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Is Afghanistan Obama's Vietnam?

Is Afghanistan Obama's Vietnam?

Foreign-policy advice from John F. Kennedy


Section: The Chronicle Review, Volume 55, Issue 25, Page B11

"Only a handful of times in our history has a generation been confronted with challenges so vast [including] two wars, one that needs to be ended responsibly, one that needs to be waged wisely."

— Barack Obama, January 17, 2009, in a speech in Philadelphia

"All war is stupid."

— John F. Kennedy, in a letter written aboard his PT boat in the South Pacific, 1943

Quote:In a book published last month, David Sanger, a correspondent for The New York Times, paints a bleak picture of President Obama's foreign-policy challenges. Among the nightmares Sanger mentions, several are potentially disastrous. They involve continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and possible wars-in-waiting with Iran and Pakistan.

The world's tinderbox, stretching through the Middle East to South Asia, is more dangerous as Obama takes office than at any time in recent memory. The United States is bogged down in a disastrous war and occupation in Iraq. The expanding war in Afghanistan is being lost, and lost badly, to the resurgent Taliban. Nuclear-armed Pakistan is coming apart at the seams and is increasingly at risk of both civil war and a war with its neighbor India, with whom it has already fought three wars, and which also possesses a nuclear arsenal. Finally, some American and Israeli officials have spoken publicly about the possibility of bombing Iran's nuclear sites. As Sanger reports, the Israelis in fact wanted to bomb Iran last summer and requested permission from Washington to fly over Iraqi airspace en route — a request that was refused, causing the Israelis to scuttle the plan.

Has any president ever come to office with such a withering array of potential foreign-policy disasters facing him? Does history have anything to tell us about whether who we elect as president makes a difference in matters of war and peace? Does it provide clues as to the difference President Obama might make, having just ascended to the presidency?

It does. Research in recently declassified documents and formerly secret presidential audiotapes — detailed in my book and documentary film, Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived: Virtual JFK — demonstrates that John F. Kennedy would very likely not have taken the United States to war in Vietnam. Six deep crises (two each over Cuba and Vietnam, and one each over Laos and Berlin) were his inheritance from his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. His inaugural year, 1961, was in fact the presidential year from hell, as JFK would discover. By March, his advisers were requesting nuclear weapons to counter Soviet-backed rebels in Laos. He suffered humiliation over the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April and outraged his senior advisers, many of whom recommended that he send in the U.S. Marines to salvage the operation and overthrow the Castro government. Between August and October, his advisers recommended military action in Berlin, including the use of nuclear weapons if necessary, and the removal by force of the wall just then going up. And in November, he faced down all of his national-security advisers, who were recommending the Americanization of the conflict in Vietnam.

Kennedy said no to war each time. We now know, after extensive research over more than two decades, Kennedy was right to say no. We are now virtually certain that if Kennedy had chosen to escalate one or more of these crises to an American war, disaster would have followed. In each case, we now know, the adversaries of the United States and its allies were far more numerous, more heavily armed, and more committed to their causes than Kennedy's advisers believed at the time. The same is true for the epochal Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. If Kennedy had agreed to the attack and invasion of Cuba favored by most of his advisers, a nuclear catastrophe would almost certainly have followed. It is highly probable that an American invasion would have been met with devastating Soviet nuclear fire, with almost unthinkable consequences to follow.

The Vietnam case is particularly instructive on the issue of Kennedy's personal significance in America's avoidance of war during his administration. We now have the data to make a relatively objective comparison between JFK's decisions on Vietnam and those of his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. It's as close to a perfect experiment as exists in the history of U.S. foreign policy. That is because, for various reasons relating to his own personal insecurities and lack of foreign-policy experience, LBJ retained all of JFK's top foreign-affairs officials. We now know that within hours of assuming office on November 22, 1963, LBJ was pressured by these advisers to take the nation to war in Vietnam. Their argument was the same one they had put to JFK: You cannot let our South Vietnamese ally fall to the communists. If you do, a U.S. pledge guaranteeing the security of an ally will be worthless, another "domino" will fall to communism, and your presidency will be judged a failure. In response to these arguments, as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara recalled, LBJ responded, "OK, win the war." Same advisers. Same conflict. Different president. The Vietnam War was Johnson's war, not Kennedy's. Presidential leadership was decisive in keeping the nation out of war, and leading the nation into war.

