Peter Beinart: Bury the Vietnam Analogy

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[Peter Beinart, Senior Political Writer for The Daily Beast, is a Professor of Journalism and Political Science at City University of New York and a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.]

“Those who can remember the past,” Arthur Schlesinger once wrote, turning George Santayana on his head, “are condemned to repeat it.” Maybe someone should staple that to the computers at The New York Times.

In recent weeks, with Barack Obama rethinking his Afghan policy, the Times has been bursting with Vietnam analogies. The “Afghanistan is Vietnam” stories all share a rather unconventional structure. First, the author tells you that his premise is wrong. “Such historical analogies are overly simplistic and fatally flawed,” acknowledged Peter Baker a few months back, in a story entitled “Could Afghanistan Become Obama’s Vietnam?” (One can only imagine the conversation between Baker and his assignment editor. Baker: “I have this fatally flawed idea for a piece.” Editor: “Get us 1,100 words by Monday.”) Then, having taken confession, the writer proceeds to sin. Many parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam, Times columnist Frank Rich conceded late last month, “are wrong, inexact or speculative”—before calling the parallels “remarkable,” “eerie,” “indisputable,” and “uncannily” exact. Perhaps other pundits should put this kind of warning label on their commentary. Many analogies between Barack Obama and Adolph Hitler “are wrong, inexact and speculative,” Glenn Beck might concede. And then on with the show.

Schlesinger’s point was that we shouldn’t get too excited if the events of our day resemble events of the past. Of course they do. The difficult question is whether they resemble them in ways that really matter. Rich, for instance, declares it “remarkable” that Obama is engaged in a battle of leaks against military leaders who want to force his hand, just as Kennedy’s generals tried to force his on Vietnam. But what’s so remarkable about it? Douglas MacArthur tried to squeeze Harry Truman the same way during Korea, and Colin Powell used similar tactics against Bill Clinton on Bosnia. Sometimes the generals are right; sometimes they are wrong. The fact that they pursue their agendas in the press doesn’t tell us anything about whether those agendas are correct.

A couple of paragraphs later, Rich declares that Joe Biden, who reportedly opposes an Afghan surge, “uncannily echoes” George Ball, who opposed a surge in Vietnam. But why doesn’t Biden uncannily echo John F. Kennedy’s father, who as Ambassador to Great Britain opposed FDR’s decision to enter World War II? Just as almost every war involves generals who play to the press, every war involves house hawks and house doves. In Vietnam, the house dove was right, perhaps because Ball understood the French colonial experience in Vietnam better than his colleagues, having served as France’s lawyer in the United States. But does Biden have any particular expertise that should lead us to give his opinion special weight? Rich doesn’t say. Biden is just the dove, and because Afghanistan is like Vietnam, the doves must be right. Finally, Rich notes, Hamid Karzai’s brother is a reputed drug lord, which makes the Afghan leader “a double for Ngo Dinh Diem” of South Vietnam, whose brother was a criminal too. (And presumably, a double for Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton as well, whose brothers also ran afoul of the law).

It’s easy to find similarities between Vietnam and Afghanistan. What’s harder is weighing those similarities against three big differences. First, Afghanistan is a nation. Sure, its central government has often been weak, but its history as a country dates to 1747. In polls, the vast majority of Afghans say their national identity trumps their loyalty to tribe. South Vietnam, by contrast, dated from 1954. On their way out, the French created it as a fig leaf to cover their defeat by the communist-dominated Vietminh. South Vietnam was supposed to exist as an independent country for exactly two years until Vietnam was unified in national elections--elections that Dwight Eisenhower scrapped because he feared the communists would win. The point is that while Karzai may be a lemon, it is possible to imagine a more legitimate, vigorous Afghan leader, since Afghanistan has had legitimate, vigorous leaders before. In South Vietnam, by contrast, Diem was the best America could do because the problem wasn’t the legitimacy of any particular South Vietnamese government; it was the legitimacy of South Vietnam itself.

The second difference is the enemy. In Vietnam, the communists had led the anti-colonial struggle, and thus become the face of Vietnamese nationalism. Our guys were Vietnam’s Benedict Arnolds: they had mostly aided the French in opposing their people’s independence struggle. Ho Chi Minh was Vietnam’s George Washington. The Taliban, by contrast, don’t embody Afghan nationalism in nearly the same way. They’re a tribal movement, and an unpopular one at that. Even with the recent decline in Afghan support for Karzai’s government and for the NATO occupying force, both remain far more popular than the Taliban, which in a spring 2009 ABC poll garnered an approval rating among Afghans of seven percent.

Finally, in Vietnam, we tried...
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