Obama’s Vietnam Syndrome

What is uncanny about the current US debate about Afghanistan is the degree to which it displays continuity with the debate about the Vietnam war, and the Obama administration knows it. Lyndon Johnson knew that the Vietnam war could not be won even before his administration escalated it, but he also feared, rightly, that American presidents who lose wars also lose elections.

NEW HAVEN – There can be no military resolution to the war in Afghanistan, only a political one. Writing that sentence almost makes me faint with boredom. As US President Barack Obama ponders what to do about the war, who wants to repeat a point that’s been made thousands of times? Is there anyone on earth who does not know that a guerilla war cannot be won without winning the “hearts and minds” of the people? The American public has known this since its defeat in Vietnam.

Americans are accustomed to thinking that their country’s bitter experience in Vietnam taught certain lessons that became cautionary principles. But historical documents recently made available reveal something much stranger. Most of those lessons were in fact known – though not publicly admitted – before the US escalated the war in Vietnam.

That difference is important. If the Vietnam disaster was launched in full awareness of the “lessons,” why should those lessons be any more effective this time? It would seem that some other lessons are needed.

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