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Why Afghanistan Won't Become Another Vietnam

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).

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.

Neocon Angst

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.

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