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Vietnam, 1965

Joe Galloway. Anybody else remember that?

Best and brightest, charistmatic new President?

NOTE Via Digby.

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gqmartinez's picture
Submitted by gqmartinez on

Can't we just move on and realize how bad things may have been in some hypothetical universe? Like I said before, even a well intentioned "fool" can lead to outcomes that are just as bad as outcomes from an ill intentioned tyrant. But, hell, Sarah Palin wore some horrible shoes! (Personally, I'm mixed about the boots.)

As to the topic of the post specifically, if there has been such an embarrassing misinterpretation of Lincoln's "Team of Rivals", how can I expect team O to get other history right? And hell, if Obama's campaign rhetoric is believed by so many to be so damn new and cool despite it being a minor variant of Bush '00, then how can I expect any reasonable consideration of historical lessons?

BDBlue's picture
Submitted by BDBlue on

of the 1960s? Don't you know how passe that is? What, you think you can learn from experience or something?

Change is here, baby. And by change, I mean forgetting history so you can repeat it and call what you're doing change!

bringiton's picture
Submitted by bringiton on

not limited to generals. There is nothing at all similar between Vietnam and Afghanistan, and casting the current conflict in that light serves only to obscure the true nature of the dilemma.

Our fundamental strategic mistake in Vietnam was backing the wrong side. The vast majority of the Vietnamese people supported expulsion of the French, who were no better as imperialists than anyone else. The rebel leadership, particularly the westernized Ho Chi Minh, tried repeatedly to enlist US aid for their effort and were rebuffed. Only when there was no other option did they accept Chinese military support, which they had at first resisted since the two cultures are ancient enemies.

Ho was never a fully committed international communist, but rather a national socialist; if American leadership from Wilson through Johnson had not been so blind, we could have for very little trouble had a peaceful ally in SE Asia who opposed Communist China. By misreading the situation, viewing it through the lens of Korea and WWII, we made terribly flawed decisions resulting in enormous cost.

Nothing in Afghanistan is similar. We were, for our own purposes to be sure, on the side of the Afghan people against the Soviet invaders. Our 2001 invasion was similarly supportive of the general population. At no time have a majority of the Afghan people been supporters of the Taliban, a cruel and backwards totalitarian movement initiated and installed by radical reactionary elements in the Pakistani army and intelligence services. In expelling the Taliban, we were in fact on the side of the Afghan populace.

BushCo, for many reasons, screwed up by not staying focused in Afghanistan. Now the Taliban, with support from those same radical reactionary Pakistani elements, are resurgent. It would be a grave error to withdraw from Afghanistan now. The country would revert to what it was before 2001, a nightmarish hell of oppression and violence, and surely again a safe haven for international terrorist organizations. Given the economic changes that have taken place over the last several years, it will most likely devolve into a major narcoterrorist state.

Worse, by far, is what this would mean for Pakistan proper. The radical reactionary elements of the army and intelligence services now control three-fourths or more of Afghan territory and all of western Pakistan. If we withdraw they would be greatly strengthened, with the very real danger that they could expand their influence to include a coup. We would then be faced not with a threat but with the reality of a radical Islamist government armed with nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles and perfectly willing to use them - regardless of consequence.

Making arguments pro and con about Vietnam based on the Korean War experience didn't make any sense. A great deal of the appeasement offered up to Hitler came about out of a general revulsion at the thought of a repeat of WWI, the supposed War To End All Wars, and embracing that false analogy also did not turn out well. Looking back at history is useful but the view should be broad rather than narrow and always, always, be considered in the context of now rather than then.

Afghanistan is not Vietnam. It is a nasty problem, but the issues and challenges are entirely different. Trying to view it through a Vietnamese lens will only serve to distort our perceptions and lead us to wrong conclusions. No more of this, please.

