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Disastrous Lessons

December 7, 2009

Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to escalate U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, despite public statements that he sought no wider war, destroyed his political career. John F. Kennedy’s decision to veto hawkish generals and advisors and wage a secretive, low-key counterinsurgency campaign—which included approving a military coup that killed the American-installed president of South Vietnam and his hard-to-control brother—eerily foreshadowed JFK’s own assassination in office.

Now a new president has dramatically signed off on a major military escalation of what was a long-simmering insurgency in a distant Asian land. In announcing his decision in a televised speech at the U.S. Military Academy, President Obama assured the world that, unlike the ill-fated war in Vietnam, his military surge plan is the best option for concluding the eight-year-long war in Afghanistan, while saving an embattled American-backed government that has waning local support in battling a relentless insurgency.

The new plan is a slam dunk, it was revealed to reporters, because Obama and his advisors learned how to avoid the pitfalls of the past by reading books such as Gordon Goldstein’s "Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam."

So far, the main lesson that Obama and his war cabinet seems to have absorbed from Goldstein’s book is how Johnson stage-managed a White House debate among advisors in 1965 to arrive at a plan to send a large contingent of combat forces he’d already approved through back door dealings with generals. LBJ got furious with Bundy when the former Harvard dean went on national television to debate war policy with leading academic critics of escalation.

“Johnson wanted to create the illusion of a deliberative process,” Bundy, who was Kennedy and Johnson’s national security advisor, recalled decades later. “He wanted the record to be every argument was made and every voice was heard.” LBJ, however, had already made it clear that he wasn’t about to negotiate with the North Vietnamese, so that option wasn’t seriously considered in the “debate” that quickly narrowed in on how many U.S. ground combat units to send in conjunction with an escalated bombing campaign. Johnson had already determined how many troops his field commander wanted as a minimum, and that was the number his war cabinet agreed was just about right.

“Political stagecraft,” Goldstein called it, based on Bundy’s notes and recollections.

Consider the Obama version, as reported in The New York Times: “The president welcomed a full range of opinions and invited contrary points of view,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in an interview last month. “And I thought it was a very healthy experience because people took him up on it. And one thing we didn’t want — to have a decision made and then have somebody say, ‘Oh, by the way.’ No, come forward now or forever hold your peace.” But the only critic of the military plan that was the main focus of discussion—a request by the field commander for 40,000 more troops, more or less—was Vice President Biden, who argued for a lower profile counterinsurgency campaign with a focus on Al Qaeda leaders hiding out amid the Taliban in Pakistan. Negotiating with the insurgent Pashtun clans that make up the bulk of the Taliban who live on both sides of the border and have been fighting outsiders for centuries apparently never got serious consideration.

“Mr. Biden asked tough questions about whether there was any intelligence showing that the Taliban posed a threat to American territory,” The New York Times reported. “But Mr. Obama also firmly closed the door on any withdrawal. ‘I just want to say right now, I want to take off the table that we’re leaving Afghanistan,’ he told his advisers.”

During the months Obama was reviewing the war he inherited, he declined requests to meet with representatives of civic groups that argue for withdrawing U.S. troops from combat missions in Afghanistan’s mountains. A delegation from Military Families Speak Out got a meeting with White House aides in August, brokered by a New Jersey congressman, but never was invited back for a meeting with Obama.

“The American people want safety and security, as do the people of Iraq and Afghanistan,” MFSO leaders wrote in a recently released Open Letter to President Obama. “But we don’t believe these wars are helping to achieve these goals. The more we bring bombs and guns into Afghanistan, the more civilian casualties there are and the more our troops are seen as occupiers rather than liberators. … Please do not be the one to dash our hope for an end to these wars; for the swift and safe return of our troops; and for a new foreign policy that truly respects the lives of our service members who volunteer to put themselves in harm’s way, as well as the lives of children, women and men of other countries who are caught in the crossfire.”

In ducking out on meeting with families of soldiers and veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who are seeking a change in foreign policy, Obama made it absolutely clear he wasn’t going to even consider a peace plan. And like LBJ, Obama preferred a closed-door debate on narrow grounds of how many more troops to dispatch into a long, grinding war, rather than a public debate of all potential options.

As The New York Times dryly noted:

“And in another twist, Mr. Obama, who campaigned as an apostle of transparency and had been announcing each Situation Room meeting publicly and even releasing pictures, was livid that details of the discussions were leaking out.

“‘What I’m not going to tolerate is you talking to the press outside of this room,’ he scolded his advisers. ‘It’s a disservice to the process, to the country and to the men and women of the military.’

“His advisers sat in uncomfortable silence. That very afternoon, someone leaked word of a cable sent by Ambassador Eikenberry from Kabul expressing reservations about a large buildup of forces as long as the Karzai government remained unreformed. At one of their meetings, General Petraeus had told Mr. Obama to think of elements of the Karzai government like “a crime syndicate.” Ambassador Eikenberry was suggesting, in effect, that America could not get in bed with the mob.

“The leak of Ambassador Eikenberry’s Nov. 6 cable stirred another storm within the administration because the cable had been requested by the White House.”

Eikenberry, a retired general, stated that he felt a U.S. military buildup could make things worse if the government in Kabul doesn’t improve. Maybe he read the bottom line lesson of Vietnam that McGeorge Bundy arrived at in hindsight: the decision Kennedy made every time his generals called for bailing out the floundering regime in South Vietnam with the U.S. cavalry and Marines. “Kennedy firmly and steadily refused to authorize the commitment of ground combat troops—in that quite decisive sense, he never made Vietnam an American war,” Bundy wrote in notes before his death in 1996.

No doubt, a book is already being written tracking how Obama’s war works out.

For more information:
www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/10/06/lessons_in_disaster
www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/world/asia/06reconstruct.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&th&emc=th
www.nytimes.com/2009/11/12/us/politics/12policy.html
www.mfso.org/

Selected Works

Poetry
A tonic spray of poetry, verses that a Vietnam war veteran lives by.
Prose
A pragmatic, common-sense handbook for civic action at the community and international levels.