Vietnam, Afghanistan; LBJ, Obama: not exactly, but still…

There’s nothing less helpful in a political debate than a fatuous historical analogy. Whenever somebody levels a charge of “appeasement,” for instance, it’s a safe bet whatever negotiating stance they’re attacking bares not the slightest resemblance to what happened at Munich.

Yet, ever since Barack Obama delivered his impressive speech at West Point last week on sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the fear that this war might be in danger of turning Vietnam-like has been hard to dispel.

Obama anticipated this line of thinking, taking it so seriously that he tackled it head-on in his Dec. 1 address. Among his key points differentiating Afghanistan now from Vietnam then: America enjoys substantial international support for this war, isn’t facing a “broad-based popular insurgency” this time, and “most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan.”

As a Canadian pondering our own future in the fighting—or in other costly efforts to turn Afghanistan into a stable state—I found none of those contrasts very reassuring. If the Taliban’s support isn’t “broad-based,” it’s clearly significant among Pashtuns. If the U.S. has allies in Afghanistan, for the most part their enthusiasm isn’t robust. And while the 9/11 attacks came from Afghanistan, Islamist terror is hardly an Afghan phenomenon.

So, no, the Vietnam comparison doesn’t seem irrelevant to me. I’m struck by echos in Obama’s speech of the one president Lyndon B. Johnson delivered on March 31, 1968, when he pleaded for American forbearance in Southeast Asia, and also announced he wouldn’t seek reelection. Some rough parallels:


Johnson: It has not been easy — far from it. During the past four and a half years, it has been my fate and my responsibility to be Commander in Chief. I have lived daily and nightly with the cost of this war. I know the pain that it has inflicted. I know perhaps better than anyone the misgivings that it has aroused. And throughout this entire long period I have been sustained by a single principle: that what we are doing now in Vietnam is vital not only to the security of Southeast Asia, but it is vital to the security of every American.

Obama: I have read the letters from the parents and spouses of those who deployed. I have visited our courageous wounded warriors at Walter Reed. I have travelled to Dover to meet the flag-draped caskets of 18 Americans returning home to their final resting place. I see firsthand the terrible wages of war. If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow.


Johnson: And the larger purpose of our involvement has always been to help the nations of Southeast Asia become independent, and stand alone, self-sustaining as members of a great world community, at peace with themselves, at peace with all others. And with such a nation our country — and the world — will be far more secure than it is tonight.

Obama: In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. This danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.


Johnson: Our presence there has always rested on this basic belief: The main burden of preserving their freedom must be carried out by them—by the South Vietnamese themselves. We and our allies can only help to provide a shield behind which the people of South Vietnam can survive and can grow and develop. On their efforts—on their determinations and resourcefulness—the outcome will ultimately depend.

Obama: Taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011… We will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan’s Security Forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. But it will be clear to the Afghan government—and, more importantly, to the Afghan people—that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not hinting for a moment that any of this somehow proves one president’s quagmire is just like another’s. What I am suggesting is that remembering, not just the general Vietnam malaise, but the particular arguments, can sharpen our thinking on Afghanistan.

In particular, we should look long and hard at claims that strife in a distant country directly threatens domestic security. We should keep in mind that fighting a war in one country is hard enough—to make stabilizing an entire unruly region a strategic aim is much tougher. And we should be realistic about what it might take to foster stand-alone governing capacity in a corrupt, impoverished state.

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