Obama at the Precipice


It’s early in 1965, and President Lyndon B. Johnson faces a critical decision. Should he escalate in Vietnam? Should he say "yes" to the request from U.S. commanders for more troops? Or should he change strategy, downsize the American commitment, even withdraw completely, a decision that would help him focus on his top domestic priority, "The Great Society" he hopes to build?

We all know what happened. LBJ listened to the generals and foreign policy experts and escalated, with tragic consequences for the United States and calamitous results for the Vietnamese people on the receiving end of American firepower. Drawn deeper and deeper into Vietnam, LBJ would soon lose his way and eventually his will, refusing to run for reelection in 1968.

President Obama now stands at the edge of a similar precipice. Should he acquiesce to General Stanley A. McChrystal’s call for 40,000 to 60,000 or more U.S. troops for Afghanistan? Or should he pursue a new strategy, downsizing our commitment, even withdrawing completely, a decision that would help him focus on national health care, among his other top domestic priorities?

The die, I fear, is cast. In his "war of necessity," Obama has evidently already ruled out even considering a "reduction" option, no less a withdrawal one, and will likely settle on an "escalate lite" program involving more troops (though not as many as McChrystal has urged), more American trainers for the Afghan army, and even a further escalation of the drone war over the Pakistani borderlands and new special operations actions.

By failing his first big test as commander-in-chief this way, Obama will likely ensure himself a one-term presidency, and someday be seen as a man like LBJ whose biggest dreams broke upon the shoals of an unwinnable war.

The Conventional Wisdom: Military Escalation

To whom, we may ask, is Obama listening as he makes his decision on Afghanistan strategy and troop levels? Not the skeptics, it’s safe to assume. Not the free-thinkers, not today’s equivalents of Mary McCarthy or Norman Mailer. Instead, he’s doubtless listening to the generals and admirals, or the former generals and admirals who now occupy prominent "civilian" positions at the White House and inside the beltway.

By his actions, Obama has embraced the seemingly sober, conventional wisdom that senior military officers, whether on active duty or retired, have, as they say in the corridors of the Pentagon, "subject matter expertise" when it comes to strategy, war, even foreign policy.

Don’t we know better than this? Don’t we know, as Glenn Greenwald recently reminded us, that General McChrystal’s strategic review was penned by a "war-loving foreign policy community," in which the usual suspects — "the Kagans, a Brookings representative, Anthony Cordesman, someone from Rand" — were rounded up to argue for more troops and more war?

Don’t we know, as Tom Engelhardt recently reminded us, that Obama’s "civilian" advisors include "Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general who is the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Douglas Lute, a lieutenant general who is the president’s special advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan (dubbed the "war czar" when he held the same position in the Bush administration), and James Jones, a retired Marine Corps general, who is national security advisor, not to speak of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency"? Are we surprised, then, that when we "turn crucial war decisions over to the military, [we] functionally turn foreign policy over to them as well"? And that they, in turn, always opt for more troops, more money, and more war?

One person unsurprised by this state of affairs would have been Norman Mailer, who died in 2007. War veteran, famed author of the war novel The Naked and the Dead (1948) as well as the Pulitzer Prize-winning report on Vietnam-era protests, The Armies of the Night (1968), self-styled tough guy who didn’t dance, Mailer witnessed (and dissected) the Vietnam analog to today’s Afghan events. Back in 1965, Mailer bluntly stated that the best U.S. option was "to get out of Asia." Period.

The Unconventional Wisdom: Military Extrication

Can Obama find the courage and wisdom to extricate our troops from Afghanistan? Courtesy of Norman Mailer, here are three unconventional pointers that should be driving him in this direction:

1. Don’t fight a war, and clearly don’t escalate a war, in a place which means so little to Americans. In words that apply quite readily to Afghanistan today, Mailer wrote in 1965: "Vietnam [to Americans] is faceless. How many Americans have ever visited that country? Who can say which language is spoken there, or what industries might exist, or even what the country looks like? We do not care. We are not interested in the Vietnamese. If we were to fight a war with the inhabitants of the planet of Mars there would be more emotional participation by the people of America."

2. Beware of cascading dominoes and misleading metaphors, whether in Southeast Asia or anywhere else. The domino theory held that if Vietnam, then split into north and south, was united under communism, other Asian countries, including Thailand, the Philippines, perhaps even India, would inevitably fall to communism as well, just like so many dominoes toppling. Instead, it was communism that fell or, alternately, morphed into a version that we could do business with (to paraphrase former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher).

We may no longer speak metaphorically of falling dominoes in today’s Af-Pak theater of operations. Nevertheless, our fears are drawn from a similarly misleading image: If Afghanistan falls to the Taliban, Pakistan will surely follow, opening a nuclear Pandora’s Box to anti-American terrorists in which, in our fevered imaginations, smoking guns will once again become mushroom clouds.

Despite the fevered talk of falling dominoes in his era, Mailer was unmoved. Such rhetoric suggests, he wrote in 1965, "that we are not protecting a position of connected bastions so much as we are trying to conceal the fact that the bastions are about gone — they are not dominoes, but sand castles, and a tide of nationalism is on the way in. It is curious foreign policy to use metaphors in defense of a war; when the metaphors are imprecise, it is a swindle."

