Friday, October 2, 2009

In Afghanistan, It's Time for Decisive Choice

Guns and or Butter

We cannot have both guns and butter. We cannot maintain two hostile occupations in faraway Islamic lands, pretending to be nation-building, and rebuild our own depleted national economic and financial infrastructure at the same time.

I don't know what we can learn from history.

In his election campaign of 1964, Lyndon Johnson said we should not get bogged down in a ground war in Asia. Then in the next year LBJ proceeded to bog us down in such a war saying that we could have both guns and butter.

We are a country which was built by pioneers who had a rifle in one hand and an ax in the other. We can do both. And as long as I am president we will do both.
That was LBJ's hubris.

However, history proves that hubris, alone, is unsustainable. Lyndon Johnson, once thought of as a slam-dunk candidate for reelection in 1968, decided in March of that year not to run. Despite having huge Democratic majorities in Congress which helped the president push through the Great Society legislation, he was done. LBJ's War on Poverty foundered on the rocks of his war in Vietnam. As Irving Bernstein writes in his probing study of the era, Guns or Butter: The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson,

One may speculate over what might have been if the country had remained at peace. Economic policy was working superbly in 1965 and it is likely that prosperity would have continued into 1968. In Chicago the Democrats would have renominated the Johnson-Humphrey ticket and it would have won easily. This might have launched a long period of Democratic control of the White House and the Congress. The Great Society would have survived and might have been expanded.
Flashing forward to the 21st Century, ex-presidential candidate McCain offers little wisdom from America's 20th century quagmire. His advice to President Obama is,
The base of his party, the left base of his party, is opposed. The American people are weary of this conflict. I do have sympathy for the president making this decision. It's the toughest decision the president has to make, to send people into harm's way. But I remind you that throughout [U.S.] history, whether it be Harry Truman or Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln, leaders have had to make tough choices, and history has judged them very kindly.
Senator McCain has forgotten the words he wrote in his forward to David Halberstam’s book, “The Best and the Brightest:
War is far too horrible a thing to drag out unnecessarily, It was a shameful thing to ask men to suffer and die, to persevere through god-awful afflictions and heartache, to endure the dehumanizing experiences that are unavoidable in combat, for a cause that the country wouldn’t support over time and that our leaders so wrongly believed could be achieved at a smaller cost than our enemy was prepared to make us pay.

No other national endeavor requires as much unshakable resolve as war. If the nation and the government lack that resolve, it is criminal to expect men in the field to carry it alone.
When our current president first declared Afghanistan to be a 'good war', as compared to Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq which was a 'stupid' and 'unnecessary' war, it was during Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. That was before our economic collapse. Given that we are now still teetering between recession and depression in our homeland, it is time we reassess whether we can afford George Bush's foreign legions.

Recently, when asked if he risked the fate of Lyndon Johnson whose presidency was consumed by a war started by his predecessors, but which he chose to reinforce, Obama replied:

You have to learn lessons from history. On the other hand, each historical moment is different. You never step into the same river twice. And so Afghanistan is not Vietnam.
Maybe not. But the rivers we are talking about in Afghanistan have never been mastered by Western powers. The English have tried twice and the Russians once. It's a river Americans don't have to cross. It's the river that will lead us to where empires have died.

Are the people who want Obama to fail on his domestic economic recovery programs the same people who want him to cross the river of doom and double down in Afghanistan? Do you think? What do they promise for us in Afghanistan? Victory? Avoidance of defeat? Promises? Hopes? Persistence? Honor?

I say hope is not a strategy and continuation is not a policy. Better a planned exit strategy now than a scrambled hasty retreat later. 

Support our troops. Bring them home.


  1. Good thoughtful post, Vigilante. I like your analogy between the LBJ-era guns and butter point and now. There are many similarities but also numerous differences.

    I just can't make up my mind on Afghanistan. On one hand, it seems very prudent that we get out of that mountainous hell hole no one has ever been able to tame, although we DID come close 8 years ago. If only we had finished the job and not dropped the ball as we did. Damn neocons! On the other hand, if we leave altogether, al Qaeda may once again swoop back in, and oppressive Taliban total control will certainly return.

    It looks like we must continue to goad Pakistan into cleaning up its side of the border and eradicate al Qaeda with our aid. But at the same time, rather than continue the Bush-era practice of not conducting diplomacy with political and ideological opponents, it seems clear that we MUST engage in talks with some of the Taliban and/or warlord factions we worked with successfullyduring the Soviet occupation. If we could rekindle a degree of that relationship, perhaps we could effect a kinder, gentler Taliban. It is indeed a very messy and complicated situation we face, and I don't pretend to have any of the answers...

