Disastrous Lessons

December 8th, 2009

By Jan Barry

LessonsLyndon 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 advisors.”

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.

MFSO leaders wrote in a recently released Open Letter to President Obama:

The American people want safety and security, as do the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. 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 advisors. ‘It’s a disservice to the process, to the country and to the men and women of the military.’

His advisors 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:

Lessons in Disaster, Foreign Policy

How Obama Came to Plan for ‘Surge’ in Afghanistan, The New York Times

U.S. Envoy Urges Caution on Forces for Afghanistan, The New York Times

Military Families Speak Out

(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)


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Categories: History, Military, Politics | Comments (3) | Home

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3 Responses to “Disastrous Lessons”



  1. Elizabeth Barrette |

    Somehow I don’t think punching the tar baby again will have any better results.

    War is ruinous and expensive, and should be a last resort when attacked by a perilous enemy. Fighting two wars at once is stupid and dangerous. We cannot afford it, and there are far more urgent needs going unmet while we waste money and other resources.


  2. Tom |

    As time goes on and we learn more about the drawn-out process Obama went through to reach a decision on Afghanistan, we’re going to see what a fudge factory it really was. It was pretty obvious from the beginning that Obama was going to try to split the difference between the demands of his Democratic base and the demands of most Republicans and a lot of independents. So what we got was the worst possible outcome — commit a large number of troops but give the enemy a pull-out date. That’s dumb beyond description.

    People resist comparisons between Vietnam and Afghanistan, and in the details they’re mainly right. But the comparison between Lyndon Johnson’s tragically mistaken decision to escalate in Vietnam and Barack Obama’s decision to escalate in Afghanistan is very appropriate. The list of things wrong with Obama’s decision is long — no vital national interest, a pull-out date given in advance, no clear statement of what “winning” means, limited public support in the U.S., weak international support, a corrupt central government that’s going to remain corrupt, a fractured tribal society that isn’t going to unite under a central government, growing popular sentiment against the U.S. as more troops arrive and the optempo increases, growing numbers of civilian casualties, the further de-stabilization of Pakistan, and on and on.

    Anyone who thinks we’re fighting to protect the U.S. against terrorism sadly misapprehends the situation. The terrorist threat, al-Qaeda and others, is not Afghan, in the sense that it can be attacked and defeated there. It’s like hitting jello with a hammer — it just splatters around to other places. Al-Qaeda has operated from bases in other countries before, and they (and other terrorist groups) will continue doing that. And lest we forget, of the 9/11 terrorist operators, 15 were from Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirates, one from Egypt, and one from Lebanon.

    The initial, highly successful attack in Afghanistan, working with indigenous forces, deposed the Taliban, killed a lot of al-Qaeda, and dispersed the rest. Even though bin Laden escaped, it was the right thing to do. We should never have thrown major combat forces into a protracted war. Now we should pull out all ground forces except a small security force and continue to support Afghanistan, to the extent possible, with diplomacy and development assistance. That’s not going to work very well, of course, but the cost is acceptable. As far as fighting terrorists that threaten the U.S. is concerned, that should be done with forces off-shore and, in certain circumstances, with special operations forces, all supported with expanded and enhanced intelligence operations. No matter where the terrorists set themselves up, we should attack them — no matter what country they happen to be in.


  3. Harvey |

    Some great history here — thanks for putting it together.


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