"Lessons in Disaster": If Obama Caves to the Pentagon, He's No Jack Kennedy

You don't have to be a dove to understand what President Kennedy understood: putting U.S. troops on the ground somewhere doesn't automatically make you more powerful.
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President Obama knows better than to agree to General McChrystal's proposal for military escalation in Afghanistan. He read the book.

On October 7, the Wall Street Journal reported that top officials of the Obama Administration, including President Obama himself, had recently read Gordon Goldstein's book on the path to U.S. military escalation in Vietnam: Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam.

The Journal reported that, "For opponents of a major troop increase, led by Biden and Emanuel, "'Lessons in Disaster' ... encapsulates their concerns about accepting military advice unchallenged."

Indeed, a central theme of the book is President Kennedy's willingness, on the question of ground troops in Vietnam, to do what President Obama has not yet done regarding demands for military escalation in Afghanistan: stand up to the U.S. military and say no.

Journalist Seymour Hersh, a close student of the U.S. military since he broke the story of the My Lai massacre, says the U.S. army is "in a war against the White House - and they feel they have Obama boxed in." Hersh says the only way out is for Obama to stand up to the Pentagon. "He's either going to let the Pentagon run him or he has to run the Pentagon," Hersh said. If he doesn't, "this stuff is going to be the ruin of his presidency." The only way for the U.S. to extricate itself from the conflict, Hersh says, is to negotiate with the Taliban. "It's the only way out," he said. "I know that there's a lot of discussion in the White House about this now. But Obama is going to have to take charge, and there's no evidence he's going to do that."

There's a conventional wisdom now that Obama simply can't "take charge," because it's politically impossible. According to this view, McChrystal's request sets up the Republicans to blame Obama for "losing Afghanistan" if he doesn't agree to McChrystal's request (even though, as Fareed Zakaria notes in the Washington Post, over the past 18 months, troop levels in Afghanistan have almost tripled).

But Goldstein's book strongly argues that President Obama could say no to the U.S. military. The perceived threat to the U.S. from "international Communism" was at least as powerful a bogey in American politics in 1961 as the threat of international terrorism is today.

Goldstein notes (p. 30):

[I]n the fall of 1961, Kennedy's most senior advisers almost unanimously warned him that the odds were sharply against avoiding a catastrophic defeat in Vietnam unless the president approved the first increment of a ground combat force deployment that might ultimately reach six divisions, or more than 200,000 men.

Yet Kennedy rejected every proposal to send combat troops to Vietnam.

Kennedy also rejected U.S. military demands for U.S. military intervention in Laos (pp. 46-47) In April 1961, Admiral Arleigh Burke, chief of naval operations, argued "strongly and repeatedly" that without U.S. military intervention in Laos, "all Southeast Asia will be lost." The majority of Kennedy's advisers supported the deployment of combat troops to South Vietnam, Thailand, and government-controlled positions in Laos. If that failed to produce a cease-fire, Kennedy was advised to use tactical nuclear weapons against Laotian guerrillas. If China or North Vietnam intervened, those countries should be bombed and, if necessary, attacked with nuclear weapons.

Instead of taking any of this advice, Kennedy pressed for a diplomatic solution, bringing about a cease-fire and eventually an agreement for the neutralization of Laos.

Kennedy's willingness to stand up to military and civilian advisers who seemed to automatically advocate the most militarily aggressive U.S. response to any situation was informed by the debacle of the Bay of Pigs invasion, when Kennedy was badly burned by bad advice - not just advice that was bad in the sense of being wrong in its predictions, but advice that was deceitful - bad in the sense of "bad faith" and withholding key information. The same advisers who demanded U.S. military intervention in Laos had advised Kennedy to approve the Bay of Pigs operation - the invasion of Cuba by U.S.-supported Cuban exiles. Before the invasion, Kennedy's advisers talked up the great prospects for success. In approving it, Kennedy made clear that if it failed, he would not authorize direct U.S. military intervention to save it. When - predictably - the operation failed, Kennedy's advisers demanded direct U.S. military intervention to save it. In fact, the documentary record shows that the CIA knew the operation would fail without direct U.S. military intervention, but withheld this information from Kennedy, and that their plan all along was to box Kennedy into a situation where he would be compelled to involve U.S. forces. By Kennedy's own account, the CIA and the military didn't believe that a "new president" would stand up to them. (p.40)

When you read this history, you see Vice-President Biden's prediction that President Obama would be "tested" in a new light. Yes, President Obama is being tested - but not by foreign adversaries. President Obama is being tested by the Pentagon.

President Kennedy was no dove. Kennedy was willing to violate international law and Kennedy was willing to authorize the killing of people in foreign countries who had committed no crime against the people of the United States. What Kennedy was not willing to do was commit U.S. ground troops to an unwinnable war in Vietnam. And he wasn't willing to commit U.S. ground troops - as some of his advisers were - in the belief that protecting U.S. "credibility" meant that it would be better to fight and lose than not to fight. You don't have to be a dove to understand what President Kennedy understood: putting U.S. troops on the ground somewhere doesn't automatically make you more powerful. Indeed, it could make you less powerful, because, all other things being equal, a person with more options is more powerful than a person with fewer options. And if military escalation closes off opportunities for diplomatic and political solutions, it makes you less powerful.

Some people at the top of the Obama Administration clearly get this. Indeed, the Journal reported that, "Administration officials in the Biden camp fear they too could close off the path to a more peaceful resolution of the conflict if 40,000 more troops are sent."

This is the key danger in approving McChrystal's request. Of course, in the short run, sending more troops almost surely means that more U.S. troops will die and more Afghan civilians will die, and that would be bad enough. But the even greater danger is that it might make the eventual, inevitable political resolution of the conflict more difficult, thereby prolonging it and causing many more needless deaths.

National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy believed that after the U.S. escalated and "Americanized" the Vietnam war in 1965, a diplomatic solution was "not viable." Repeating this mistake - making a diplomatic resolution "not viable" - is the great danger in McChrystal's request. Bundy said later that Congress knew perfectly well what was at stake when President Johnson escalated U.S. involvement in 1965, and deliberately chose not to be involved. That observation is even more relevant today. No one in Congress can claim ignorance of a debate that has been aired in the media much more than the 1965 escalation decision was. If Congress isn't speaking up, it must be that they're not hearing enough from their constituents.

As former Marine captain Matthew Hoh recently wrote in his letter of resignation as a top U.S. official in Afghanistan,

"I want people in Iowa, people in Arkansas, people in Arizona, to call their congressman and say, 'Listen, I don't think this is right.' "

Now there's a great American patriot. Do what he says.

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