THE BLOG
11/30/2009 11:32 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Letter to Barack Obama

Dear Mr. President:

You and many of your constituents shave been praising each other on this Thanksgiving, holiday season, so why not one more?

Those of us who voted for you last year and continue to believe that you are the best president we have had in many years are concerned that you are too reluctant to give your critics a piece of your mind. If there's one thing Americans respect it is a fighter; a battler. Stand up for what you believe in and then lead. There are those among us who think your upcoming decision on Afghanistan is wrong. It's not because we are against wars that clearly are fought to protect the national interest, but the argument for more troops is wrong because it is being waged to avoid the onus of "cut-and-run." This has been the argument of the war hawks ever since Vietnam. But reading of General Stanley McChrystal's's request for another 40,000 troops or maybe even more to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, those of us who were in Saigon remember when General William Westmoreland asked President Johnson for another 206,000 troops to defeat the Communists.

However, Mr. President, as you probably know by now, having read Gordon Goldstein's recent book "Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam," you will recall his warning to have listened to the doves before plunging into another quagmire. What you may not have read was a favorable review of that book in the New York Times a year ago by your special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbooke. He concluded: "With the nation now about to inaugurate a new president committed to withdraw combat troops from Iraq and succeed in Afghanistan, the lessons of Vietnam are still relevant. McGeorge Bundy's story of early brilliance and a late-in-life search for the truth about himself and the war, is an extraordinary cautionary tale for all Americans."

What also should not be forgotten once the conflict had ended was the declaration by many of our generals that the United States should never again go to war without the complete support of the American people.

Having devoted some six years, in and out of Vietnam from the time I reported on the final withdrawal of the French from Indochina and the American departure from Saigon , I shudder over the prospect, Mr. President, that you will repeat the mistakes of presidents who have come before you. It was not just Lyndon Johnson's war. It was John F. Kennedy's as well. Despite all the insistence of his admirers that had he lived, JFK intended to quit U.S. support of the Vietnamese, I believe there is no substantial proof that he would have done so.

Rightly or wrongly, Kennedy believed the U.S. commitment was a signal to the Soviet Union that we intended as a facet of the Cold War to stop the Communists in Vietnam.

Mike Mansfield, the U.S Senate Majority Leader and a close friend of Kennedy's, told me in an interview shortly before he died that he had never heard JFK express any intention to end American support of the South Vietnamese government. It also would be well to realize that twice as many of our soldiers in Vietnam were killed during the Nixon Administration as there were during LBJ's presidency.

Who said what and to whom may seem irrelevant at this time. What I do know from experience as a correspondent covering the developing world for a generation or more is that those countries plagued by tribalism, conflicting ethnicities and religious differences are poor candidates for democracy. Neither terrorist or communist accurately portrays the nature of the "enemy" that confronts our troops. Whether it was in Vietnam before or more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has been lured into the most difficult and often bloodiest kind of conflict to resolve. It is called a civil war, which we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge. In that kind of environment, it is up to the combatants, the Afghan government and the Taliban, to resolve their differences, either by blood or diplomacy. Otherwise, there is no end game in sight.

We can train and equip the troops of an honest, legitimately-elected government in Kabul.
or else keep our troops out of Harm's Way; unless, of course, you and the Congress are willing to initiate a military draft. Let's set aside a volunteer army and determine, once and for all, how the American people truly feel about committing their sons and daughters to another war. Of course you can count on the hawks in Congress, the motor mouths on cable television or the gurus in Washington's conservative think tanks to denounce such an idea.

But with only rare exception , they will not be sending any of their sons or daughters into battle. You can count on it.

Otherwise, the United States should not be in the business of solving or settling every dispute that arises in the unsettled, developing world unless it can be determined unequivocally that the national interest truly is at stake. I don't know if Osama bin Laden is dead or alive and I'm not sure that any other American does either. But let's insist that the Pakistanis shoulder the responsibility of finding and killing him and his terrorists who are hiding in their mountains.

We have been bankrolling and arming them for so long, that's the least they can do.

In 1957, I was told by an American diplomat in Kabul that the U.S. goal in Afghanistan was nation-building. That was more than a half-century ago. The time is well past, Mr. President, for us to stop kidding ourselves.