Vietnam, Afghanistan; LBJ, Obama: not exactly, but still... -

Vietnam, Afghanistan; LBJ, Obama: not exactly, but still…


There’s nothing less helpful in a political debate than a fatuous historical analogy. Whenever somebody levels a charge of “appeasement,” for instance, it’s a safe bet whatever negotiating stance they’re attacking bares not the slightest resemblance to what happened at Munich.

Yet, ever since Barack Obama delivered his impressive speech at West Point last week on sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the fear that this war might be in danger of turning Vietnam-like has been hard to dispel.

Obama anticipated this line of thinking, taking it so seriously that he tackled it head-on in his Dec. 1 address. Among his key points differentiating Afghanistan now from Vietnam then: America enjoys substantial international support for this war, isn’t facing a “broad-based popular insurgency” this time, and “most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan.”

As a Canadian pondering our own future in the fighting—or in other costly efforts to turn Afghanistan into a stable state—I found none of those contrasts very reassuring. If the Taliban’s support isn’t “broad-based,” it’s clearly significant among Pashtuns. If the U.S. has allies in Afghanistan, for the most part their enthusiasm isn’t robust. And while the 9/11 attacks came from Afghanistan, Islamist terror is hardly an Afghan phenomenon.

So, no, the Vietnam comparison doesn’t seem irrelevant to me. I’m struck by echos in Obama’s speech of the one president Lyndon B. Johnson delivered on March 31, 1968, when he pleaded for American forbearance in Southeast Asia, and also announced he wouldn’t seek reelection. Some rough parallels:


Johnson: It has not been easy — far from it. During the past four and a half years, it has been my fate and my responsibility to be Commander in Chief. I have lived daily and nightly with the cost of this war. I know the pain that it has inflicted. I know perhaps better than anyone the misgivings that it has aroused. And throughout this entire long period I have been sustained by a single principle: that what we are doing now in Vietnam is vital not only to the security of Southeast Asia, but it is vital to the security of every American.

Obama: I have read the letters from the parents and spouses of those who deployed. I have visited our courageous wounded warriors at Walter Reed. I have travelled to Dover to meet the flag-draped caskets of 18 Americans returning home to their final resting place. I see firsthand the terrible wages of war. If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow.


Johnson: And the larger purpose of our involvement has always been to help the nations of Southeast Asia become independent, and stand alone, self-sustaining as members of a great world community, at peace with themselves, at peace with all others. And with such a nation our country — and the world — will be far more secure than it is tonight.

Obama: In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. This danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.


Johnson: Our presence there has always rested on this basic belief: The main burden of preserving their freedom must be carried out by them—by the South Vietnamese themselves. We and our allies can only help to provide a shield behind which the people of South Vietnam can survive and can grow and develop. On their efforts—on their determinations and resourcefulness—the outcome will ultimately depend.

Obama: Taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011… We will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan’s Security Forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. But it will be clear to the Afghan government—and, more importantly, to the Afghan people—that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not hinting for a moment that any of this somehow proves one president’s quagmire is just like another’s. What I am suggesting is that remembering, not just the general Vietnam malaise, but the particular arguments, can sharpen our thinking on Afghanistan.

In particular, we should look long and hard at claims that strife in a distant country directly threatens domestic security. We should keep in mind that fighting a war in one country is hard enough—to make stabilizing an entire unruly region a strategic aim is much tougher. And we should be realistic about what it might take to foster stand-alone governing capacity in a corrupt, impoverished state.


Vietnam, Afghanistan; LBJ, Obama: not exactly, but still…

  1. Agreed. At the same time if I was an American voter I'd be willing to giving the McCrystal plan a shot. They've already been there for what? 8 Years? Another year and a half won't matter much one way or another. Either this new strategy turns the tide or they start pulling out.

    What I find odd is this obsessive focus on the Al Qaida cell that may or may not still be there. My understanding is that it's much more of an amorphous "movement" rather than a functional group at this point. And furthermore, to the extent it still exists it;s based more in Pakistan than Afghanistan. In any event you'd be better off sending special forces or using espionage to take them out rather than the blunt force of the U.S. army. The use of the army only makes sense if your enemy is the Taliban.

  2. Also…why not just arm and finance the Northern Alliance or similar groups and sic them on the Taliban rather than use NATO troops?

    • You remember how the Americans once supported the Taliban for similar reasons? I'm betting they do too.

    • I think they're not interested anymore. They really had their backs to the wall in 2001 and were thus happy to drive the Taliban out with US help; but storming the Taliban's own stronghold in the mountains isn't worth your average Uzbek's time & life.

    • why not just arm and finance the Northern Alliance or similar groups and sic them on the Taliban rather than use NATO troops

      There's a human rights disaster in the making.

      • Well it's essentially what the Americans did in the early (relatively successful) days of the war. Why not just continue? Jack's right, I imagine, in that other mujahadeen groups might not be willing to go into the mountains. But so what? Just keep them penned up in there where they can't do much harm?

        Perhaps this would still constitute a "safe haven" where a new version of Al Quaida could hide but how is that any different than what we have today?

  3. How did we ever get sold this notion of democracy in Afghanistan?We always seem to fall for it,no matter the era. Our reach exceeds our grasp; and why do we always seem to wind up with such crappy client states?[ there's aphrase you don't hear anymore] Of course educating girls and encouraging a pluralism are worthy goals. But corrupt impoverished states are not turned around in a day. And not without the willing and enthusiastic participation of national elites…anyone see any sign of that happening in Afghanistan? We always seem to wind up settling for managing the status quo. Maybe that was always the only realistic option open?

  4. I think Obama thinks this could very well be another Vietnam. There have been a few interviews where Obama says Afghan is not same as Vietnam but there are similarities.

    "stabilizing an entire unruly region a strategic aim is much tougher. And we should be realistic about what it might take to foster stand-alone governing capacity in a corrupt, impoverished state"

    If we were going to get serious about this, I think Canada needs to form a Colonial Office or somesuch and commit ourselves to 20-30 years of teaching and governing. No way we reach those goals over the course of a few years.

  5. The situation is similar to VN. Obama is an untried, and incompetent President. He is still in campaign mode long after the election is won. The guy is so busy lying out of both sides of his head it's truly a tragic comedy. (All just like Johnson…) It will take permanant Military Installations and regular trop rotations as part of enlistment in the Military of all Nato Member Nations to keep the monsters at bay. The only thing Muslim extremists like any other extremeist understands is force. In this case that force has to be Deadly Force, this is what they (The Muslims) have stated. They have stated it's them against all non muslims and they will kill all who do not fall in line. Time for all to face the cold hard facts.

  6. Wouldn't the analogy be that if Afghanistan is Vietnam, then Obama is Nixon?

    • Good point. We've already had the colonial withdrawal, the international shrug and almost a decade of corrupt, failed replacement government, now it's time for the surge of stupidity to "win the war." I'd see about getting a low number on the helicopter list if I was someone connected with the US in Afghanistan.

      The other analogy to worry about: Is Pakistan the new Cambodia?

  7. Allow me to outline a difference that a politician isn't allowed to talk about. The number of US fatalities in Afghanistan is dramatically lower than in Vietnam; it's not even close.

    Obviously the death of any soldier or civilian has a profound, irreversible effect.

    But 'number of military fatalities' is a relevant metric in a war and fortunately (without diminishing the value of the lives lost) the US military death toll in Afghanistan stands at about 1/60th of Vietnam. It is about 1/3rd the number of people killed on a single day in the 9/11 attacks.

    Say what you want about whether this is or isn't Vietnam, but the military death toll is not even in the same league and so it will not incite the same anger in the US population.