- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On May 27, 1964, President Johnson had telephone conversations about Vietnam with his National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy and Sen. Richard Russell, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

First, to Mr. Bundy, he said: “It just worries the hell out of me. I don’t see what we can ever hope to get out of there. … I don’t believe we can fight them from 10,000 miles away from home and even get anywhere. … I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. It’s just the biggest damn mess. What is Vietnam worth to me? … What is it worth to this country?”

In a second, 20-minute conversation that day with his friend Mr. Russell, he said: “I’m in lots of trouble. What do you think of this Vietnam thing?” Mr. Russell responded: “Damn worst mess I ever saw. I’d get out. It isn’t worth a damn bit … .”

Late in the conversation, Mr. Johnson worried: “The Republicans are going to make a political issue out of it … Nixon, Rockefeller, Goldwater all say let’s move, let’s go into the North. … They’d impeach a president, though, who would run out, wouldn’t they?”

Mr. Johnson went on to speak of a sergeant, father of six, who “works for me over there at the house,” and told Mr. Russell, “Thinking of sending that father of those six kids in there and what the hell we’re going to get out of his doing it — it just makes the chills run up my back.” Mr. Johnson concluded the conversation by saying, “I haven’t got the nerve to do it — and I don’t see any other way out to it.”

As of that spring day in 1964, a total of 201 Americans had been killed in Vietnam since 1956, according to official records. A few months later, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed by Congress, and the great escalation of our troop levels started. By the time we finally lost the war and brought our boys home, another 57,992 American troops were killed.

Of course, in 1964, only the president knew he was taping his phone conversations. Publicly, Mr. Johnson told the public it was a war we had to fight and win — and that we would win it.

Now, of course, we know that he was sure we couldn’t win even before he sent the first of those 57,992 American boys over there to die. And that he did it because he didn’t have, in his words, “the nerve” to follow his best judgment because he wouldn’t risk his own political danger, perhaps impeachment.

As painful as it is to consider the consequences of Mr. Johnson’s decisions, he was, for all his faults, no monster. Even the finest, ethical leaders often find the pressures of politics powerfully encroaching on their best policy judgments. (For example, in order to win, Franklin D. Roosevelt ran publicly on a peace ticket in 1940, when he privately believed American interests required us to get into World War II.)

Today, President Obama is on the cusp of a fateful policy decision. He has argued consistently that the war in Afghanistan is necessary to deny al Qaeda a base of terrorist operations and stop the Taliban insurrection from destabilizing nuclear Pakistan.

But now, serious doubts are being raised by many policy experts and an emerging majority of the American and British publics as to whether we have a strategy and the material resources to succeed. Even the optimists say they believe a successful counterinsurgency in Afghanistan (and needed as much in Pakistan) will require several years of sustained commitment with substantially more men and material and a shrewder strategy (probably requiring modern nation building of a traditional tribal society).

To have a reasonable chance at success, Mr. Obama will have to sustain the effort for years, which will require him to be at least as determined and stubborn on behalf of this Afghan war as former President George W. Bush was in fighting the Iraq war — whatever one thought of Mr. Bush’s policy wisdom.

It may be a lonely struggle at times for the president because his strongest supporters (the Democratic Party and particularly its progressive/liberal wing) are not by philosophy or recent history natural supporters of military action. Their support will be based largely on party instincts.

The war’s natural supporters — the Republican Party’s hawkish right and center — inevitably will have at least their enthusiasm ameliorated by their party instincts.

Thus, Mr. Obama faces a hard decision: Because things are going worse than expected in Afghanistan, it will take longer and require more sacrifice of American blood and treasure to succeed (if we can succeed even then) than was believed to be the case last year. Moreover, political support for the president is likely to be uneven at best.

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