THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mr. President, Can the Ghosts of Vietnam Talk You Down?

Dear Mr. President:

In these days before a fateful decision, I hope you are hearing the wise counsel of those who directly experienced the Vietnam Quagmire, who now watch you prepare to sink your presidency, like Lyndon Johnson, into the unforgiving history and terrain of Afghanistan.

It is stunning to me that a humane and discerning mind like yours is being dragged further into an unnecessary and unwinnable war. You campaigned on Afghanistan being the "Good War" to help extricate America from the Iraq debacle. But your own analysis of the Iraq mess in The Audacity of Hope is right on the mark for the Afghan War today (especially since the "central front" against Al Queda has shifted to Pakistan). In your book chapter "The World Beyond Our Borders," you wrote about the predictable cycle of failure in Iraq, describing it as:

"A botched and ill-advised U.S. military incursion into a Muslim country, which in turn spurs on insurgencies based on religious sentiment and nationalist pride, which in turn necessitates a lengthy and difficult U.S. occupation, which in turn leads to an escalating death toll on the part of U.S. troops and the local civilian population. All of this fans anti-American sentiment among Muslims, increases the pool of potential terrorist recruits, and prompts the American people to not only question the war but also those policies that project us into the Islamic world in the first place."

Mr. President, it seems that you might know deep in your bones that the path the generals and crackpot realists are walking you down is, as Yogi Berra once said, deja vu all over again. We are told that you recently finished reading Lessons in Disaster, which traces the hawkish march to war and later regret by Vietnam-era national security adviser McGeorge Bundy. The book details the myopic worldview of military leaders focused on troop numbers, and the civilian leaders who tragically followed their advice.

I fear that you may recognize the hazards that lay ahead, but are letting your instincts to find a middle-ground, compromise solution lead you to pursue a "bipartisan" troop increase--an escalation never enough to win, but certain to enlarge and deepen a most damaging defeat.

Please listen to your inner compass, Mr. President. Consider the wise words of prominent historians, politicians, and military analysts whose lives and careers were defined by the Vietnam War, and who today warn you against escalating this fool's errand in Afghanistan. Here are four prophetic voices hoping to talk you down:

Stanley Karnow, author of the seminal 1983 book, "Vietnam: A History":

What did we learn from Vietnam? We learned that we shouldn't have been there in the first place. Obama and everybody else seem to want to be in Afghanistan, but not I.

It now seems unthinkable that the U.S. could lose (in Afghanistan), but that's what experts ... thought in Vietnam in 1967. It could be that there will be no real conclusion and that it will go on for a long time until the American public grows tired of it.

George McGovern, 1972 Democratic presidential nominee and the first member to oppose the Vietnam War on the floor of the U.S. Senate:

"I'm convinced that war is going to turn sour. I'm convinced we're not going to prevail there. Some of the best reporters over there are telling us that the Taliban are getting stronger and we're getting weaker in the minds of the people, and that you have a corrupt government involved in drugs, involved in just plain old-fashioned stealing and corruption. It's a lousy government, and it's very difficult, even for a great country like [the U.S.], to make them look good. So I think we have every reason to withdraw."


Daniel Ellsberg, former military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in 1971, making public the decision-making details behind the Vietnam War:

"I see the situation as Vietnamistan: If you put more troops in this year, the Taliban will be stronger next year. We recruit as we kill and support a corrupt, dope-dealing government. There's no way of making this government look like it really cares about the Afghan people. No foreign troops have ever carried out a successful counter-insurgency campaign in terms of actually winning over the population."


Ted Sorensen, former special counsel and adviser to President John F. Kennedy, and author most recently of Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History:

America's unwise, unwarranted, and sadly unwinnable war in Afghanistan--hastily initiated and then abandoned for Iraq by President Barack Obama's ideologically blinded predecessor and dumped into Obama's lap in the worst possible way--is beginning increasingly to smell like the 1964-68 war in South Vietnam that swallowed up the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.

America's national security, much less its way of life, was never at stake in Vietnam, thousands of miles from our shores, nor is it in Afghanistan. U.S. leaders say we must win to establish sufficient control in Afghanistan to prevent our enemies from ever again meeting to plan, plot, and train anywhere in that vast, ungovernable country. Every bomb we drop, antagonizing more civilians, makes that goal more unrealizable. The main al Qaeda forces have already left Afghanistan--why haven't we? The cost of Afghanistan in American lives and dollars has steadily risen to the point where the American people, as LBJ discovered regarding Vietnam, want no more.