President Barack Obama’s decision to escalate U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan is met with disillusionment by some on the left, disdain by some on the right. Those on each see it as either political or as a strategic error. Others on each side support the move as courageous, or refreshingly intellectually nuanced, or that it’s a justification of the Bush policy.
Will it work? Is it worth the risk to the nation not to do it? Should there be an even larger commitment? Is this really about Pakistan? What does this policy suggest for Somalia or Yemen? Or, is it wrong to ask servicemen and women to risk their lives for a policy that says that the work pretty much has to get done in 18 months or forget about it? Is his time frame based on the Iraqi surge timeline for effectiveness, a surge he criticized? How long will American soldiers really be there? Is it right to risk their lives when the majority of the rest of the nation suffers little or no risk of any kind in connection with this policy (a nation consumed by what is Tiger doing or how did the Salahis crash the White House)? The President has taken 10 months to reach his decision. It is fair to give each of us time to ask those questions even if they later prove without merit.
President Obama made a point of saying this is not a Vietnam scenario. I was, however, reading a couple of speeches given by President Lyndon Johnson. The first was in April of 1965 when American deaths in Vietnam numbered about 400 to date. (More than 900 Americans have died in Afghanistan to date.) The second was from March of 1968 as he announced a unilateral stopping of the bombing of North Vietnam, urged Hanoi to seek peace and announced that he would not seek re-election. I think it’s worth reading some sentences from each speech.
President Johnson, April 1965: “…to abandon this small and brave nation to its enemies, and to the terror that must follow, would be an unforgivable wrong.”
“To leave Viet-Nam to its fate would shake the confidence of all these people in the value of an American commitment and in the value of America’s word. The result would be increased unrest and instability, even wide war.”
“We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired. We will not withdraw, either openly or under the cloak of a meaningless agreement.”
President Johnson, March 1968: “The South Vietnamese know that further efforts are going to be required: to expand their own armed forces…to select the very best men that they have for civil and military responsibility, to achieve a new unity within their constitutional government…”
“On many occasions I have told the American people that we would send to Vietnam those forces that are required to accomplish our mission there. So, with that as our guide, we have previously authorized a force level of approximately 525,000. (Afghanistan will have close to 100-thousand Americans under the President Obama’s plan.)
“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.”
Johnson and Obama. Similar words don’t necessarily signal the same result, but as someone once said, words matter.