[On re-reading the post, one additional comment. It was not the young charismatic Kennedy who got us into deep trouble with Vietnam. Our presence there under Kennedy's direction was limited in both scope and numbers. It was his decidedly less charismatic and generationally older successor, Johnson, who created the debacle. If we are to follow the suggested analogy then we have little to worry about from Obama. It is the actions of his potential successor, the generationally older Joe Biden or perhaps eventually Hillary Clinton, which should give us pause.]

Submitted by lambert on

I'm more in "Village never changes" mode on this one-liner than anything else.

And, gawd knows, I don't want to relitigate Vietnam, but Kennedy, literally and exactly "got us in." The more experienced and much more effective (Great Society; War on Poverty) LBJ, for whatever reason, found it impossible to extricate himself from the mess. Whether a second-term JFK would have done any better (same advisors, same Pentagon, same Cold War political pressures) is something we'll never know.

Submitted by jawbone on

as Johnson re: Vietnam....

Johnson went in more deeply than JFK; it does appear Obama is going to be in more deeply tha BushBoy.

All remains to be seen. I doubt there will be marches in the street, mass rallies in our largest cities and DC.

Or, even Obama as Nixon, messing around with a neighboring country and causing a civil war there with terrible consequences? Same argument: agression from the first country crossing into the other country and using it for safe haven or transport....

With war, the only predictable thing, for the agressor at least, is the open gambit. After that, all bets are off.

herb the verb's picture
Submitted by herb the verb on

This is a half-assed counter-insurgency operation we have operated (and apparently plan to continue to operate half-assed) and the similarities to couldn't be more striking. A massive investment of money and troops and political/economic expertise will be required to change the game in Afghanistan; exactly the same as in Vietnam (or for that matter in Afghanistan for the Soviet Union, or for any other counter-insurgency throughout history including post-war Iraq). The problem is we no longer have the assets or the will to successfully enact that kind of strategy, in Afghanistan at least.

I would urge you to read this post, much of it written in 2005, and concerning Iraq, and updated for the current circumstances in Afghanistan. Prescience, combined with experience (from someone who had been there, done that) counts more for me than political arguments.

bringiton's picture
Submitted by bringiton on

Some fun. I've always intended to write an alternative history where the Amerinds killed or enslaved every European who showed up from Columbus onward, thus rebuffing the invasion while gaining European technology. With Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa as the fathers of their country, a United Tribes invasion and conquest of Europe would bring the book to a close.

But I digress.

I have no desire to relitigate anything either, but I wouldn't mind a civil and gentlemanly exchange of views.

The US had some covert presence there from WWII with OSS agents working closely with Ho to rally Vietnamese against the Japanese. That shadowy presence remained throughout the defeat of the French, with OSS agents working both sides.

IIRC, and I'm pretty sure I do, the first official American military personnel entered Vietnam in 1955 under Eisenhower, who put in at least 500 "advisors." Early numbers are hard to come by, since it was all very hush-hush and semi-official, but there is solid evidence to suggest there were between 8,000 and 10,000 US "advisors" in Vietnam by the time Kennedy took office in 1961. The bulk of them were in the South proper, but there were also hundreds operating in the mountains with the Hmong, Montagnard and other tribes.

Kennedy did escalate somewhat, but US presence - all still "advisors" - was just 12,000 when he was killed. In sharp contrast, by the end of 1965 Johnson had more than 200,000 combat troops in country and the numbers reached 400,000 in 1966, over 500,000 in 1967 and peaked at nearly 550,000 in April 1969 under orders issued by Johnson before he left office. Vietnam was Johnson's war.

What might have happened under Kennedy is, as you say, unknowable. The external pressures would have been the same, and they may have been irresistible. Bobby Kennedy insisted that JFK had no intention of getting into an Asian land war, and would never have done what Johnson did. Hard to know, by the time RFK was talking openly the atmosphere in the country had changed from what it was in '64 and that position served him politically, so there could have been some bias. No way to be certain, but he seemed genuine about it to me.

