Lesson of Vietnam: Alter

We're told that this month's marathon policy meetings about Afghanistan mark a fateful moment in the Obama presidency—a fork in the road. But that's only true if the president sharply escalates the number of U.S. ground forces. As everyone learned the hard way in Iraq, getting out is a helluva lot harder than getting in. If, by contrast, Obama chooses to limit U.S. involvement to fighting Al Qaeda, and stops short of a commitment to protect civilians from the Taliban, he has more options for a midcourse correction. That wouldn't be as fateful. (Click here to follow Jonathan Alter)

The meetings are being shaped, in part, by Gordon Goldstein's 2008 book, Lessons in Disaster, now practically required reading in the West Wing. Goldstein did the first real interviews with McGeorge Bundy, co-architect in Vietnam, and the quintessential "best and brightest" man. The length of Obama's review accords with one of Goldstein's six lessons ("Conviction without rigor is a strategy for disaster"), and the president's focus on a concrete objective before determining troop strength reflects another ("Never deploy military means in pursuit of indeterminate ends").

These critical foreign-policy decisions are, at their base, about the deepest fears of a president. "Kennedy didn't want to be dumb," Bundy told Goldstein. "Johnson didn't want to be a coward." (This was Bundy's way of suggesting that JFK would not have sent 500,000 combat troops to Vietnam had he lived.) My best guess is someday we'll say that Obama didn't want to be a mourner. The bottom line is American lives. Obviously, he doesn't want to risk more Americans being killed in a terrorist attack. At the same time, he doesn't want to explain to the parents of dead soldiers why holding one dusty town in Afghanistan—but not one in Pakistan, where terrorists are allowed to gather, but the U.S. military is not—made America safer.

Vietnam analogies can be treacherous. Unlike the Viet Cong, the much-despised Taliban aren't authentic Af-ghan nationalists. Unlike the Democratic Congress in 1965, this era's Democrats probably won't sign off on a major escalation. And unlike Vietnam, where U.S. national security was not at stake, safe haven for Al Qaeda could lead to another attack. As Gen. David Petraeus, commander of CentCom, reminded an Atlantic Media/Aspen Institute conclave last week, the origins of 9/11 were in Kandahar, not Hamburg, Germany.

Petraeus admitted that the Iraq analogy is faulty, too, but he dodged when Brian Williams pressed him on whether the components of his surge—tools like concrete barriers—are of use in Afghanistan. How could they be in a country with so few roads? The only place where the analogy made sense to me was when Petraeus explained the positive "chain reaction" set off by the Anbar uprising in Iraq. The goal in Afghanistan should be to let Afghan militias fight the Taliban. They can be bribed to offer intelligence, which the Bush administration barely attempted, but that doesn't require 40,000 Americans to "train" Afghans. For what? How to fight in their own mountains?

Petraeus sounds good when he talks about respecting cultural sensitivities. He even summoned Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, to brief his officers. "Afghans will be welcoming if foreigners [i.e., U.S. forces] are contributing to their lives" with security, education, and medicine, he said. If only that were so. The history of help tells a more depressing story, as fruitless development projects in Vietnam and Iraq suggest. When Gen. Stanley McChrystal said recently that American convoys shouldn't race through Afghan villages at 60mph, he was right. But obeying the speed limit isn't going to make the local populace rejoice that kindly American soldiers have arrived to save them.

In his leaked memo, McChrystal made it sound as if counterinsurgency and escalation were synonymous. But counterinsurgency's original appeal to policymakers like Robert Kennedy was that Green Berets (now grouped more generally as Special Operations) don't require huge numbers. Of course, one senior administration official told me, never in the history of mankind has a general requested fewer troops.

Obama will not repeat Bush's approach of deferring to the Pentagon on key decisions. He is, by several accounts, his own national-security adviser, coordinating advice and asking uncomfortable questions. Let's hope he keeps one more Goldstein lesson in mind: "Intervention is a presidential choice, not an inevitability."

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