Monday, September 21, 2009

Vietnam Again?

As critics taunt the President about becoming another Jimmy Carter on the economy or Bill Clinton on health care reform, an older generation is haunted by the makings of another LBJ in Afghanistan.

General Stanley McChrystal's call for more troops with the or-else warning that our mission "will likely result in failure" is an invitation to follow the Vietnam path that led to 550,000 Americans fighting and over 50,000 being killed in a tribal war that ended in defeat and humiliation.

LBJ was motivated by the Domino Theory ("If we allow Vietnam to fall, tomorrow we’ll be fighting in Hawaii, and next week in San Francisco"). President Obama is concerned about Afghanistan, and Pakistan, as safe havens for the kind of terrorists who executed 9/11.

He is on the brink of making a commitment but worries out loud: "Are we doing the right thing?" he said on CNN yesterday. "Are we pursuing the right strategy?

"I'm answerable to the parents of those young men and women who I'm sending over there, and I want to make sure that it's for the right reason."

His hesitation is well-founded. Beyond all the political blather is the reality that Afghanistan, like Vietnam, is the quintessence of Matthew Arnold's 19th century vision: "on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night."

In today's New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat claims: "On foreign policy, Bush looks a lot like Lyndon Johnson--but only if Johnson, after years of unsuccessful escalation, had bequeathed Richard Nixon a new strategy that enabled U.S. troops to withdraw from Vietnam with their honor largely intact."

But Iraq, a highly developed society, is still wracked by violence with who-knows-what to come after American withdrawal at the price of more than 4300 lives.

How much honor will there be in trying to pacify a country beset by corruption, financed by heroin trade, and coming off a stolen presidential election? Even more to the point, do al Qaeda and its offshoots really need "safe havens" in Afghanistan when there is a world of Yemens, Somalias et al to hide them from exposure?

The President would be well-advised by the history of the last half-century to look beyond military escalation as "the right strategy" in Afghanistan.

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