To this I’d add that, in viewing countries and peoples as so many dominoes, which by the actions — or the inaction — of the United States are either set up or knocked down, we vastly exaggerate our own agency and emphasize our sense of self-importance. And before we even start in on the inevitable argument about "Who lost Afghanistan?" or "Who lost Pakistan?" is it too obvious to say that never for a moment did we own these countries and peoples?

3. Carrots and sticks may work together to move a stubborn horse, but not a proud people determined to find their own path. As Mailer put it, with a different twist: "Bombing a country at the same time you are offering it aid is as morally repulsive as beating up a kid in an alley and stopping to ask for a kiss."

As our Predator and Reaper drones scan the Afghan terrain below, launching missiles to decapitate terrorists while unintentionally taking innocents with them, we console ourselves by offering aid to the Afghans to help them improve or rebuild their country. As it happens, though, when the enemy hydra loses a head, another simply grows in its place, while collateral damage only leads to a new generation of vengeance-seekers. Meanwhile, promised aid gets funneled to multi-national corporations or siphoned off by corrupt government officials, leaving little for Afghan peasants, certainly not enough to win their allegiance, let alone their "hearts and minds."

If we continue to speak with bombs while greasing palms with dollars, we’ll get nothing more than a few bangs for our $228 billion (and counting).

What if LBJ Had Listened to Mailer in ’65?

Not long before LBJ crossed his Rubicon and backed escalation in Vietnam, he could have decided to pull out. Said Mailer:

"The image had been prepared for our departure — we heard of nothing but the corruption of the South Vietnam government and the professional cowardice of the South Vietnamese generals. We read how a Viet Cong army of 40,000 soldiers was whipping a government army of 400,000. We were told in our own newspapers how the Viet Cong armed themselves with American weapons brought to them by deserters or captured in battle with government troops; we knew it was an empty war for our side."

 

Substitute "the Hamid Karzai government" for "the South Vietnam government" and "Taliban" for "Viet Cong" and the same passage could almost have been written yesterday about Afghanistan. We know the Karzai government is corrupt, that it stole the vote in the last election, that the Afghan army is largely a figment of Washington’s imagination, that its troops sell their American-made weapons to the enemy. But why do our leaders once again fail to see, as Mailer saw with Vietnam, that this, too, is a recognizably "empty war for our side"?

Mailer experienced the relentless self-regard and strategic obtuseness of Washington as a mystery, but that didn’t stop him from condemning President Johnson’s decision to escalate in Vietnam. For Mailer, LBJ was revealed as "a man driven by need, a gambler who fears that once he stops, once he pulls out of the game, his heart will rupture from tension." Johnson, like nearly all Americans, Mailer concluded, was a member of a minority group, defined not in racial or ethnic terms but in terms of "alienat[ion] from the self by a double sense of identity and so at the mercy of a self which demands action and more action to define the most rudimentary borders of identity."

This American drive for self-definition through constant action, through headlong acceleration, even through military escalation, the novelist described, in something of a mixed metaphor, as "the swamps of a plague" in which Americans had been caught and continued to sink. He saw relief of the desperate condition coming only via "the massacre of strange people."

To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of Mailer’s analysis here, more emotionally Heart-of-Darkness than coolly rational. But that’s precisely why I want someone Mailer-esque — pugnacious, free-swinging, and prophetical, provocative and profane — advising our president. Right now.

As Obama’s military experts wield their battlefield metrics and call for more force (to be used, of course, with ever greater precision and dexterity), I think Mailer might have replied: We think the only thing they understand is force. What if the only thing we understand is force?

Mailer, I have no doubt, would have had the courage to be seen as "weak" on defense, because he would have known that Americans had no dog in this particular fight. I think he would intuitively have recognized the wisdom of the great Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, who wrote more than 2,000 years ago in The Art of War that "to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill." Our generals, by way of contrast, seem to want to fight those 100 battles with little hope of actually subduing the enemy.

What Obama needs, in other words, is fewer generals and ex-generals and more Norman Mailers — more outspoken free-thinkers who have no interest in staying inside the pentagonal box that holds Washington’s thinking tight. What Obama needs is to silence the endless cries for more troops and more war emanating from the military and foreign policy "experts" around him, so he can hear the voices of today’s Mailers, of today’s tough-minded dissenters. Were he to do so, he might yet avoid repeating LBJ’s biggest blunder — and so avoid suffering his political fate as well.

[Note on sources: Most of the Mailer quotations in this piece are drawn from a speech he wrote for "Vietnam Day," May 25, 1965, in Berkeley, California, as reprinted in Cannibals and Christians (New York, 1966), a fascinating collection of cutting prose and dreadful poetry.]

 

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), is a TomDispatch regular. He has taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School, and now teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. He can be reached at [email protected]

[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture, and editor of The World According to Tomdispatch: America in the New Age of Empire.]

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