We forget that, experienced in real time, Vietnam was “hardly [the] Vietnam" we remember in hindsight until suddenly it was. I doubt, for example, that many people thought in December 1966 that the war would excite a primary challenge to Lyndon Johnson or that Eugene McCarthy would be a formidable enough challenger to drive him out of the 1968 presidential race.“Above all, primary challenges to incumbent presidents require a galvanizing issue. It’s very doubtful that the grab-bag of complaints floated by the Democratic electorate—Obama's legislative strategy during the health care fight; his relative friendliness to Wall Street; gay rights; human rights; his refusal to prosecute Bush administration figures for war crimes or privacy violations—would be enough to spur a serious challenge. And while Afghanistan is an increasing source of Democratic discontent, it’s hardly Vietnam, and Obama has promised to reduce troop levels sharply by 2012.”
What if the Karzai government continues over the next eighteen months to demonstrate its incompetence, corruption and lack of resolve to hold the ground that NATO forces have expended blood and treasure to clear, making our allies head prematurely for the exits? What if David Petraeus, in whom Obama invested so much political capital last summer, is ready to resign unless he’s permitted to follow through with his counterinsurgency strategy under politically unforgiving circumstances? Under those foreseeable circumstances, it’s hard to imagine congressional Democrats standing firmly behind Obama’s Afghan policy in the face of growing opposition from their base, especially if Nancy Pelosi is still the Democratic leader in the House. Obama would find himself backed into pretty much the same political corner in which Johnson stood in late 1967, relying on congressional Republicans to keep him from having to admit that his principal foreign policy initiative is an abject failure.
Is it really that hard to imagine Afghanistan inciting a primary challenge formidable enough not to take the Democratic nomination away from Obama, but to wound him in the general election the way that Kennedy wounded Carter in 1980 or Reagan wounded Ford in 1976?