  2. @Vig,
    -very compelling perspectives. I appreciate the contrast of quotes, versus history, versus reality.
    "Afghanistan is not Vietnam" but someone should ask our President whether he thinks one thing not being the same as a another thing necessarily means that one thing is better or more practical than another thing: i.e. --just because Afghanistan is not the same as Vietnam, doesn't mean it can't run the risk of ending just as badly.

  3. Vigil,
    great,great post.I think you captured the parallels between Obama/Johnson inheriting a war, and between Afghanistan/Vietnam very well.

    In my possibly addled opinion,if the US were truly an honest broker one might make the case that we cannot leave Afghanistan until it is stabilized.

    But we are not an honest broker.we never,never support democracy.anywhere.a managed democracy, where managed elections allow slates of US friendly candidates,sure. in a true democracy a nation will vote for whomever best uses its assets and resources for the good of the nation,not for the candidate who favors US multinationals.We overthrow democracies,we don't establish them.I am not speaking of Afghanistan here per se,but rather all US foreign policy intent.We do not have any interest in helping them.

    Because we have no interest in Afghanistan other than credibility (as in Vietnam) and basically don't give a damn about the Afghani people (if we did we wouldn't have backed the Islamists/drug dealers and drew the Soviets in 30 years ago) there is no reason to believe the presence of our troops will in anyway benefit Afghanistan.

    Turn the boats around.Turn the trucks around.Get out and give those poor people a slim chance of someday being free.

  4. Guns or butter? I'd have to say neither one. They'd just sell the butter for more guns.

  5. Everyone who lived through this story in the 20th century knows a little how this how the 21st century version will end.

    In the original story line, Jack Kennedy was drifting into war in Indochina; Lyndon Johnson succeeded him and felt trapped in a war he chose to escalate, Nixon and Kissinger had a secret plan to end it which turned out to be an escalation of killing and dying such the world had not seen since the end of WW II. It all ended in 1975 with American helicopters lifting the last Americans off the roof of the embassy.

    Jack Kennedy proved that he had the rocks to go against the generals, if he had to. Barack Obama has in front of him, in the near term, a date with destiny. Frank Rich calls it Obama's Kennedyesque moment. The question is, is there someone in Obama's administration who can play the role of George Ball.

    No one remembers George Ball?

    Within Kennedy’s administration which LBJ inherited, most supported the Joint Chiefs’ repeated call for combat troops, including the secretaries of defense (McNamara) and state (Dean Rusk) and Gen. Maxwell Taylor, the president’s special military adviser. The highest-ranking dissenter was George Ball, the undersecretary of state. Mindful of the 1950's French folly in Vietnam, Ball predicted that

    “within five years we’ll have 300,000 men in the paddies and jungles and never find them again.”

    At the time Geo Ball's views were dismissed as apocalyptic; they turned out to be prophetic. So, I ask again, who will play Ball with Obama?

  6. Vig,

    Your post is indeed thoughtful and thought provoking! Obama may not have Johnson's hubris, but he is said to be a man who is supremely self-confident. Granted, he has many and various abilities and skills that make him the awesome candidate that he was.

    But after reading your post, with its memorable quotes and insightful comments, I fear that Obama may have too much self-confidence to recognize the fact that America's chance to "win" in Afghanistan has already come and gone. We had Osama bin Laden, and Bush let him go. We cannot go back and do it right.

    There is nothing to be gained by our remaining in Afghanistan. As you so eloquently stated: Hope is not a strategy; nor is continuation a policy. I fear that in 2012, Obama will have to drink from LBJ's cup.

  7. Drink from LBJ's cup? Become a one-term president?

  8. I'm betting that's what Emily has in mind, Coop. If BHO does go full bore into Afghanistan like his generals (and ours!) apparently want him to do, he'll end up wearing LBJ's shoes (cement), and how then could he not be drinking from Lyndon's cup (of hemlock)?

  9. Hmmm... thought provoking indeed, Vig. I think an immediate pull out would bw disastrous for that country. The key to Afghanistan is tribalism. My solution is to withdraw support from the corrupt government of Bush's puppet and offer financial support and training, using far fewer troops, to individual tribal leaders who share our opposition to Al Qaeda.

  10. Didn't Melvin Laird push for disengagement during the Nixon administration (Nixon listening to Kissinger instead)?

  11. Will,if memory serves you're correct,re:Laird.Not so much push for disengagement but rather late in the war he began taking troops out and putting them in other theaters.he know the $ was finite and thought it could be put to better use elsewhere.

