“Vietnam is getting worse every day,” President Lyndon B Johnson once confessed to his wife. “I have the choice to go in with great casualty lists or to get out with disgrace. It’s like being in an airplane and I have to choose between crashing with the plane or jumping out. I do not have a parachute.” Lady Bird Johnson recorded these words in her diary on 8 July 1965. Three weeks later, her husband committed a further 50,000 troops to fight in Vietnam. It was the first marked escalation of a war that was to cost 58,000 US lives over the next eight years.
In March 2010, the war in Afghanistan, which Barack Obama inherited from his predecessor, just as Johnson inherited Vietnam from John F Kennedy, will become the longest conflict in American history. More than four decades on from Vietnam, one wonders whether Obama and his wife, Michelle, had conversations similar to the Johnsons’ in the weeks leading up to the president’s announcement of a new Afghan strategy on 1 December.
After three months of deliberation, Obama chose to commit 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in what was technically the second “surge” of his presidency. It is often forgotten that, in March, he ordered 21,000 extra soldiers to the region. On the day he delivered his landmark speech on Afghanistan, US military forces in the country stood at 68,000 – more than double the number stationed there in the final days of the Bush administration.
Lessons in disaster
Supporters of the US president have compared their Nobel Prize-winning hero to Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D Roosevelt and JFK. Others, myself included, have suggested that a better comparison might be with George W Bush – at least as far as national security issues are concerned. But might it be the case, in fact, that the president Obama will end up most closely resembling is Lyndon Johnson? Here, after all, is a Democrat, elected with a landslide majority and a mandate to enact far-reaching domestic reforms (for LBJ’s Great Society, read Obama’s $848bn health-care plan), but in the middle of an unpopular and seemingly unwinnable war thousands of miles away in Asia.
The LBJ analogy – “a president who aspired to reshape America at home while fighting a losing war abroad”, as the New York Times put it – cannot be avoided. This is now Obama’s war, just as Vietnam became Johnson’s war.
Does Obama really believe that he can win in Afghanistan? Or is he, like LBJ, tormented by doubt even as he deploys more troops? In his 1 December speech, he uttered 4,582 words but failed to use the word “victory”. The address featured none of his usual soaring rhetoric and lacked energy, both in its brief opening and in its flat finish. The tentative tone appeared to show a president far from passionate about his own military strategy.
Obama used the speech to reject the Vietnam analogy – he called it a “false reading of history”. But he was being disingenuous. In private, he has expressed concern to aides that Afghanistan could yet hijack his presidency, just as Vietnam hijacked, and eventually destroyed, LBJ’s. Obama knows his history, and Vietnam looms large in his thinking. He and his staff have pored over Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster, an authoritative study of the decision-making by LBJ and his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, as they marched the US ever deeper into the quagmire of Vietnam. And yet, perhaps out of some Johnsonian mixture of fear, pride and stubbornness, Obama has now decided to scale up this war.
There are obviously significant differences between Afghanistan and Vietnam, but, according to a paper by Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason, published in the current edition of Military Review, these are outweighed by “eerie” similarities. Neither of the authors is an anti-war liberal: Johnson, a research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, has 25 years’ experience studying Afghanistan; Mason is a retired Foreign Service staffer who served as political officer in Afghanistan in 2005. Yet they find the historical parallel irresistible. “The Vietnam war is less a metaphor for the conflict in Afghanistan than it is a template,” they write. “For eight years, the United States has engaged in an almost exact political and military re-enactment of the Vietnam war, and the lack of self-awareness of the repetition of events . . . is deeply disturbing.”
War of attrition
As in Vietnam, they argue, a central government fatally tainted by corruption has no hope of securing the support of the Afghan people. Thus, “Afghanisation”, Obama’s plan to transfer responsibility for prosecuting the war, will go the same way as the doomed programme of “Vietnamisation”. “The current dual-pronged strategy of nation-building from the non-existent top down and a default war of attrition,” Johnson and Mason write, “is leading us down the same tragic path.”
LBJ left the White House after a single term in office, his presidency destroyed by his failure in Asia. Despite his public protestations, Obama must be haunted by the fate of the craggy Texan. In retirement, LBJ remarked that he had known from the start that he “was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I really loved – the Great Society – in order to get involved in that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home . . . But if I left that war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser . . .”
By ordering this latest surge, Obama has avoided being labelled a coward or appeaser. But, in doing so, he too may ultimately be risking “everything at home”.
Next issue: John Pilger
Read Mehdi Hasan’s blog Dissident Voice