08/20/2009 10:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama and the Limits of Power

On August 17, President Barack Obama made the obligatory presidential pilgrimage to the conclave of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, this time on Senator John McCain's home turf. The speech, carried live on the cable networks, captured a VFW audience often surly and seemingly uninterested in the president's remarks. But at one point, he predictably brought even his recalcitrant audience to its feet when he made a pitch for his health care proposals: "One thing that reform won't change is veterans' health care. No one is going to take away your benefits. That's the truth." No doubt.

The president and his spokespersons spent much of the day backing and filing on health care. Did he or didn't he flavor a public option? How much would "his" package (did he have one?) cost? And what about those "death panels?"

But for the VFW, Obama concentrated on the expanding war in Afghanistan -- and it is the war that he now proudly asserts as his own. After in effect declaring victory in Iraq to justify the removal of American troops, Obama promised he now would "re-focus" our efforts to "win" in Afghanistan. As Obama made abundantly clear in his presidential campaign, this was his war of choice, the one he consistently has said is necessary to eliminate al-Qaeda, which had taken refuge in the desolate Afghan mountains.

During the campaign, he seemed at pains to demonstrate he was not the caricatured soft liberal when it came to American military power. Although Obama consistently has admitted, as he did with the VFW, that military power alone will not be sufficient, he nevertheless insisted his "new strategy" had the clear mission "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda." Obama knows that defeat of the Taliban is essential to this strategy. "If left unchecked," he remarked, the Taliban insurgency will bring "an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans." It is not, he insisted, a "war of choice," but "a war of necessity."

In 1991, following the defeat of Saddam Hussein and Iraqi forces in Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush proudly announced that we had "kicked the Vietnam Syndrome." His successor son, propelled by Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, heady with the lightening rout of Iraqi forces, believed he had restored World War II ("can do") notions for the military component of American foreign policy.

The same day President Obama spoke to VFW, the New York Times carried a dispatch from Afghanistan, with a villager trying to explain the difference between night and day, and his security: "When you leave here, the Taliban will come at night and ask us why we were talking to you," a villager named Abdul Razzaq said. "If we cooperate, they would kill us."

Déjà vu all over again. The American military in Vietnam often announced that they had killed so many Viet Cong, and had "freed" a village. They left assuming the enemy had lost control but at night, of course, the VC returned and reminded villagers of the reality.

Whatever "syndrome" we kicked, Vietnam's primary lesson remains intact: American power is not without limits, both in terms of defeating an enemy, and in terms of its domestic support. The primary lesson of Vietnam seems that it is a lesson lost. And now we have some of the same intractable problems in Afghanistan.

General Stanley McChrystal and Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke recently called Vietnam War historian Stanley Karnow for advice. After the conversation, Karnow told the AP that the main lesson to be learned from Vietnam was that "we shouldn't have been there in the first place." We apparently don't know what was said on the other end, but General McChrystal has asked for more troops.

As Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson expanded the American commitment in Vietnam, their deputies regularly insisted that the insurgency had Chinese support and backing. "Peiping," as Secretary of State Dean Rusk scoffed, blatantly demeaning the Chinese, was to blame. If the government had any historians, or anyone with knowledge of history, and had the courage to speak truth to power, they could have pointed to the historic enmity of a millennium between the Chinese and the Vietnamese. As if to prove the point, the Chinese launched war against the victorious Vietnamese in 1975, only to suffer an embarrassing defeat.
The historical lessons for Afghanistan are clear. The British readily acknowledge their defeat. Surely, the Russians know that Afghanistan was their Vietnam -- with some not-so covert intervention by the CIA. Afghanistan has been a graveyard for imperial ambitions, however noble and ostensibly good the ventures may have been. Long after the Guns of Health Care Reform are stilled, Afghanistan apparently promises to be with President Obama -- and us -- for a very long time.

We thought we defeated the Taliban once before; and now, they are back again. President Obama believes we must do more to roll back the Taliban. But what can we do with the ethnic and tribal rivalries, the corruption and inefficiency in Kabul, all of which are related to the place of the Taliban? Will the U.S. be able to totally destroy, everywhere in the country, the Taliban's grip on power? Does anyone in Obama's circle ask "why?"

We can ponder the alternative. If successful, the Taliban possibly might offer "an even larger safe haven" for al-Qaeda and similar groups. But now, without Taliban control of the Afghanistan government, "safe havens" persist in the mountains of the country and in the northwest provinces of Pakistan. The situation is not much different than it was in 2001, except that the safe area for terrorists may be smaller. But what is different is our intelligence, our use of it, our vigilance, and our capacity to strike with sophisticated air weapons.
American are questioning the Afghanistan involvement as never before. A Washington Post- ABC Poll (August 19, 2009) for the first time showed a majority of Americans opposed to the war. Meanwhile, suicide bombings and other attacks mount in Kabul. American troops can protect the local citizenry only sporadically, and with limitations. But inevitably, Americans will we ask how long we will we remain in Afghanistan, how many troops will be needed, and whether the costs in lives and treasure justify the venture? As with the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, chances of our destroying the Taliban are slight. Eventually, the Afghans -- Taliban or otherwise -- will inherit their land and have to assume responsibility for governing. We, like the British and the Russians before us, will fade into Afghanistan's history.

Stanley Kutler is the author of The Wars of Watergate, and other writings.