Fox News Opinion is pleased to present an excerpt from “Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama” by Marvin and Debra Kalb. Mr. Kalb is a Fox News contributor and Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice (Emeritus) at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His daughter Deborah, is a freelance journalist and editor who has been based in Washington for two decades. Their book was published in June by Brookings Institution Press.
In time, depressing realities crowded into the Oval Office, perhaps none more depressing than the fact, now officially embroidered into NATO strategy, that the United States would be “on the offense,” engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan, through at least 2014. And the United States would be “on the offense” when the American people, according to a Pew poll, were rapidly losing confidence in the war. Released on December 7, 2010, the poll showed that only 44 percent of the American people thought U.S. troops ought to remain in Afghanistan until some sort of stability was established. Six months earlier, the number had been 53 percent, a nine-point drop. And whereas 59 percent of the American people had thought the United States would “probably” or “definitely” succeed in Afghanistan, now the number was 49 percent, a steep ten-point drop. The Afghan people were equally restless with the war, according to a poll conducted by the Washington Post and several other news organizations. In 2009, 61 percent had said they favored the American troop surge. A year later, the number was 49 percent, and falling. Finally, more than 70 percent said they favored a peace settlement with the Taliban.
If Obama were reelected in 2012, that would mean that by 2014, the new target date, he would have been a war president going on six years, explaining to a tired, reluctant, and increasingly resentful country why the United States must continue to fight in Afghanistan, especially when the Arab Middle East was in a period of unprecedented upheaval that demanded America’s attention and resources. Though he considered himself a post-Vietnam president, he was, like his predecessors, stuck with the haunting legacy of a lost war.
If the war were entirely his to manage, he would probably long ago have set the United States on a slow, steady glide path out of Afghanistan. But, never having served in the military, being young and inexperienced in matters of war and peace, he could not stand up to the Pentagon brass, even though he projected an exceptionally cool front. Shortly after his inauguration, when Gates came knocking at his Oval Office door asking for more troops, Obama yielded; and a few months later, when McChrystal came knocking, trumpeting his approach with one leak after another, again Obama yielded, though after an agonizing review. And when he replaced McChrystal with Petraeus, he effectively yielded operational control of the war to a smart, shrewd, and popular general, who, he knew, could be an overnight political sensation with only a half nod of approval and then, given the sorry state of the nation, probably win the Republican presidential nomination and the White House in 2012. Obama had rolled the dice on Petraeus; his political fortunes were in the general’s hands. Petraeus could ask for anything, and Obama would surely have to provide it, or else, as a Washington political pundit mischievously observed, the general could leave Kabul and head straight to Iowa for some presidential campaigning.
A reader of history, Obama knew that a Democratic president could not suffer another military defeat like the thoroughly humiliating American disaster in Vietnam. In 1949, when Democrat Harry Truman was in the White House and China collapsed to communism, Republicans were quick to raise the politically devastating question, “Who lost China?” It was a question they held over the heads of Democrats for decades. Were Obama to show signs of wobbling in Afghanistan or, worse, of abandoning the struggle against the Taliban and al Qaeda, “cutting and running,” as it was put, what would stop his Republican opposition, dizzy from the success of their November 2010 election victories, from raising a modern version of the China question: “Who lost Afghanistan?” Their almost certain answer: “Obama.”
Appearances in American politics are often as important as reality, and Obama knew he could be perceived as another Democrat who lost another war. To prevent that image from crystallizing in the public arena, Obama was ready to go along with another four years of war. Or maybe longer. Not happily, his aides quickly add. Even the 2014 timetable, after all, was conditions-based. Petraeus, when asked by George Stephanopoulos of ABC whether he was confident about a 2014 endgame, answered: “I think no commander ever is going to come out and say, ‘I’m confident that we can do this.’... We have to do everything we can to improve the chances of that prospect.” He added, “But again, I don’t think there are any sure things in this kind of endeavor.” On another occasion, Petraeus said: “This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”
Obama faced the extraordinary challenges of asymmetrical warfare. Could a modern state, fielding a conventional army, prevail over an insurgency of nationalist guerrillas motivated by medieval religious fervor? In other words, could the United States prevail in Afghanistan? Former President Jimmy Carter looked into his crystal ball and concluded, no. “Anybody who has ever invaded Afghanistan,” he told an audience in Washington, D.C., “has come out a loser, and I have serious doubts that we will prevail.”
At the U.S. embassy in Kabul, senior American officials privately echo the Jones view. All the “elements of success are there,” the general said, “if we can put it all together.” Otherwise, look for a “good enough” end, good enough for Afghanistan and politically tolerable for America. Or, as an embassy official put it, “a sense that things are moving forward, not backward may be the best we can hope for.”
