But Afghanistan Is More Complicated Than Vietnam

The headline grabber in the NY Times poll following Barack Obama's recent West Point speech was the predicable ten point bump in support for the his latest planned Afghanistan escalation - precisely what his speech was designed to produce. The poll did turn up another more noteworthy finding, however: While a slight majority now backed it, only 39% of Americans thought the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops would make the U.S. safer; 45% thought it wouldn't; and another 8% believed it would make the country less safe. So why, then, do most people think we are in Afghanistan, or should be?

Logically, it seems the answer must lie in the belief that a larger American war effort will make Afghanistan a safer or a better place. Talk to enough people about this war and its historical parallels and you're likely to run into some variant of the phrase "but Afghanistan is more complicated than Vietnam," which probably speaks to the success of the President's speech, given that he went out of his way to rebut "those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam" and their "false reading of history." In doing so, however, he rebutted no one so much as himself in that the arguments he marshaled fairly mirrored those offered in defense of the Vietnam War: We have the support of "a broad coalition," while the enemy is not "broad-based" or "popular;" we "were viciously attacked;" and we "remain a target."

It's tempting to assume that this is simply a cynical recycling of the basic arguments that leaders generally fall back on when justifying a foreign invasion. Perhaps a recent Foreign Policy article is correct in suggesting that "he's seeking the same cynical exit strategy that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger did in 1968: negotiating the best possible second-place position and a "decent interval" between withdrawal and collapse."

Yet, at 48, Obama himself was probably too young to have really thought through the issues surrounding the Vietnam War at the time. So his sense of what the movement against that war was all about may be somewhat different from the way things really were. They say that history is written by the victors and in the case of Vietnam, so far as domestic politics goes, when all was said and done it was the antiwar movement that won. They also say that hindsight is always 20-20 and certainly there are far more people today who see the Vietnam War for the travesty that it was than there were when the war was ongoing and there were presidents making prime time speeches about the justice of our cause.

Obama, then, may actually hold something of an airbrushed version of the anti-Vietnam War movement, one where the American people easily saw through the mendacity of the pro-war arguments, readily recognized the South Vietnamese government for the collection of petty crooks and tin horn generals that it was, and may even have actually empathized somewhat with the other side, because they recognized that they were "broad-based" and "popular." Wasn't really much like that, though. In reality, Vietnam itself was also more complicated than the "Vietnam" of the popular memory of Sixties protests. And, whatever the truth of the matter as to what the President himself actually thinks, the people he's appealing to need to know that.

To cut to the heart of the matter, most people who opposed the Vietnam War probably never viewed the Viet Cong (as the National Liberation Front (NLF) was more generally referred to) as "liberators." In fact, at any given point, there were probably more people who considered all Vietnam War opponents traitors than there were opponents of the War who considered Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh any kind of hero among his people.

So while Obama is quite right to suggest that there's no comparison between the NLF of Vietnam of the 1960's and 70's and Al Qaeda or the Taliban in Afghanistan today, it's simply wrong to think that sympathy for the other side or even appreciation of the extent of their popular support was the driving force behind the antiwar movement. True, no one ever claimed the NLF had launched an attack on the U.S. comparable to 9/11 (and actually no one claims that the Taliban did either, as it is their connection to Al Qaeda that constitutes the rationale for our eight-year military occupation of the country). Yet the warnings of what an NLF victory would mean were every bit as dire as the predictions of the outcome of a Taliban victory. According to the "Domino Theory" in vogue at the time, if Vietnam "fell to Communism," other countries would follow and the U.S. might soon confront a choice between accepting worldwide Communist domination or fighting a nuclear war to prevent it. And even the Vietnam War's American opponents, who did not believe that a defeat of the U.S.-backed Saigon government would plunge the country into a reprise of the Stalin-era Soviet Union, also generally recognized that the NLF was not about to establish the type of democratic government they would have wished, either.

In short, opposition to the Vietnam War had far less to do with the recognition of the fact that, as President Eisenhower once noted, "had an election been held, Ho Chi Minh would have been elected Premier," than with an understanding that the U.S. really couldn't - and shouldn't impose its will on this country half way around the world. The Viet Cong (and their predecessor organization, the Viet Minh) had fought the French, the Japanese, and the French again. They'd prevailed against them all, and would prevail against the U.S. precisely because of their ability to unite the populace against foreign powers. (And in that aspect the Afghanistan situation does actually somewhat resemble Vietnam - a betting man would probably say that our local opponents will prevail in the end in this war as well.)

All these years later, there are few who would claim that no one in Vietnam suffered as a result of the Communist victory - there were "re-education camps" following the war and many of the freedoms that we take for granted here are nonexistent there. And yet there are also few who think we did the wrong thing in pulling out.

The argument against continuing the Afghanistan War, then, does not lie in denying that there would not be a downside - and a major one - to another Taliban victory, but rather in recognizing that our country cannot and should not try to shape that country's future by force of arms. As to the question of whether the U.S. can deal with the Taliban, and perhaps even influence it, let's remember that our government found no problem financing its ideological predecessors when they served as useful proxies in an earlier war against the Soviet Union. And certainly, the sooner the U.S. announces it intention to withdraw, the sooner the Taliban loses its main recruiting point.

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