Fork in the Road: President Obama, Don't Repeat LBJ's Mistake

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by Charles Davenport by Charles Davenport Previously by Charles Davenport: John McCain and Thinking the Unthinkable

"You know, you never defeated us in the battlefield," said the American colonel.

The North Vietnamese colonel pondered this remark a moment. u201CThat may be so,u201D he replied, u201Cbut it is also irrelevant.u201D

~ Conversation in Hanoi in April, 1975, quoted in On Strategy, by Colonel Harry G. Summers

It is March, 2012. Aided by the harsh winter and overcast skies of Afghanistan, resistance fighters have attacked a number of American military installations, in a loosely coordinated effort being likened to the 1968 Tet offensive. Incumbent president Barack Obama, increasingly unpopular because of the escalating war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has just eked out victory in the New Hampshire Democratic primary by only 300 votes over staunch anti-war candidate Dennis Kucinich. A much stronger candidate, Robert Kennedy Jr., also opposed to the war, has just announced that he will enter the presidential race. Private polls commissioned by the Democrats show Obama losing by a wide margin to Kennedy in the next primary. President Obama, seeing the writing on the wall, and too late regretting his decision to sanction General McChrystal's 2009 request for 40,000 more troops to bolster the 50,000 already present, resigns from the presidential race.

An impossible fantasy? The exact same scenario has already happened, in 1968. Incumbent president Lyndon Johnson won the New Hampshire primary in that year by a scant 300 votes over antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy. Robert Kennedy entered the presidential race 4 days later. Private polls showed Johnson being handily defeated in the upcoming Wisconsin primary. Johnson, deeply unpopular because of the ongoing war in Vietnam, announced on March 31st that he would not seek reelection.

The rest of that history is well known. Kennedy was headed to being the Democratic nominee, but, tragically, was murdered the night he had won the California primary. Richard Nixon became president, and the Vietnam War would drag on for 7 more years, even after the Tet offensive had shown that the Americans, despite having 500,000 troops in Vietnam, could not win the war. Tens of thousands of additional American combat soldiers would be killed, hundreds of thousands maimed in body and soul before the last American helicopter lifted off from the embassy rooftop in Saigon in April, 1975. Nixon had resigned 8 months earlier, as much a victim of Vietnam as LBJ had been.

Reading Jonathan Schell's The Real War, a Vietnam post-mortem written in 1988, is sobering. The parallels with the current war in central Asia are uncanny. In 1968 General Westmoreland had told President Johnson that he u201Cdesperately needed reinforcements,u201D asking for 206,000 more soldiers, 108,000 of whom would be deployed in combat operations. In March, Robert McNamara, one of the chief architects of the war, had resigned as Secretary of Defense, replaced by Clark Clifford. Johnson asked Clifford to assess American chances for winning in Vietnam. Clifford asked top military officials a series of questions:

How long would d it take to succeed in Vietnam? They didn't know. How many more troops would it take? They couldn't say. Were 200,000 the answer? They weren't sure. Might they need more? Yes, they might need more. … So what was the plan to win the war? Well, the only plan was that attrition would wear out the Communists, and they would have had enough. Was there any indication that we've reached that point? No, there wasn't.

Adding to Johnson's woes, an economic crisis was brewing, worsened by the cost of the war. The dollar was losing value in world markets. A run on gold was beginning. How many Americans remember that the Treasury ceased trading in gold on March 14, 1968, to stop a potential run on gold reserves? The costs of the Vietnam War, estimated at $150 billion, seem paltry compared to the costs of the wars America is currently fighting. Joseph Stiglitz, former Chief Economist at the World Bank and Nobel Prize winner, has estimated the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at over 3 trillion dollars. As before, the US dollar is vulnerable. The Indian Central Bank has recently traded $6.7 billion of its reserves for 200 tons of gold. If China or Japan act in similar fashion, the US dollar will not be able to maintain its status as the world's reserve currency. Already elite institutions, including the Council on Foreign Relations, look to a post-dollar world. The American hegemon is teetering on the brink of an abyss.

u201CCredibilityu201D was the byword American war planners used to insist that US troops not be withdrawn from Vietnam. In July, 1965, LBJ met with senior advisors to decide how many additional troops, if any, would be sent to Southeast Asia. McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk and others insisted we had to stay to present a credible face to communist China and the Soviet Union. America could not be seen as a u201Cpaper tiger.u201D Undersecretary of State George Ball was the lone dissenter, giving the president an honest opinion, arguing for a tactical withdrawal.

u201CI think we all have underestimated the seriousness of this situation. It is like giving cobalt treatment to a terminal cancer case. I think a long, protracted war will disclose our weakness, not our strength.u201D

Johnson asked him,

But George, wouldn't all those countries say the Uncle Sam was a paper tiger, wouldn't we lose credibility … if we did as you have proposed? It would seem to be irreparable.

