19 Oct 2009

For Vietnam, read Iraq – and Afghanistan

The longer the US administration takes making up its mind about whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, the more comparisons are made with Vietnam.

The White House is making it very clear today that it will not be rushed into any decision about whether to send more troops to Afghanistan – or how many they might send.

Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, is stressing the need for a “legitimate” Afghan government and a “credible partner” for the US to work with in Afghanistan. In other words: no announcements about troops until the mess that was the Afghan elections is sorted out – somehow

Here, Republicans are getting impatient and insist that the president must make up his mind soon. Otherwise it looks like America is being indecisive, and they say that emboldens America’s enemies like the Taliban.

Democrats who support the president’s right to take his time making up his mind counter that if George W Bush had spent a bit more time considering the right strategy in Iraq, then a lot of blood and treasure could have been spared.

And the longer the decision-making process goes on, the more comparisons are made with Vietnam – as they always are whenever US troops are sent anywhere. I can’t count the number of times I have heard Iraq being referred to as the new Vietnam. And now commentators are insisting that Afghanistan is even more like Vietnam that Iraq.

It’s not just because of what’s happening on the ground in Afghanistan but also because of the way Lyndon Johnson’s attempts to pass progressive domestic legislation were made so much harder by the quagmire in Vietnam – and the parallels with the difficulties the Obama administration is having with healthcare reform now and will soon have with climate change legislation.

So as we watch this current president wrestling with the options for how to continue his war, it’s very interesting to read what key members of LBJ’s team now have to say about the agonised decisions that president had to make on Vietnam.

Shortly before he died, LBJ’s national security advisor McGeorge Bundy told interviewers that Johnson wasn’t really listening to any of the advice he was being given. He said Johnson “wants to be seen having careful discussion and he does indeed want to hear what everyone is saying”.

But apparently the president wanted to hear all the arguments so he knew what the opposition was thinking, not because he wanted to listen to them. Strategy meetings and conversations on the war were a façade, said Bundy. “The process was for show and not for choice.”

No wonder the White House keep insisting that President Obama is seriously listening to every option that’s being presented to him in the situation room. Even the views of Vice-President Joe Biden, who wants to reduce US troop numbers and whose ideas are usually dismissed as too kooky to be realistically considered

Here are few interesting pieces on the Vietnam/Afghan parallels that have appeared in US papers in the last couple of days –

– New York Times: From Defeat, Lessons in Victory
– New York Times: The Vietnam War We Ignore
– Washington Post: The Anguish Of Decision – Vietnam In Hindsight