he should read up quickly.

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