Eisenhower stuck our toe in, Kennedy kept it there, but it was Johnson who jumped all-in up to our neck and couldn't bring himself to admit the mistake until it was too late. Horrible thing; terrible losses; so many innocent dead and maimed; no one, least of all me, wants to see that repeated.

bringiton's picture
Submitted by bringiton on

Thanks for the poster, a good one.

Imagine Parker and Sitting Bull with a couple of warships doing a Matthew Perry but up the Seine instead, eagle feathers flying from the mainmast, kicking the hell out of those perfumed Frenchies with their powdered wigs and their foie gras.

Hope you're feeling better.

Damon's picture
Submitted by Damon on

Something not being said here is that regardless of how got us in, and when and where exactly we want to place on a timeline a serious escalation, it wasn't really until the ascendancy Kennedy when the grand interventionist strain in neo-liberalism was allowed to manifest itself, and it continued with LBJ. If anything good came out of the failure of LBJ in Vietnam it's that the interventionist wing in the liberal movement was treated with extreme skepticism, if not even mostly purged.

As for Eisenhower, I feel very comfortable in saying that he'd have never did what LBJ did, though, I'm not as comfortable saying he wouldn't have done what Kennedy did in his short time. Eisenhower seemed to have been the only one of the three that at least realized the danger of the military-industrial complex at the end of his presidency. That's not to say that Eisenhower was a non-interventionist, that'd be silly, but he definitely didn't have the neo-liberal vision that had began to develop that we could save the world through grandly-scaled interventionism.

bringiton's picture
Submitted by bringiton on

The Eisenhower Doctrine:

Following the Suez crisis of 1956, in January 1957 Eisenhower proclaimed a Doctrine stating that the US would come to the aid of any Middle Eastern country under threat from international communism.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Interventionalism on a grand scale is an inate American attribute, neither Republican nor Democrat, conservative nor liberal, neo or otherwise. One of those highly desirable party-invariant thingies, perhaps.

Damon's picture
Submitted by Damon on

My only point was that it was adopted whole-heartedly (as opposed to the growing strain before WWII) by liberals after we were emboldned by our involvement in WWII, and, fortunately, treated with much more skepticism after our involvement in Vietnam.

And, again, I don't feel uncomfortable, at all, in saying that Eisenhower was much more ideologically opposed to grand-scaled interventionism that either Kennedy or Johnson. In fact, that's one of my only deep critcisms of Kennedy and Johnson, in particular. And, personally, LBJ ranks among one of the greatest presidents in my book on the homefront.

And, before Vietnam, it was Truman, not Eisenhower, who started up the "Truman Doctrine" and got us further involved in empire-building in East Asia. The Dems absolutely owned grand interventionism in the middle part of the last century.

BDBlue's picture
Submitted by BDBlue on

For me, the lessons of Vietnam are not in the specifics. I would agree in that sense Afghanistan (and Iraq) are not Vietnam. But I think Vietnam reaffirmed certain larger problems with using military power, problems that every other imperial and colonial power had encountered. Vietnam just happens to be where the U.S. ran into them - hard. In this larger regard, I think Vietnam does provide some warnings about Afghanistan. It does not guarantee our failure there, but does raise some red flags about whether we'll be able to succeed. Here, are what I think some of those red flags/lessons are:

1) The ability to successfully "win" a war where the allied government does not have the ability to control its own territory with its personnel is very limited. Karzai cannot control Afghanistan. It's not simply a matter of needing a little help, either. The Afghan government does not have the military capacity to control its territory. Trying to build such capacity in peace time is difficult, to do it during a war is nearly impossible. Which means we don't just have to beat the Taliban and its allies back, we have to decimate them to the point where the Afghan government can control the country with very little effort or force. That's a much more difficult undertaking than simply helping a nation drive out a foreign invader.

2) Geography matters. Hostile geography, whether jungles or mountains, greatly increases the difficulty in overwhelming the opposing force militarily or wiping them out sufficiently that a weak government can run the country.