McGeorge Bundy (in Schell's words) regarded the consequences of withdrawal as so utterly u201Cdisastrousu201D that even in the absence of a promising alternative he preferred to u201Cwaffle through.u201D

As Schell noted in 1988, with Vietnam unified under communist control, and the United States and the West still intact and strong, it is hard to recall the apocalyptic importance attached by American policy-makers to winning –or, more precisely, to not losing — in Vietnam. u201CFrom the beginning to the end of the Vietnam war, the men in charge of American foreign policy were persuaded that the fall of South Vietnam was a blow that the United States, and even the West as a whole, might well not survive.u201D

Of course, after suffering 58,000 US combat deaths, we withdrew. America did not fall, and neither did the dominoes envisioned by the analysts of the military-industrial complex. In 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed, and today the United States is eager to trade with communist China, to whom we are heavily indebted.

The argument made in 2009 is that withdrawal from Afghanistan would signal to the Taliban that we are weak. The comparison between the Taliban and the Cold War-era nuclear-armed Soviet Union, possessed of a blue-water navy and large land army, is absurd on the face of it. The idea that the Taliban, or al Qaeda, or u201Cfanatic Muslims,u201D could ever destroy the United States would be laughable if it were not being used to justify expansion of another useless and endless war in Asia. Just as we misread Ho Chi Minh as being not a nationalist but under the control of a foreign communist apparat, so we fail to see that the resistance in Afghanistan is not motivated by love of the Taliban but by the hatred of indigenous peoples everywhere for foreign invaders. As Matthew Hoh's recent resignation letter has made clear, there is no organized Taliban.

The Pashtun insurgency, which is composed of multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups, is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies.

Resistance to the American presence is local and fragmented. As in Vietnam, the idea that there is some outside philosophy galvanizing and orchestrating the resistance is a fatal delusion. The Afghanis, like the Vietnamese before them, are fighting for their independence. In Afghanistan, there is not even a national liberation movement, as existed in Vietnam. It is a local effort of ancient peoples, isolated to their mountain valleys, fighting a foreign invader. Just as America failed to understand the lesson of the French experience in Vietnam, we have ignored the failure of the Soviet Union's attempted occupation of Afghanistan. We can never defeat the Afghanis, unless we are planning genocide. As in Vietnam, we will win the battles, but lose the war.

The real reason for the war are very different from those being fed the American public by the compliant media: the need for pipelines from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Karachi, Pakistan, or other nearby seaports. Those pipelines can only run through Afghanistan, with Kandahar Province the prime route. Also, in the eyes of our perpetually purblind war planners, Afghanistan would also function as a Forward Operating Base for any planned strike on Iran. The recent New York Times article reporting that President Karzai's brother, a known drug kingpin, has been on the payroll of the CIA for 8 years, doesn't help with the perception that some portion of the $65 billion heroin trade is also being siphoned off by US covert operators.

The war must be prolonged, and we must have time. Time is on our side — time will be our best strategist, if we are determined to pursue our resistance to the end.

_–_Truong Chinh, Secretary General of the Communist Party of Vietnam, 1947

In The Real War Schell wrote, u201CThe endurance of the Vietnamese revolutionary forces in the face of first the French and then the American military machines is one of the most astounding and mysterious phenomena of its time. As a feat of sustained human will, it inspires awe.u201D In a war lasting over 12 years, we were unable to defeat the Vietnamese. Likewise, we cannot win in Afghanistan, even if winning only means building and defending oil and natural gas pipelines and forward operating bases. More troops, more drones, more payoffs will not change that reality. Our presence there serves only as the goad needed to rally more fighters to the resistance. As Matthew Hoh wrote,

The U.S. and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified. In both RC East and South, I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul.

If we stay, thousands more Americans will die for an illusion.

Would that Johnson had listened to Clark Clifford in 1968, or George Ball in 1965. To paraphrase Schell, the power and prestige of the United States are based on more substantial stuff than our neocon warmongers would have us believe. Let us hope and pray that President Obama will understand enough of recent history to see the way clear to say no to General McChrystal's request for additional troops, to say no to the forces seeking an ever wider war in central Asia, and to begin withdrawal from that tragic land.

Charles Davenport [send him mail] is a physician trapped, behind the lines, in New York.

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