Why Afghanistan Won't Become Another Vietnam
Sometimes the American Left won’t recognize its own success. Despite disappointment over President Barack Obama’s overall handling of the Afghan War, his announcement that he is reversing the escalation and beginning a drawdown is a significant development suggesting that Afghanistan won’t become “another Vietnam” as the Left had feared.
Indeed, Obama’s speech Wednesday night could be compared to John F. Kennedy’s tentative moves at a similar point in his presidency to begin backing away from a major expansion of the Vietnam War, a process that was reversed only after Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.
Clearly, Kennedy and Obama made initial foreign policy mistakes, largely due to their selection of advisers. Kennedy retained too much of the Republican military brass – the likes of Gen. Curtis LeMay – and brought in too many of his own “best and brightest” war hawks – such as the Bundy brothers.
Similarly, Obama surrounded himself with a mix of Republican holdovers from George W. Bush’s administration, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus, and Democratic neocon-lites, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
And, much as Kennedy bowed to his hawkish advisers when he approved the CIA’s Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba early in his presidency, Obama let himself be boxed in by Gates, Petraeus and Clinton in regards to a sizable escalation of the war in Afghanistan. For both presidents, this was part of the learning curve, but Kennedy and Obama seemed to have benefitted from the negative experience.
Kennedy figured out ways to maneuver around the hawks during the dangerous Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and appeared headed toward a pullout of U.S. advisers assigned to Vietnam before his fateful trip to Dallas in 1963.
For his part, Obama has eased Gates into retirement, replacing him at the Pentagon with CIA Director Leon Panetta, who has quietly emerged as a key foreign policy adviser to Obama and who has pushed for a more limited (or precise) use of military power, a strategy that Obama embraced in his speech on Wednesday.
“When threatened we must respond with force,” Obama said. “But when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas.”
This doctrinal shift by Obama – a not-so-subtle slap at George W. Bush and the neocons – also represented a victory for Vice President Joe Biden, who had opposed the Afghan “surge” in 2009, favoring a narrower counterterrorism strategy over the counterinsurgency approach sought by Gates, Petraeus and Clinton.
Indeed, the key losers on Wednesday were that same trio – Gates, Petraeus and Clinton – who favored only a token withdrawal of 5,000 troops now and the retention of the nearly full “surge” force in Afghanistan through the entire fighting season of 2012.
Instead, Obama is ordering the withdrawal of 10,000 troops this year and the rest of the 30,000 or so “surge” troops by next summer.
The capital’s still-influential neoconservatives howled at this decision, with their flagship newspaper, The Washington Post, accusing Obama of strategic incoherence.
“The president risks undermining not only the war on the ground but also the efforts to draw elements of the Taliban into a political settlement,” the Post stated in its lead editorial, entitled “End of a Surge.” Reflecting elite neocon opinion, the Post’s editors favored maintaining the “surge” force through the fall of 2012 so it could “sweep eastern provinces” of Afghanistan.
Sources with insight into Obama’s thinking also suggest that Clinton’s influence is on the wane, partly because she pressed for a deeper U.S. military commitment in Libya than Obama wanted.
Clinton and some European allies succeeded in forcing the President’s hand regarding the initial intervention to stop a feared mass killing of Libyans opposed to dictator Muammar Gaddafi. But a bloody stalemate has followed after the same grouping blocked any negotiations with Gaddafi and Obama balked at making a major military commitment to the oust-Gaddafi campaign.
One of the key harmful results of the Libyan conflict has been the cutoff of easily refined Libyan crude, contributing to a spike in oil prices. That, in turn, drove American gasoline to more than $4 a gallon, dealing a blow to the fragile economic recovery and worsening Obama’s reelection prospects.
On Thursday, the Obama administration’s release of 30 million gallons of oil from U.S. emergency reserves was meant to bring global supplies roughly in line with what they were before the cutoff of Libyan oil. If the Libyan crisis had not arisen or had been resolved peacefully, the impact of higher oil prices might not have been so adverse.
