- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2009


The United States is stuck in a 1960s flashback. In an interview on Monday, President Obama rejected comparisons between the war in Afghanistan and the Vietnam conflict, saying “you never step into the same river twice.” The Amu Darya is not the Mekong.

There are superficial parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan, especially at the tactical level. The new joint counterinsurgency doctrine addresses many of these aspects, and it is noteworthy that Gen. David H. Petraeus, who oversaw its development, wrote his doctoral dissertation on Vietnam. The Pentagon is well aware of the battlefield lessons of our country’s only military defeat.

At the strategic level, the situation is decidedly different. Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban, is not a head of state like North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh was. There is no conventional armed force in Afghanistan analogous to the North Vietnamese Army. The Taliban does not have a support structure anything like the scale of what the communist world provided to Hanoi. Those who think the Vietnam War was won by pajama-clad guerillas in the jungle should take another look at images of communist tanks crashing through the gates of the South Vietnamese presidential palace in 1975.

Unfortunately, the most important strategic factor is the same: a liberal Congress working to undermine the U.S. war effort. The U.S. military had won the Vietnam conflict by 1970, but when Democrats in Congress cut aid to South Vietnam in 1974, our trusting allies in Saigon were left helpless before the communist onslaught. Mr. Obama might want to consult with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on the spirit of those times. Mr. Biden was a freshman senator and one of the cosponsors of the Case-Church Amendment, which stopped aid to Cambodia and opened the way for the Khmer Rouge takeover and the killing fields that followed.

Today, the doves are sharpening their talons again. Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, has come out against the troop increase the commanders on the ground think is necessary and is pushing for more Afghanization of the war effort. “I’m not just going to sit around waiting for a decision by the president,” he said yesterday. Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, declared Sunday that the United States cannot build democracy in Afghanistan. Committee member Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, is promoting a “flexible timetable” for withdrawal.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric emanating from Congress about the Afghan government is taking on a distinctly Saigonesque ring. We hear that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a fraud, his government is corrupt, the people in the countryside have lost confidence in Kabul, and the Afghan security forces are a joke. To paraphrase the Yippies of yore, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the Taliban is gonna win!”

But the Democrats have a more delicate dance to perform this time. They cannot simply cut and run like they did from Vietnam. For years, they promoted Afghanistan as the “right war,” a political counterweight to the “wrong war” in Iraq. Now they have to figure out how to back out of the “right war” without the convenient excuse of saying they were duped by supposed lies, as they did in Iraq over the issue of weapons of mass destruction. The get-out-of-jail-free card for an earlier generation was the Tonkin Gulf incident, in which an altercation between North Vietnamese and American vessels was used to justify U.S. military escalation in Vietnam. Later revelations showed the incident was less severe than originally reported and gave political cover to whole flocks of what President Johnson’s adviser, John P. Roche, mockingly referred to as “hawks turned dove in mid-flight.” There is no such original sin in Afghanistan.

Adding to the contemporary political conundrum is the complicating factor that Democrats in Congress do not want to harm the Obama presidency. Many were willing to throw Lyndon Johnson under the bus before the 1968 presidential election knowing they could rally behind Democratic Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who had done an effective job of undermining the White House and reinventing himself as a peace advocate. Mr. Obama does not face the same internal challenge to his leadership. One potential future challenger, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — who was elected to RFK’s former Senate seat — could not easily subvert the president from the left on the war issue. Though given the fluid nature of American politics, anything is possible.

Congressional Democrats may yet find a way to abandon the Karzai government to an ignominious fate while minimizing the damage to Mr. Obama’s presidency, but the message to the world would be the same as it was in 1975: The United States cannot be trusted, and Washington is willing to abandon vulnerable allies because of short-sighted domestic political score-settling. The shame of Vietnam is still with us, and we may yet see Americans being helicoptered from Kabul rooftops ahead of advancing Taliban forces. There are some things you can step in twice.

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