Troop Buildup Is Vietnam Redux; Not The Change Obama Promised

by James M. Wall

President Obama promised change. This current troop build up is not that change.

It is Vietnam Redux: Different time; different terrain; different goals; but the same mistake made in 1965, when, much against his own better judgment, President Lyndon Johnson was persuaded by General William C. Westmoreland  to escalate US troop levels in Vietnam from 75,000 to 125,000.

The chart below tells the current story. When Obama was elected president, the US had 31,800 troops on the ground in Afghanistan. In his speech at West Point, delivered almost a year from the day of his election, the president announced he had conferred with his generals and decided to raise the US presence in Afghanistan to 101,000 troops.

The parallel to President Lyndon Johnson’s response to requests for additional military troops in Vietnam in 1965, is unmistakable.  It should have been a warning to President Obama. The disaster of the escalation of the Vietnam War caused President Johnson not to run for reelection in 1968.

On his PBS program (November 20, 2009), Bill Moyers’ Journal, Moyers uses recorded telephone conversations, to describe what led to that escalation:

At the time, Moyers was a 30 year old White House Assistant, working on politics and domestic policy. He watched and listened as LBJ made his fateful decisions about Vietnam.

Moyers recalls:

[Johnson] had been thrust into office by the murder of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963– 46 years ago this weekend. And within hours of taking the oath of office was told that the situation in South Vietnam was far worse than he knew.

Less than four weeks before Kennedy’s death, the South Vietnamese president had himself been assassinated in a coup by his generals, a coup the Kennedy Administration had encouraged. South Vietnam was in chaos, and even as President Johnson tried to calm our own grieving country, in those first weeks in office, he received one briefing after another about the deteriorating situation in Southeast Asia.

Three months after Kennedy’s death, on February 3, 1965, President Johnson speaks with an old friend, newspaper publisher John Knight.

JOHNSON: What do you think we ought to do in Vietnam?

KNIGHT: I never thought we belonged there. Now that’s a real tough one now, and I think President Kennedy thought at one time we should never, that we were overcommitted in that area.

JOHNSON: Well, I opposed it in ’54. But we’re there now, and there’s only one of three things you can do. One is run and let the dominoes start falling over. And God Almighty, what they said about us leaving China would just be warming up, compared to what they’d say now. I see Nixon is raising hell about it today. Goldwater too. You can run or you can fight, as we are doing. Or you can sit down and agree to neutralize all of it.

Nine months later, November 2, 1964, President Johnson is elected to his own full term in office, overwhelmingly defeating Republican Senator Barry Goldwater. At the time, there were 15,000 US troops on the ground in Vietnam.

Johnson begins an extensive bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese. He continues to consult with his military commanders. They tell him they need more troops.

On July 28, 1965, Johnson announced:

I have asked the Commanding General, General [William C.] Westmoreland, what more he needs to meet this mounting aggression. He has told me. We will meet his needs. I have today ordered to Vietnam the Air Mobile Division and certain other forces which will raise our fighting strength from 75,000 to 125,000 men almost immediately. Additional forces will be needed later, and they will be sent as requested.

“Sent as requested”, was Johnson’s admission that the Vietnam war was now in the hands of his generals. He had turned over power to General Westmoreland.

Tom Engelhardt is harsh in his reading of Obama’s West Point speech. He writes in that the “American war commanders” have won a major victory over this civilian president. It is a disturbing conclusion, but one that deserves careful study:

Give credit to the victors. Their campaign was nothing short of brilliant. Like the policy brigands they were, they ambushed the president, held him up with their threats, brought to bear key media players and Republican honchos, and in the end made off with the loot.

Engelhardt concludes that the campaign against Obama began in late September when Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal’s “grim review of the situation in that country” was leaked.  The leak included demands for sizeable troop escalations and a commitment to a counterinsurgency war.

The opposition to Obama also included strong hints of possible protest retirements by leading generals. The leak was supported by what Englehart describes as “an impressive citizen-mobilization of inside-the-Beltway former neocon or fighting liberal think-tank experts, and a helping hand from an admiring media.”

The president had tilted the struggle toward the forces who wanted to demand a troop buildup by his own campaign rhetoric, calling the Afghanistan conflict both “the right war” and a “necessary” one.

Military strategy is shaped by the military, which throughout our nation’s history, has forced civilian presidents to either yield to proposed strategic decisions, or just learned to say no to those decisions.

President Truman fired General MacArthur during the Korean conflict for insubordination. President Kennedy refused to use US troops in the ill-fated attempt to overthrow Castro, despite military pressure.

President Obama might have looked at Vietnam’s monumental failures and concluded that a reduction in troop size was a wiser and more prudent course of action.  Instead he adopted the “counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine” which, according to Englehart:

. . . . was dusted off from the moldy Vietnam archives and made spanking new by General David Petraeus in 2006, applied in Iraq (and Washington) in 2007, and put forward for Afghanistan in late 2008.

