Afghanistan: Obama's Vietnam?

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Afghanistan: Obama's Vietnam?

There's a rapidly growing discussion here in the US about "what to do in Afghanistan." Some of it is thoughtful, well-informed, and serious. Like this piece by Rajiv Chandrasekaran in today's WaPo, which argues that the two best options look to be "Go all-in, or fold."

(Actually, that's only one choice, since the US citizenry and budget are quite incapable of doing what would be needed to "go all-in" in that very distant and logistically intimidating country.)

I note that one aspect of the way path forward that just about nobody in the US discourse has yet started talking/writing about is the idea, that I consider crucial, that it does not have to be, indeed should not be, the US that dominates all decisionmaking and international action regarding Afghanistan, going forward.

Members of the US commentatoriat are so US-centric! It still boggles my mind. I suppose that right now, this is still part of the legacy of the 1990s, when the US was the sole and uncontested Uber-power in the world...

Anyway, that caveat notwithstanding, Frank Rich had a fascinating piece in last Sunday's NYT in which he noted a new aspect of the strong relevance the Vietnam precedent has for the decisions Obama currently faces over Afghanistan.

Rich noted that George Stephanopoulos recently blogged that the latest "must-read book" for members of Obama's "war team" is Lessons in Disaster, a book published last year about a guy called McGeorge Bundy and "the path to war in Vietnam." Bundy was John Kennedy's national security adviser.

Underscoring the book's relevance, Rich notes that when it came out last year, no less a person than Richard Holbrooke, now Obama's chief emissary for Afghanistan and Pakistan, reviewed it (in late November) in the NYT.

Holbrooke's review is well worth reading. He gives some helpful info about the background to the writing of the book. He also refers to a much earlier essay he himself had written about Bundy that he had titled, ""The Smartest Man in the Room Is Not Always Right", noting that, having known Bundy a little bit, he had had him in mind when he wrote it.

Holbrooke concluded the review with this:

  • Bundy never believed in negotiations with the Vietcong or the North Vietnamese. This, coupled with his enduring faith in the value of military force in almost any terrain or circumstance, were his greatest errors. They contributed to a tragic failure. With the nation now about to inaugurate a new president committed to withdraw combat troops from Iraq and succeed in Afghanistan, the lessons of Vietnam are still relevant.

These two little insights into the mind of Richard Holbrooke belie an awareness of the limitations of being "the smartest man" and of the value of military force that I, for one, find a little reassuring.

Much of the current analogizing between the US in Vietnam and the US in Afghanistan focuses on the decisions Kennedy faced in 1961. Other commentaors have focused on decisions faced by his successor, Lyndon Johnson, in 1964.

Last week, I had a couple of good conversations with Dr Jeffrey Record, a very thoughtful guy who teaches at the US Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama, who has written a lot of good studies of the big mistakes the Bush administration made in Iraq.

Record has also studied the US performance in Vietnam very closely. As we talked last week, he explored the 1964-2009 analogy a bit. He noted that in 1964, Johnson faced much the same kind of "big" decision Obama now faces-- whether to increase the US force commitment substantially, or find a way to ramp it down...

And like Obama today, Record said, Johnson was concerned both about trying to win some serious, big-picture reforms in domestic social policy and about the possibility of a political backlash inside the US if he should be seen as "backing down" from the confrontation in Vietnam.

In 1964, Johnson made the fateful decision to escalate. Rather than investing his domestic political capital in defending a decision to de-escalate in Vietnam, he invested it in pushing through a number of important "Great Society" social reforms at home, instead.

Later, the Vietnam part of that decision would come back to haunt him badly...

On balance, then, it seems good that Obama and his people are all reading what sounds to be an excellent study of the decisionmaking of those earlier years.

Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban is a writer and researcher on global affairs. She is a Contributing Editor of Boston Review, and writes weekly news analysis on Middle East affairs for Inter-Press service. Her blog can be enjoyed at Just World News.

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