President Johnson, I have come to realize, really was intent on creating a kinder, gentler America with his “Great Society” social programs. But thanks to that “bitch of a war,” as he was wont to call it, Johnson found himself caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. If he had begun to disengage from Vietnam, his political enemies would have branded him soft on Communism. If he had fully mobilized the reserves and the National Guard, his political enemies would have used that as an excuse to reject Johnson’s social programs. They would have argued that we can’t afford both guns and butter.
Now, over 40 years later, Obama is falling into the same trap. I believe that he would genuinely like his legacy to be an America in which adequate health care is guaranteed. But Obama’s political opponents are already complaining that his proposed health care reforms would greatly increase an already huge deficit created by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as his government bailouts and stimulus programs. Had he opted to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan, however, the pushback would have been ugly. Cheney and his ilk would have attacked Obama--again--or leaving America vulnerable.
Moreover, I worry that, like Johnson before him, Obama doesn’t really understand the war he is waging. As George Will and others have reminded us, we’re not at war with a nation state. We’re at war with a freelance group of ideologues who don’t need a safe haven in Afghanistan. The fact that the 9/11 group trained and plotted in Afghanistan is irrelevant. They can just as easily train and plot in Somalia and a number of other countries.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t go after the Al Qaeda still in Afghanistan, but I believe that George Will and General Krulak are right in recommending that we limit our efforts to small, elite killer teams and predator drones. A large-scale commitment only plays into the enemy’s hands. The so-called collateral damage we’ll inevitably inflict will help al Qaeda recruit, as will the appearance that we are indeed mounting a crusade against Islam.
Of course, in all fairness, Obama claims our main objective is to build up and train the Afghan forces to take over. This too was tried in LBJ’s day; it was called “Vietnamization.” So are we now pursuing a course of “Afghnistanization”? Awkward terms aside, I haven’t heard that Afghan troops are any more into it than the Army of the late Republic of Vietnam was. Even more troubling, I have heard that a sense of nationalism or national loyalty is alien to most Afghans.
So “the more things change . . . .”
P.S. Where are the additional 30,000 troops going to come from? But that’s another topic.