It has now been largely endorsed, and a major escalation of the war — a new kind of military-led nation building (or, as they like to say, “good governance”) is to be cranked up and set in motion. COIN is being billed as a “population-centric,” not “enemy-centric” approach in which U.S. troops are distinctly to be “nation-builders as well as warriors.”

As we assess Engelhardt’s pessimistic reading of the Obama decision, we need to also look back at what Robert Dreyfuss described in Rolling Stone (October 20, 2009) as a “Generals’ revolt”:

In early October, as President Obama huddled with top administration officials in the White House situation room to rethink America’s failing strategy in Afghanistan, the Pentagon and top military brass were trying to make the president an offer he couldn’t refuse. They wanted the president to escalate the war — go all in by committing 40,000 more troops and another trillion dollars to a Vietnam-like quagmire — or face a full-scale mutiny by his generals.

Dreyfuss adds that Obama faced both a potential political threat in 2012, and an attack on him as “soft”, reducing troop strength and inviting another Al Qaeda attack.

Obama knew that if he rebuffed the military’s pressure, several senior officers — including Gen. David Petraeus, the ambitious head of U.S. Central Command, who is rumored to be eyeing a presidential bid of his own in 2012 — could break ranks and join forces with hawks in the Republican Party.

GOP leaders and conservative media outlets wasted no time in warning Obama that if he refused to back the troop escalation being demanded by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander overseeing the eight-year-old war, he’d be putting U.S. soldiers’ lives at risk and inviting Al Qaeda to launch new assaults on the homeland.

Following the President’s West Point speech, those same “GOP leaders and conservative media outlets” knew they had gotten what they wanted from Obama, but following their anti-Obama script, they did not praise his speech.  Instead, they rushed to denounce that part of his speech which promised the start of troop withdrawals in July, 2011.

Both Engelhardt and Dreyfuss are outspoken and influential members of the progressive political base which had placed so much trust in the new president to reverse the Bush doctrine of US empire building.

They are not alone, however.

Juan Cole, author of the blog Informed Comment, wrote an essay for Salon which lamented Obama’s failure to remember Vietnam in reaching his troop build up decision.

President Barack Obama’s just-announced plan for Afghanistan seems modeled less on Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam strategy than on George W. Bush’s Iraq exit strategy.

Or, at least it is modeled on the Washington mythology that Iraq was turned from quagmire into a face-saving qualified success by sheer indomitable will and a last-minute troop “surge.”

But Afghanistan is not very much like Iraq, and the Washington consensus about its supposed end-game success in Iraq is wrong in key respects. Are think tank fantasies about an Iraq “victory” now misleading Obama into a set of serious missteps in Afghanistan?

Stephen Walt wrote in the New Foreign (November 30):

Tom Friedman had an especially fatuous column in Sunday’s New York Times, which is saying something given his well-established capacity for smug self-assurance.

According to Friedman, the big challenge we face in the Arab and Islamic world is “the Narrative” — his patronizing term for Muslim views about America’s supposedly negative role in the region. If Muslims weren’t so irrational, he thinks, they would recognize that “U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny.” . . . .

I heard a different take on this subject at a recent conference on U.S. relations with the Islamic world. In addition to hearing a diverse set of views from different Islamic countries, one of the other participants (a prominent English journalist) put it quite simply. “If the United States wants to improve its image in the Islamic world,” he said, “it should stop killing Muslims.”

Now I don’t think the issue is quite that simple, but the comment got me thinking: How many Muslims has the United States killed in the past thirty years, and how many Americans have been killed by Muslims? Coming up with a precise answer to this question is probably impossible, but it is also not necessary, because the rough numbers are so clearly lopsided.

Walt arrived at a rough estimate of 288,000 Muslim deaths over the past thirty years. He found that roughly 10,000 Americans had been killed by Muslims in the same period.

Virtually all of those deaths occurred before Obama became president. If he had decided to pull a Truman on his military commanders. he would have demonstrated that he meant it when he said he would bring change to American conduct in world affairs.

Instead he is stuck in the demeaning position of a decision dictated to him by the military brass and their backers in the American political right. It is hard not be pessimistic when this happens.

The target date for the start of withdrawal is July, 2011. Conservative critics have seized on that “time certain” date to claim the Taliban will plan a resurgence of its own one month after July 2011.  That is just so much political double talk.  The “time certain” end date is, of course, fungible.  We know it, and the Taliban knows it.

Eugene Robinson, of the Washington Post, was an opponent of the troop increase before the President’s announcement. Robinson warns that the 20 month timeline is meaningless.

Before there can be peace in Afghanistan, there must be political institutions that can negotiate and maintain that peace. Building those institutions in a country so resistant to central authority will be, at best, a long and arduous task.

What Obama announced Tuesday was that we’re staying in Afghanistan. What he didn’t say is that U.S. troops are surely going to be there, in substantial numbers, for years to come.

The picture at the top is from a website, Afghan Pix. It shows an Afghan child in front of  destroyed Russian tank, left over from the 1980s.  It was taken in 2001. The chart above is from NBC News. It was posted on line by Rachel Maddow.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
This entry was posted in Middle East Politics, Politics and Elections. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s