Lessons for Afghanistan from Lyndon Johnson's last Secretary of Defense
Above the Fold
Forty odd years ago, in the spring of 1968, when America was trapped in another terrible quagmire, William Westmoreland, the commanding the general in Vietnam, made a startling request of president Lyndon B. Johnson: on top of the 500,000 American troops already serving in Southeast Asia, Westmoreland said he needed 206,000 more to finish the job.
When that 206,000 number was reported in a headline on the front page of The New York Times, it caused “a national disturbance,” Clark Clifford remembered.
Clifford had been brought into Johnson’s administration in 1968 to be the new Secretary of Defense, because he had been a reliable hawk on the Vietnam war and–to Johnson’s dismay–Clifford’s predecessor, Robert McNamara, had lost confidence in America’s ability to prevail in Vietnam. But after Clifford arrived at the Pentagon, his views about the war underwent a very rapid metamorphosis.
“Will three hundred thousand more men do the job?” Clifford asked his generals, and he received no assurance that they would. How long would the war last with hundreds of thousands of more troops to wage it? Six months? A year? Two years? No one could agree. Worse still, Clifford couldn’t even find a single man willing to express any confidence in his own guesses.
“It all began to add up to the realization on my part that we’d been through a period of the never-never land in thinking that we were going to win this,” Clifford told me twenty years later–and Clifford ended up convincing Lyndon Johnson that another huge troop increase in Vietnam would be a disaster.
Now we are mired in another unwinnable war, half a world away, in a country governed by a deeply corrupt president. If we are lucky–really lucky–Karl W. Eikenberry, the retired lieutenant general now serving as America’s ambassador to Afghanistan, will have the same effect on his president that Clark Clifford had on his.
Just as Clifford had special standing as a hawk on the Vietnam War, Eikenberry’s words carry special weight because he is the former American military commander in Afghanistan. The news last week that Eikenberry had sent two cables questioning the wisdom of General Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for 40,000 additional troops may have come just in time to prevent Obama from drowning his presidency in another hopeless war.
Eikenberry’s sensible skepticism was a refreshing contrast to the attitude of so many Washington “journalists” who are, almost unbelievably, repeating all of the mistakes they made as cheerleaders in the run up to our last spectacular national adventure, the War in Iraq.
Why are they doing this?
As Hendrik Hertzberg explained the fundamental problem of Washington to me a couple of years ago, “It’s much harder to damage your career by consistently supporting war and cruelty than by consistently supporting peace and love. The default position is ‘bombs away.’”
And that goes for journalists and public officials alike.
In that venerable “bombs away” spirit, David Broder echoed dozens of his confreres when he wrote in The Washington Post last week that “the cost of indecision is growing every day.” Instead of rejoicing that there was now some real debate within the administration over the idiotic idea of sharply escalating American involvement in Afghanistan, Broder reached for exactly the wrong quote from exactly the right person. Broder wrote that “Obama needs to remember what Clark Clifford, one of Harry Truman’s closest advisers, said: that the president ‘believed that even a wrong decision was better than no decision at all.’ “
If only Broder wasn’t too senile to remember what Clifford had said to Lyndon Johnson about Vietnam, instead.
Then we have intrepid TV reporters like Chip Reid, the chief White House Correspondent for CBS News. Why Reid holds that title is another deep Washington mystery–except that he looks right for the job. Last Thursday, Reid filed a lengthy and not completely unbalanced report for the CBS Evening News, about the president’s deliberations on Afghanistan. It was perfectly OK, really, until Reid got to his kicker–the place reporters often use to put their own opinions in someone else’s mouth.
“That the president is so thoroughly researching such a critical decision is a good thing,” said Reid, “according to CBS News national security consultant Juan Zarate. But, there’s great danger, [Zarate] says, if it looks like uncertainty.” Then we got Zarate himself, the only talking head in Reid’s whole piece:
“It’s the body language of indecision, or the perception of indecision, that may matter more, in some ways. It matters in terms of how our allies view our sense of resolve in Afghanistan, how our enemies perceive our willingness to have backbone for whatever decision is made.”
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, when the former deputy national security advisor to the previous president made a completely mindless observation like that one, he would at least have been identified as a former Republican official now challenging a Democratic president. But in the wonderful world of 21st century Washington, a Bush aparatchek like Zarate can now have his past magically erased by CBS News, where he is reborn on the evening news as an objective “national security consultant to CBS“–with no mention whatsoever of his previous employment.
There’s another piece of extremely recent history that all of the Washington hawks demanding that Obama escalate the war have conveniently forgotten. In his final year in office, it was George Bush who reduced the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 48,000 in June of 2008, to 37,000 in January of this year. During the same period, aide to Afghanistan from State and the Department of defense was slashed almost in half, from $9.6 billion in 2007 to $5.4 billion in 2008, according to an excellent new report from the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
So after spending more than $167 billion on the war in Afghanistan, and failing for seven years in a row to come up with a winning strategy, Bush sharply reduced American resources in Afghanistan during his final year in office, pretty much guaranteeing the god-awful mess Obama inherited when he took office.
Now we can only pray that Obama will follow the advice of his ambassador and his vice president, and reverse course before this war buries his presidency exactly the same way Vietnam buried Lyndon Johnson’s.