    Soros Proxy,I hadn't known that about Ball.Thanks.

  12. Hey, remember when I told you guys how Olbermann slammed Baltimore Sun critic, David Zurawik, for being a "right winger"? Well, guess what, on the " O'Reilly Factor" tonight, Mr. O'Reilly slammed this same David Zurawik for being....A LEFT WINGER! This poor frigging son-of-a-gun can't frigging win. LOL

  13. On the Bush Legacy Wars:

    The experts on Iraq and Afghanistan all think we ought to stay there forever. The non-experts (i.e., global strategists, American chauvinists, those who hate to see our military wrecked, and those who wonder just how much health care, business encouragement, and genuine civic investment we could have bought absent this stupid adventure) seem moved to believe this folly has about run its course and it's time to let Iraq and Afghanistan settle back into its tribal anarchy and get the hell out of there.

    The experts are trying to 'fix' Iraq and Afghanistan and to succeed in a whole range of tactical endeavors. How about some non-experts who think globally, strategically, and who care solely about America's interests. Enough of the experts already...

    I'm fed up with these entrenched spokesmen for stay-the-course. They always predict that the most important things to happen there have not yet occurred. I disagree on both counts and would gently suggest that the most important events in Iraq and Afghanistan in this decade were a disastrous invasion by the US, followed by a disastrous occupation: we've put the best of our American service people and the worst of our foreign policy up against each other and the young kids lost, many their lives and many more their health and future well-being.

    The Civil War was awful. It lasted four years. The Second World War was awful. It lasted less than four years. America had no choice but to fight both. We had a choice in Iraq and Afghanistan ... and chose wrong. We're into our 7th or 8th year, no end in sight, goals that shrink monthly, and these experts want to press on. God save us from experts.

  14. Like Jack I am of two minds with regard to this pressing controversy. While I do not agree that we are "occupying" either Iraq or Afghanistan I do understand the need to stay in the latter. Then again I also believe, as each day goes by, that our efforts will be futile and we will go the way of so many "empires" before us. Bottom line when all things are considered the words of a Vietnam era tune by the Animals come to mind: "We gotta get out of this place if it's the last thing we ever do..."

  15. Oso, to finish my comment on George Ball (above):

    When Ball, conservatively predicted that Vietnam might one day demand as many as 300,000 troops, JFK laughed and replied,

    "Well, George, you're supposed one of the smartest guys in town, but you're crazier than hell. That will never happen."

    Does anyone remember how many US troops were escalated into Vietnam?

  16. I just ran across this 2006 interview with a Abdel Bari Atwan, a London-Based Arab guy. He says he had an talk with Osama Bin Laden in 1996 in which OBL told him,

    I can’t fight the Americans on the American mainland. It is too far. But if I succeed in bringing the Americans where I can find them, where I can fight them on my own terms, on my turf, this will be the greatest success'.

    No doubt apocryphal, right?

  17. One last comment about Vietnam which illustrates the mind-set of the "Best and the Brightest" advisors with which JFK surrounded himself and LBJ inherited. McGeorge Bundy, special assistant to the president for national security affairs was actually a Republican and one of the most cold-blooded of any of the top civilian advisor associated with the Vietnam policy.

    At one point, he coolly tells Johnson that we should send ground troops even though the chances for success "are between 25 percent to 75 percent" because it would be better for America to lose after sending troops than not to send troops at all!

    Can you believe that attitude? Like, Cyrano said,

    Mais on ne se bat pas dans l'espoir du succès.

  18. Vig, I wrote this back in January and nothing has changed: The issue that I have with the war in Afghanistan is the same one I had with Iraq. There is no real definition of "victory". We are essentially fighting a guerrilla war against small bands of terrorists across a vast stretch of land. I really would like to know what our ultimate goal is in Afghanistan. Is the goal to wipe out the Taliban and all the terrorists in the area? If so, that seems to be an unreasonable goal. Is the goal to set up a government that is capable of withstanding the challenges from the Taliban or a similar terrorist group? That also seems unreasonable. The Soviet Union tried and failed to subdue similar elements in Afghanistan. In fact that war played a big part in their ultimate dismantling. While I don't think a war of any length would have the same effect here, I do think that the United States is in for a similar fate in the disposition of the war if we do not decide exactly what our goals are there. They cannot be a moving target, as they were in Iraq, but a definite set of reachable objectives that would signal the end of our involvement there. I never heard that from the Bush administration and I have yet to hear from Obama. During the campaign he stated that our efforts in Iraq were misdirected and that we should have been focusing on Afghanistan all along. I have no issue with that, but I do need to know what our exit strategy is. A long term occupation of a country in the Middle East only leads to the breeding of more extremists. Without an exit strategy, we risk a never ending war and the creation of a new generation of people who are dedicated to our downfall.

