Those among you who read this blog faithfully may have noticed that every morning, President Obama checks it for advice, just after kissing his daughters goodby and sending them off to school, and before his daily national security briefing. The time has come, therefore, for me to advise him on this whole Afghanistan thing. Let us be clear: I know next to nothing about the region in which Afghanistan is located. I have, to be sure, read Kipling's great novel, KIM, and I have even seen the movie, several times [I love the part where Kim is being trained for the Great Game, and has to memorize a table full of objects in no time at all.] Needless to say, I do not read, write, speak, or understand any of the languages of the region, and my grasp of the history of the area is sketchy, to put matters as delicately as I can. In short, I am as well prepared to pontificate on the subject of America's Afghan policy as perhaps 432 of the members of the House of Representatives, at least 96 of the senators, and all of the 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls. So here goes.
Afghanistan threatens to be Obama's Viet Nam. The reference, of course, is to Lyndon Baines Johnson, who, when he ascended to the presidency upon John Kennedy's assassination, had dreams of being a domestic affairs president in the mold of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Kennedy had sent "advisors" to Viet Nam to pick up the slack from the collapsing French Empire, but it was not too late, in 1963-64, to shut the whole escapade down and back off. Tragically, Johnson was intimidated by the Ivy League whiz kids [MacNamara, Bundy, et al.], who suckered him into a bigger commitment that then produced the downfall of his presidency and the death of fifty thousand Americans and several million Viet Namese.
We are way deeper into Afghanistan than we were into Viet Nam in 1963, of course, but the principle is the same. It would perhaps help if Obama had a bit of the Old South in him, and remembered Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby.
Let us recall that this country essentially created the Taliban during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, arming them with everything up to, and especially including, Stinger ground-to-air missiles with which to shoot down the Russian attack helicopters that were devastating the resistance forces.
Joe Biden. God bless 'im, has apparently weighed in with a strong dissent from the proposal to expand American forces, and even George Will, one of my very least favorite human beings, has called for us to get out.
If Obama pulls put of Afghanistan, he will be beat up on by the Republicans for a while, but the public, which couldn't find the country on the map with a seeing eye dog, will forget about it soon enough. If Obama gets suckered into accepting the myth that just one more troop increase, just one more surge, will do the trick and stabilize the country, then his presidency will be held hostage to the vagaries of internal Afghanistan politics, and all our brave hopes for him will be dashed. What can we do? Not a thing. This is not, unlike health care, an issue on which mobilized public opinion will in the short run make any difference. Right now is the last moment when Obama can back off, treat both wars as a legacy from the previous administration, and cut America's losses. If he buys the troop increase, he buys the war, and from now on it will be Obama's war.
I suspect Obama actually knows all this. But does he have the political courage to take the hit up front? He may well have to temporize until the health care battle is over, but that is now a matter of weeks.
All we can do is wait and see.
After writing and posting the above, I went to Andrew Sullivan's blog, The Daily Dish, and there, under a heading "Obama's JFK Moment?" found essentially the same analysis. I take this as a good sign, not as evidence that I have been "one-upped." What I am most encouraged by in the posting, which is by George Packer, is the statement that the people around Obama are all drawing the analogy and are fully aware of what is at stake. Let us hope so!