3) Neighborhood matters. The ability of Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan to hide out in neighboring Pakistan makes it difficult to ever win in Afghanistan. The conflict there has already spread to Pakistan, just as Vietnam spread to its neighbors. Unlike Laos, Pakistan is a nuclear power. Destabilizing Pakistan is a huge potential problem for the U.S.

4) Like Johnson, Obama is taking over a war effort that was half-assed by the previous president.* He's kept on the main advisor (Gates) and he's being told that withdrawing will lead to disaster (domino theory, anyone?). So he's doubling down. A new President, however, doesn't make a new war. The U.S. and its NATO allies have been fighting in Afghanistan now since 2002 (introduction of troops, bombings started earlier). It has cost us and our allies a lot of treasure and blood. There is a limit, IMO, to how much treasure and blood Americans will be willing to spend over there. Just as there was a limit in Vietnam. The question seems to me whether or not the U.S. has the resources and is willing to commit them to the effort Afghanistan will take, given what has already been spent/lost over there. Personally, I doubt it. We're talking on a huge undertaking, after already being there for seven years and in the middle of a recession, if not depression. I just don't see the stomach for a multi-trillion dollar, decade-long effort to rebuild Afghanistan, assuming we could do it.

5) To avoid problems raised in 3) and 4) (e.g. neighbors hiding insurgents and the costs of troops), the U.S. has turned to bombings. We did this in Vietnam. The problem with bombings is that it doesn't actually give you control over areas and it tends to piss off civilian populations, creating more insurgents or at least losing support for the U.S. It also is a hostile act to neighboring governments, i.e. Pakistan, as we turn to bombing the insurgents in those countries. The effectiveness of bombings as a way to beat an insurgency is very questionable, IMO. Yet, that's what we're likely to continue doing in Afghanistan.

6). Land war. Asia. 'nuff said.

But my main concern is that we appear to be doubling down in Afghanistan without any plan for success or even a definition of what success might mean. Is it simply enough to decimate the Taliban and whatever remnants of AQ that exist in Afghanistan? Do we also have to do it in Pakistan? Do we have to leave behind a stable national government (good luck with that one in light of Afghanistan's history)? Other than "beat al Qaeda" or "make America safer" what exactly is the plan? And shouldn't we have one of those before we send in more troops?

Of course, a cynic might think that we don't have a plan because we don't need one. That Obama's real goal is to appease the rightwing hawks on foreign policy (and the media warmongers) because he doesn't want to have to take them on. He's going to spend his political capital bailing out the banks (and the banks will have to be bailed out because one thing all wars need is credit financing).

* Spare me the second Kennedy term where he did everything right. He would've gotten us out of Vietnam and got Civil Rights passed! The only thing we can judge Kennedy on is what he did, not what he might have done, and what he did was escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Submitted by lambert on

You turned my whisper of instinct into a reasoned argument.

pie's picture
Submitted by pie on

Of course, a cynic might think that we don't have a plan because we don't need one. That Obama's real goal is to appease the rightwing hawks on foreign policy (and the media warmongers) because he doesn't want to have to take them on.

or should I say, the same reason we're in Iraq: OIL. I've never held much stock in the rooting out terrorist angle. These days, it's "Show me the money."
For example, there's this from an article by James Ridgeway in August 2000:

Big Oil is once again taking a hard look at prospects for building a pipeline carrying Caspian Sea oil across Afghanistan and down through Pakistan to ports on the Arabian Sea. "The large-scale projects aimed at building gas and oil pipelines linking the Caspian region with the attractive international market of the Arabian Sea may become the principal, if not the only, means to breathe a [new] life into Afghanistan," Martha Brill Olcott, a Carnegie Endowment scholar, told the Moscow paper Izvestia.

Oil and money, not Al Qaeda. Makes much more sense, don't you think?