Fast forward from 1961 to 2009. Replace Cuba, Laos, Berlin, and Vietnam with Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. Insofar as the November 4 election was a referendum on foreign policy, the electorate voted yes to Sen. Barack Obama's opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and yes to Obama's stated intention to withdraw U.S. personnel from Iraq as soon as possible in an orderly and dignified way. They also voted yes to Obama's promise to talk to enemies, rather than bully them or bomb them or invade them. And Obama's special adviser on Pakistan and India (Richard Holbrooke) and rumored adviser on Iran (Dennis Ross) are both high-profile advocates of diplomacy as an alternative to military force. All told, Barack Obama's stated foreign-policy objectives recall JFK's remark in his Inaugural Address: "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate." Obama's stated approach to foreign policy is, in fact, uncannily JFK-like.

But proclivities and stated objectives aside, does Barack Obama have the right stuff necessary to avoid disastrous wars like those in Vietnam under LBJ and in Iraq under George W. Bush? While voters going to the polls on November 4 could hope, they could not know for sure. The key question is this: Will President Obama display steely, JFK-like resistance to the urge toward war he will inevitably have to face when things go badly, as they almost certainly will, with respect to his inherited crises involving Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan and (no doubt) other dangerous crises which will appear unexpectedly and unbidden on his horizon? The simple answer is: We don't know, but we are about to find out.

We should pay particular attention to Obama's decisions on the war in Afghanistan. On January 17, Obama said in a speech given in Philadelphia (on his whistle-stop tour en route to his inaugural) that Afghanistan is a war "that needs to be waged wisely." Time will tell what sort of "wisdom" Obama was referring to in the speech. If by "wisdom" he means what it came to mean in the Johnson administration, he (and we) are likely to fail. LBJ and his lieutenants tried to carefully, rationally calculate the proper balance between sticks (U.S. troops and bombing) and carrots (the promise of peace negotiations) needed to subdue the Vietnamese communists. They failed utterly. If this is the sort of "wisdom" that the Obama administration will seek to apply in its support of the U.S.-backed regime in Kabul, it is unlikely to prevail against a ruthless, resourceful insurgency whose fighters know the territory as U.S. and allied forces never will. The Johnson administration, which sought in vain to bomb the Vietnamese communists to the conference table, ultimately found itself both humiliated and reviled.

The Obama administration may find itself mired in a similar quagmire of its own making in Afghanistan. To those who believe that such an outcome is unthinkable with a liberal, progressive president in the Oval Office, it should be recalled that LBJ and his advisers were mainly liberals. The escalation of the war in Vietnam was approved and effected by liberal Democrats. Their putative "wisdom" was actually hubris sustained by arrogance and ignorance of the history, culture, language, and determination of their adversary.

Rewind, briefly, back to 1961, to John F. Kennedy. It's worth asking: What were the sources of the fear of escalation to disaster in this young, well-educated, but inexperienced president? Where did his skepticism and caution come from? And how did he muster the determination to act on his inclination to avoid war, even in the face of optimistic advice to the contrary, and also in the face of tremendous political heat from hawks in both political parties?

