No JFK Moment For Obama On Afghanistan

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

The great hope was that President Obama would have the courage and political sense to do what JFK did forty six years ago. Kennedy told the generals 'no' to their demand for escalation in Vietnam. It wasn't easy. The Pentagon had drawn up plans for the massive military ramp up, had an active lobby on Congress and in the defense establishment, and had National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy pounding on Kennedy for escalation. To force Kennedy's hand, the generals dragged their feet, slowrolled, on implementing his directive for a contingency troop withdrawal plan. Despite the backdoor insubordination to an order from their commander-in-chief, Kennedy held firm on withdrawal.

But it took political craft to accomplish his goal. He quietly drew up a plan for withdrawal and then sent his two top military advisors Maxwell Taylor and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara on a fact-finding tour to publicly confirm that a massive escalation in American troops would be a resounding failure. The South Vietnamese government was corrupt and unpopular, the resistance was well armed, fiercely ideological and battle tested after years of war against the French. The US would have to permanently garrison tens of thousands of troops, at a cost of billions, risking large scale casualties with little hope of victory.

Kennedy did not live long enough to thwart the generals. They got their war. It dragged on for years, cost thousands of American lives, killed and maimed thousands of civilians, reinforced the image of America as a global bully, created massive political chaos at home, and jaded a generation of young persons who now saw the US policymakers as liars and deceivers.

Obama knows this tragic history. He has read many of the books on the Vietnam catastrophe, which tell how the war ripped apart a nation, and totally discredited the once highly popular and promising presidency of LBJ. He's heard from the experts and seen all the polls that show the war is unpopular.

For a brief moment in September it appeared that Obama's 'dither' on Afghan troop escalation might be a JFK moment. The right elements were in place to turn his dither into a 'no' to the generals on escalation. Polls showed that Americans were opposed to escalation. The overwhelming majority of Democrats openly voiced opposition to war funding increases and escalation. A number of military and foreign policy experts said the war was un-winnable and told him why. With public worry and unease rising over the economy, and an unfinished health care reform battle, escalation seemed even more absurd.

During the campaign much was made of the Obama-JFK comparison. Both were young, dynamic, inspired hope, and once elected immediately faced a military and foreign policy crisis that forced Kennedy and now Obama to weigh pressure from the Pentagon to expand a war. In JFK's case the immediate crisis was the Cuban Missile episode. The story is well known. The generals pushed hard for a quick strike against Russian missiles, and a bellicose warning to the Soviet Union that if they responded, the USSR would be obliterated. Kennedy rejected both.

The U.S.-Soviet stand down was brokered through back channel talks initiated by Robert Kennedy with the Soviet ambassador to the U.S. After they hammered out the bare details of the agreement Robert Kennedy and other senior advisors urged Kennedy to finally approve the deal. Kennedy choose diplomacy, embargo, containment of Cuba, beefed up military aid and assistance to Latin American governments, and counterinsurgency against guerrilla threats to counter communist backed insurgency in Latin America, over direct US military intervention.

Kennedy had one major advantage over Obama. He did not inherit a full blown war. When he took office, US military involvement in Vietnam was fleeting. There were less than 1000 military advisors in the country, and fewer than ten Americans had been killed in combat-related action. To most Americans, Vietnam then was merely a name on the map. The military and foreign policy issues involved in the prolonged fighting between the Vietnamese and French, and increasingly the Americans, were barely known, and even less understood.

The public was not asked to make a leap of faith that an untested president could handle a war crisis. But surprisingly Kennedy did. The situation Obama faces with Afghanistan is the opposite of what Kennedy faced. There's the depth of American military involvement, commitment, and the entrenched thinking that Afghanistan is the front line in the war on terrorism. Obama shares this thinking with the generals. This makes it even less likely that he would defy them and chart a course that relies solely on diplomacy, containment, partnerships with foreign allies, Afghan governmental reforms, and Afghan security training and overhaul, in place of troop escalation to attain his goals.

JFK opted to take this course to deal with Cuba and Vietnam. Obama should take the same course with Afghanistan. If he did it would be his JFK moment. But don't expect it.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson
is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.