  19. First of all I treasure all these, so-well considered comments in this thread, especially from those who are appearing for the first time, like SJ & Mycue. Critical thinkers, all. And Doc! Welcome back into circulation! How long has it been?

    A few comments in summation.

    Mad Mike says,

    While I do not agree that we are "occupying" either Iraq or Afghanistan

    Not an occupation? Are you listening to the way Westerners tell it? Or the way Afghanis and Iraqis tell it?

    Soros: To answer your question, I think we ended up well over Geo. Ball's "insane" prediction of 300,000 troops in 'Nam. I think it was closer to half a million.

    And I, for one, get your irony (spread across three comments!) about JFK's/LBJ's advisors on going to war in Vietnam and implications about Obama's JFK-esque decision about Afghanistan. Or is it going to be, as Emily fears, a LBJ-esque decision? If the point is not to win in Afghanistan, but just to kill our way further into an honorable departure (Nixon's 'Secret Plan'), then that's quite a different thingy. That would make BHO's tour smell like a single-term presidency to me.

  20. I have just reading William Evans', Open Wound: The Long View of Race in America. I find some of his concluding thoughts about Vietnam germane to this thread:

    The war brought an end to the liberal symbiosis between justice for African-Americans and the war on communism. The massive diversion of the nation's resources to Southeast Asia reduced the War on Poverty to little more than words, redoubling inner-city desperation and violence. Beginning in Los Angeles with the Watts uprising of 1965, riots rocked cities from coast to coast. Now, when activists mentioned poverty, they mock the president with his own words.

    The Vietnam war was not like World War II, the "good war," a benevolent tide that raised all boats. For a worker with entry-level skills, the job most readily available was now the military . . . . The war eviscerated social programs and exacerbated desperation and violence in the inner city. And something new appeared on the fringes of American cities, the white trailer-park poor . . . . .

    Professor Evans finishes up by describing how the Cold War grew a fourth branch of government not Constitutionally provided for in the separation of powers, Eisenhower's Military Industrial Complex.

    Were Professor Evans in the room with me (and I know him personally), he would agree with me when I say that at the root of the current political polarization of America are the reciprocal demonizations of the welfare state and warfare state. We have on our hands, going forward, an increasingly uncivil war between advocates for guns and for butter. My fellow Americans have been oblivious of this fault line for too long, because of our self-delusion we could have both.

  21. mc crystal=westmoreland. mcnamara=shillary.= obama==lets see, jfk, lbj, nixon, or all three. he had better make up his mind real soon. my wish is for him to be his own man and bring them home NOW.

  22. Vigil we have had this argument for years and for years you have stubbornly refused to accept those criteria for "occupying" a foreign nation. It is not a matter of who is "telling it." It is a matter of applying the accepted definition of "occupation" to the paradigm. It is, of course, not possible that I am the one who is stubborn...

  23. Great post. And, yes, it is a question of guns vs. butter. Remember that at one point LBJ was listening to people like Dr. King who said he had the opportunity to make history by wiping out poverty and raising the level of education in this country. Remember when he came up with this idea of a "great society," programs to deal with poverty and education and housing.

    But then he started listening closely to the stupid generals like Westmorland who said what generals always say when we invade and occupy countries: We need more troops. He started listening to people like Bundy and McNamara who backed up the generals even though they knew it wouldn't work.

    Now, McCrystal is talking about more troops to win over the hearts and minds of the people and build institutions. This is amazing. Taliban, Al Queda, it doesn't matter. They hate us, and we're not going to win over anybody. We need to think about working with other countries to take Al Queda leaders that are there, contain them as a group and focus on working with Pakistan, where the biggest problem lies.

  24. Thank you for that comment, Mac. You always get it.

  25. Without war generals have little purpose in the changing fortunes of time.

  26. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton said just this morning that we will NEVER be able to turn Afghanistan a modern Democratized country. If there are many people out there with a greater knowledge of foreign policy in general....and the Middle East specifically than him....

  27. We had a slim chance to remake Afghanistan in 2002. Instead, the moronic monkey decided to forget about all the promises he made to the Afghani people in favor of starting a war with a country that was no threat to us.

    The Afghanis will never believe us again, nor should they; we've turned our backs on them TWICE now. It's time to pack it up.