Thus, Clinton’s neocon-lite enthusiasm for “regime change” in Libya is regarded as a factor in weighing down the U.S. economy and dimming Obama’s reelection hopes. That has further alienated Clinton from Obama’s inner circle which had hoped to be showcasing the prospect of the Arab Spring bringing non-violent political change to the region.
With Gates leaving and Clinton on the outs, the third member of the trio, neocon-favorite Gen. Petraeus, has been tapped to replace Panetta at CIA. However, there is talk about Petraeus taking much of the summer off to recuperate from his difficult tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When Petraeus does get to CIA – assuming there are no change in plans – he will have a prestigious job but one whose influence depends on access to the president. As a relative outsider, Petraeus is not considered likely to have the clout that Panetta achieved.
So, Obama’s Afghan War speech and the events that have surrounded it suggest a decline in neocon influence inside the U.S. government, which the anti-imperialists on the Left (and the Right) might be expected to welcome.
Vanity of Perfectionism
However, for many on the American Left, Obama’s gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan and his continued pullout from Iraq have amounted to too little too late. Some leftists now regard Obama as the enemy and have essentially embraced the mantra of Ralph Nader’s Green Party campaign in 2000, that “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference” between the Republicans and the Democrats.
Though I have encountered many practical people on the Left who understand the difficult realities of modern-day American politics – especially the structural imbalance between a powerful and well-funded Right and a weak Left – I also have met a number of leftists who display what might be called the vanity of perfectionism.
For them, staking out the perfect intellectual position is more important than achieving social reforms that might help society or adopting a practical foreign policy that could save lives.
These folks really don’t see any meaningful difference between, say, Al Gore and George W. Bush, even though a Gore presidency last decade would have surely made the battle against climate change a high priority while Bush ignored the problem and helped build a right-wing political movement that continues to deny the science of global warming.
That “perfectionist” brand of leftists also accepts no blame for anything that happened under Bush, even though Nader’s campaign hurt Gore nationally and kept the margin in the key state of Florida close enough for Bush to steal it.
It now appears that a parallel dynamic is taking shape for Election 2012, with these same elements of the Left determined to deny Obama a second term, almost as much as the Republicans are.
In Obama’s case, where more sympathetic observers might see a liberal-minded politician trying to maneuver through the Washington mine field toward a more peaceful world, his critics on the Left see a committed imperialist who is just as much a warmonger as Bush ever was, if not worse.
Therefore, it’s not likely that Obama’s nuanced shifts toward disengagement in Afghanistan, along with his ongoing pullout from Iraq, will earn Obama much credit.
While the Left may view Kennedy more charitably in retrospect because of evidence that he was turning away from the Vietnam War, there is far less sympathy for Obama despite a similar pattern in his presidency.
Yet, Obama, like Kennedy, seems to have learned from some early mistakes and is now trying to tack the ship of state, against some strong winds, toward a more peaceful harbor.
Whether the President can accomplish this course correction – despite gusts from Washington’s still powerful neocons – remains to be seen. He also faces strong economic headwinds that could doom his reelection, and he can expect only spotty backing from U.S. progressives.
So, it is possible that Obama’s reversal on the Afghan War escalation might be reversed again, if a Republican replaces him in 2013 and restores the neocons to their prior dominant position in directing U.S. foreign policy.
Whatever a Republican presidential candidate may say now, the fact is that the neocons remain a key force inside the GOP’s foreign policy establishment, as witnessed by the failure of Rep. Paul Ryan’s austerity budget to make any significant cuts in military spending.
But today there is reason for optimism among the many Americans who have lamented the near-decade-long U.S. war in Afghanistan (and the broader conflict in the Muslim world). The trend is finally away from escalation, away from Vietnam Redux, and toward a possible (if imperfect) peace.