WE KNOW that history does not repeat itself, but, gee, it comes close to it at times.
This week President Barack Obama is deciding whether to increase US troops in Afghanistan. He is being advised by the usual suspects from what Republican President Dwight Eisenhower warned against — the “military-industrial complex”.
Eisenhower, as a World War II general knew the horrors of war and the need for caution about the US entering foreign wars. He first warned Americans about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex” embedding itself in the counsels of civilian government.
He was too late.
By the time his successor, John Kennedy, came to office, the military and their industrial suppliers had been whipping up so much anti-communist sentiment in Congress and among the public in general that any talk of caution or objection to military solutions was seen an unpatriotic.
The young Kennedy was faced with a battery of advice urging greater US military incursion in Vietnam, just as Obama is in Afghanistan.
However, there was a voice of sanity and dissent in Kennedy’s time – that of John Kenneth Galbraith. Forty-eight years ago, he was US Ambassador to India (when India headed the International Control Commission on Indo-China in the wake of the French withdrawal). He got wind of a report going to Kennedy from presidential military adviser General Maxwell Taylor, and the deputy National Security Adviser, the hawkish Walt Rostow.
Galbraith got an early copy of the Taylor report and demolished it in a point-by-point rebuttal to Kennedy.
With both documents in hand, Kennedy delayed his decision on sending troops to Vietnam, just as Obama is now delaying a decision on a recommendation from the military to increase US troops to Afghanistan.
But ultimately Kennedy partially caved in and sent some troops. There was no public or congressional support to do otherwise. They were all paralysed by the communist bogey and fearful of being branded un-American. Just as anyone now who opposes anti-terrorism incursions into civil liberties or calls for an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan is branded unpatriotic or soft.
Maybe Kennedy might have stood up to the military and prevented Vietnam. But from 1963 President Lyndon Johnson escalated the war till it destroyed his presidency. Facing certain defeat for the Democratic nomination he did not run in 1968.
As it happens, while Obama considers today, there is another Galbraith voice of sanity. This week J. K. Galbraith’s son, Peter, former deputy head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, is warning that support for the Hamid Kharzi Government is a hopeless cause. He has denounced the “election” with first-hand proof of extensive fraud and warns that the US will be supporting an illegitimate Government, just as it did in Vietnam.
There are further parallels with Obama’s position. Obama inherited Iraq and Afghanistan, just as Nixon inherited Vietnam in 1968. Both promised to end the war, but added the rider of doing so with honour.
Obama now faces making the same mistake as Nixon. If a previous president has made a disgraceful, dishonourable, foolish hash of something, the country might not be able to withdraw with honour. It might have to admit the mistake and just withdraw.
The US has been in Afghanistan for eight years this month. Let’s face it, if the mightiest military power in the history of the world cannot subdue one of the poorest countries on earth in eight years, it will never be able to do so.
Sure the US could defeat its so-called enemies in Afghanistan, as in Vietnam. It could, technically and practically, throw massive military force to destroy Afghanistan in order to save it.
But it cannot now, and could not then, do it politically or morally. There would be rebellion at the ballot box back home. It takes a while, but eventually even the among the dumbest American and Australian voters reality bites.
Why do presidents listen to military advisers who have a career interest in war? Or take any notice of the cowering silence of members of congress whose campaign chests are filled with donations from the industrial suppliers of the military? It can only end in tears.
The US commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal wants another 40,000 troops to do all the things General Taylor wanted to do in Vietnam – secure democracy; prevent the spread of communism/terrorism; ensure trust in America; ensure the US does not show signs of weakness etc.
Given Afghanistan or even just the Taliban cannot be obliterated because the local “collateral” damage and US casualty rate would be too great, Obama should resist the military pleadings completely and accept that it is in the US national interest and in the best interest of the rest of the world for the US to withdraw now from Iraq and Afghanistan.
No one is going to impose democracy and the rule of law there any time soon. There has been some marginal improvement replacing the evil and ruthless Saddam and Taliban with the incompetent and corrupt Nouri al-Maliki and Hamid Kharzi, but at what cost? – the stirring of hatred against the US and western values in general.
“Success” in Afghanistan? Delusion.
This is a crucial time for Obama. He faces the same test as Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Does he heed the manifestly self-serving and demonstrably wrong advice of the military – invade Cuba, use nuclear weapons in Korea, bomb North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, arm the Afghan freedom fighters, give weapons to Saddam to fight Iran, engage in any number of Third World skirmishes as part of the Cold War, meddle in Latin America, invade Afghanistan, invade Iraq and so on.
Or does he tell them: No. All the foreign incursions, military bases and meddling in other nation’s affairs does not improve America’s security or even its wealth. Indeed, it threatens it.
The US has still not paid for Vietnam and it will take decades to pay just for the disabilities to US soldiers caused by decayed-uranium weapons in the Second Gulf War.
“Oh, when will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?”
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 10 October 2009.