President Obama, plausibly, believes very little of what he said last night
about why we should continue to be in Afghanistan—that we could successful prosecute it, that he could get the Afghans to take ultimate responsibility for it, and that Afghanistan isn’t Vietnam. As likely, he believes he has inherited a hopeless mess which, politically—facing censure from both right and left—he must thread a needle to get out of.
His strategic bows to both sides of the debate—committing significantly more troops and at the same time outlining a timetable for bringing them home—indicates that he sees this in both PR as well as military terms. Is it possible that his military goals are entirely in service to his PR goals? This would be morally reprehensible—that soldiers might be expended not to achieve military victory, but to keep a politician in office—but war, of course, is morally reprehensible.
The military strategy he is borrowing—the surge—he borrows from one of the least successful commanders-in-chief in American history. This is a strategy that, arguably, accomplished significantly greater PR goals than military ones, suppressing the most newsworthy violence while doing little to diminish the enemy’s underlying position and power.
Although President Obama maintains that a comparison of the war in Afghanistan to the war in Vietnam is a “false reading of history,” it is not at all unreasonable—given Vietnam’s long shadow over all of America’s foreign adventures since—that he is compulsively reading that particular history now. He would neither be competent nor human if he did not see that Vietnam, in addition to being a military disaster, was also a PR disaster. Each is bad, both are fatal. The president might well have concluded: a military victory in Afghanistan is a lost or too-expensive cause, which makes the PR campaign the all-important one.
As a good student he knows, as all students of Vietnam know, Lyndon Johnson’s fundamental strategic error: LBJ kept digging in instead of preparing to get out. He tried to win it all, instead of trying to make it look like we had won enough (in other words, understanding that winning was futile). This “winning” strategy was first articulated by Sen. George Aiken, a Republican from Vermont, who suggested that America should just declare victory and bring the troops home. “The United States,” he said, “could well declare unilaterally...that we have 'won' in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam.” This was “a far-fetched proposal,” he acknowledged, “but nothing else has worked.”
George Bush failed to adopt this strategy after our successful invasion of Afghanistan eight years ago—if he had, Afghanistan would be no worse off, and we would have saved a thousand lives and billions of dollars. He finally did adopt it in Iraq—the surge there has given us a tenuous control which we are now calling good enough.
This, it seems obvious or at least reasonable to suspect, is where the president is going. He is not looking to make a meaningful difference in Afghanistan, but, rather, is looking for a propitious moment and suitable cover to get himself out.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NewserColumns.
It is neither unreasonable nor dishonorable to be as cynical as possible when evaluating the official rationale for going to war—or continuing one.