Vietnam was, in part, a guerrilla war, and the United States lost. Now the American experience in Vietnam seemed to be foreshadowing the eventual outcome of the Afghan War: it could well be that the United States would lose that war too.
First, because Afghanistan was a polyglot mix of tribal traditions, deep religious beliefs, experimentation with modern democracy, ancient rivalries going back to Alexander the Great, modern rivalries involving Pakistan and India, and tantalizing economic prospects appealing to various countries including China and Japan. For all these reasons and more, Afghanistan was a tough nut to crack, even for the United States. Britain had tried, the Soviet Union had tried. Neither had succeeded.
Second, unless American officials were somehow able to solve the problem of Taliban and al Qaeda sanctuaries in the northwest corner of Pakistan, they would not be able to defeat or contain the insurgency in Afghanistan. One was indissolubly linked to the other. Lose a man in Afghanistan, there would always be another in the sanctuaries.
Third, because Afghanistan was such a difficult, time-consuming challenge, the American people, their congressional representatives, and the media, which play a major role in shaping public opinion, would all have to develop the patience of Job to wait out the Taliban; to lose hundreds, possibly thousands, of additional lives and spend billions, possibly trillions, of additional dollars in pursuit of a goal that was still murky and uncertain: all at a time when there were serious doubts in Washington about the capacity of the country to resolve its mounting economic and political problems, and when even the secretary of defense, in a farewell burst of candor, was raising questions about the wisdom of large-scale American interventions in the Middle East. “In my opinion,” Gates told a West Point gathering of army officers, “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined, as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”
Fourth, because the president, Obama or someone else, would have to have the skill and gumption to level with the American people about the cost and purpose of the war, balanced against the more urgent, demanding needs of the nation. In other words, could any president persuade America that another Vietnam-style war was worth it?
Finally, because the president, Obama or someone else, would have to be prepared to settle for a one-term presidency, so difficult would it be for any president to tell the whole truth about the U.S. effort in Afghanistan and still retain the nation’s respect, popularity, and credibility and win reelection.
Obama was stuck, not because he did not want to extricate the United States from the Afghan War but because the mix of American politics and Afghan-Pakistan realities fought him every step of the way. He fancied himself post-Vietnam, but the war that was lost so many years before he assumed office still hovered over his presidency like Banquo’s ghost—unwelcome, uninvited, but unwilling to release its grip. With Obama or any of the other presidents from Ford on, Vietnam was rarely the only reason for a presidential decision about war or peace, but it was always there whenever the question arose about the possible use of American military power.
Up until Vietnam, the United States had been a nation of unlimited vision and capacity, spreading from one ocean to another. No goal was considered beyond its reach. Even after the Tet offensive in South Vietnam in early 1968, the secretary of state, Dean Rusk, a public servant of towering integrity and dedication, pressed his right thumb down on his coffee table and, to make his point, kept pressing it down on the coffee table, until he said: “When the United States decides to do something, we do it.” Seven years later, unimaginable to Rusk and many others of his generation, the United States helicoptered its way out of South Vietnam, a deeply humiliated superpower beaten by a “ragtag” army of communist guerrillas and troops. It lost its first war. Other nations had lost wars, but never the United States, and this lost war left a long shadow over the Oval Office. Vietnam was a turning point for America, psychologically, politically, and militarily.
In the wake of that defeat, each president had his own way of dealing with the legacy of Vietnam. Ford, eager to prove that the United States still had its fighting spirit, sent massive firepower to liberate the merchant ship Mayaguez. Carter, seeking a bloodless presidency, came up short when faced with the Iranian hostage crisis and then sanctioned the creation of a bloody anti-Soviet alliance in Afghanistan. Reagan, persuaded that Americans had been “spooked” by the Vietnam War, refused to retaliate against Islamic radicals who had murdered 241 marines in Beirut, even though he enjoyed projecting a tough image. Bush I, the president perhaps most determined to battle the ghosts of Vietnam, sent a powerful force into the Persian Gulf to expel Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait. Clinton, facing his own Vietnam-draft-era demons, withdrew from Somalia after Black Hawk Down and then used limited force in Bosnia and Kosovo but accomplished his purpose. Bush II, ready after 9/11 to wage war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, instead went all-out in Iraq, determined to bury the inhibiting legacy of Vietnam.
Abandoned in the rice paddies and impenetrable jungles of South Vietnam were America’s self-confidence, its idealism, and more than 58,000 young Americans who paid the ultimate price for a “mistake.” As John Kerry asked after returning from military duty in Vietnam, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Updated, those questions might be, Who will be the last American to die for Karzai? Who will be the last American to die in Afghanistan?
Reprinted with permission from Brookings Institution Press.