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

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

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

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

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.

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