Two experiences seem above all others to have shaped Kennedy's cautious path through 1961 and thereafter. First, his experience in the South Pacific was fundamental. In the spring of 1943, on the eve of the now famous encounter between his PT boat and a Japanese destroyer, Kennedy wrote home, "all war is stupid." Two of his own men died in the famous collision, and their deaths weighed heavily on the young commander. But by "stupid," Kennedy meant something more comprehensibly negative, along the lines of Robert McNamara's definition of "the fog of war," made in the 2004 documentary film of the same name. In that film, McNamara says that "war is so complex it's beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all of the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily." It is worth remembering that when Kennedy wrote "all war is stupid," he was referring to conclusions he drew from what is now often called "the good war." The young PT commander was himself a member of "the greatest generation" that fought the war. Regardless, "all war is stupid," according to JFK. That was the wisdom he took from his experience in war, an experience far beyond Johnson's. In Kennedy's view, war is never good. War is irrational and destructive and plain horrible. Period.

Second, Kennedy's humiliation over the failed invasion of Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 was, in one sense, highly fortunate. It was humiliating, of course. More than a hundred Cuban exiles were killed; the rest were rounded up and herded into a baseball stadium in Havana for a mass show trial reminiscent of Stalin's show trials of the 1930s. Yet the Bay of Pigs debacle was not a national disaster on the scale that the war in Vietnam later became under Johnson, nor anything remotely close to it. Kennedy asked himself after allowing a scaled-back version of the exile-invasion plan to go forward, "How could I have been so stupid?" He never again believed the rosy estimates of the CIA with regard to military interventions, nor did he ever again trust his military advisers' optimistic predictions about what could be accomplished in military interventions at acceptable cost and risk to the United States. His advisers hammered away at him to go to war all through 1961 with a ferocity and relentlessness that has only come to light in recent declassified documents and oral testimony. Kennedy stonewalled them, diverted them, but always refused their fundamental advice, which was to go to war. Thus, by the end of 1961, his inaugural year from hell, the United States had not invaded Cuba, was not involved in the war in Laos, and did not go to the nuclear brink in Berlin, and although JFK had increased the number of military advisers to the Saigon government, he had repeatedly refused to send any combat troops to Vietnam.

Fast forward a final time from 1961 to 2009, and what may well become President Obama's own inaugural year from hell. Obama has no personal experience of war. He may or may not be fortunate enough to experience an early, sobering, but not disastrous foreign-policy failure, along the lines of Kennedy's Bay of Pigs. Will Obama have the wisdom and conviction to resist the slide to war when the pressure mounts? Already, many have urged him to lengthen the timeline for getting out of Iraq, which is still a horribly violent, chaotic environment. Already, the groundwork has been laid to increase the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, a country that has been a graveyard for foreign military adventures for hundreds of years. Already it appears that Iran will not cease and desist in its quest for nuclear weapons, no matter how much diplomacy is employed. And already some of Obama's own senior advisers are recommending significant military action inside Pakistan, including bombing and use of Special Forces, in an effort to prevent Al Qaeda from expanding its threat to the West.

President Obama has made a point of meeting with the living ex-presidents and asking for their advice. With all due respect to ex-Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and now George W. Bush, President Obama would be wise to consult the predecessor whose foreign-policy inheritance upon entering office most closely approximates his own in difficulty, number, and potential danger to U.S. interests around the world.

That president is John F. Kennedy, that other bright, young, Ivy League-educated, inexperienced senator who, upon taking office, was catapulted into a maelstrom of difficulty not of his making, but for which he was suddenly responsible. Lesson No. 1 from Kennedy is: "All war is stupid." This is not an invitation to pacifism. It is not a moral exhortation. It does not mean that the least bad option will be never going to war. It is rather a statement of fact, former president to current president: "If you choose to take the United States to war, you should assume that the results will be more complicated, more difficult to control, more damaging politically, and altogether more horrible than you or your advisers can imagine. Keep this in mind, Mr. President, and you might just make it through 2009 intact, as I made it, barely, through 1961."

James G. Blight is author (with janet M. Lang and David A. Welch) of Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived: Virtual JFK, published last month by Rowman & Littlefield, and a producer of the new film, Virtual JFK, directed by Koji Masutani.

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