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John Prados: Beware Presidents' Use of History

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[John Prados is a senior fellow of the National Security Archive in Washington, DC. He is author of "How the Cold War Ended: Debating and Doing History" (Potomac Books, forthcoming).]

We are told that history plays as tragedy and repeats as farce. But perhaps that is changing. In the summer of 2007 President George W. Bush invoked the Vietnam analogy to justify an equally or more tragic war in Iraq. And in the West Point speech announcing his new strategy for Afghanistan, President Barack Obama in December 2009 summoned the shades of Vietnam once more—to assert that critics of his decision rely upon “a false reading of history.” What about that? At West Point on December 1 the president in effect threw down a gauntlet at the feet of historians as well as all those who have seen the specter of Vietnam in the nation’s current South Asian war. This demands comment.

First, President Obama’s remark came at his own initiative and was quite deliberate. The president was well aware his strategic decision would be met with dismay and set out to pre-empt his critics. Five days ahead of the speech, with the West Point event already announced, Obama met with speechwriter Ben Rhodes to refine his text. According to the detailed account of Obama’s Afghan decision which appeared in the New York Times on December 6, Obama told Rhodes “that he wanted to directly rebut the comparison with Vietnam.” In the final speech at the U.S. military academy, Obama’s rebuttal centered on three points: that “unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action;” that the Afghan war is not against “a broad-based popular insurgency;” and, “most importantly,” that unlike Vietnam “the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists.” Despite the effort—no doubt a vigorous one—to massage the president’s text so that it conforms precisely to history, each of those assertions is at least debatable. Equally to the point, Obama’s rebuttal failed even to address the main reasons why critics liken the Afghan war to the Vietnamese tragedy.

First to the coalition. Political leaders seek allies precisely to enable them to cite multilateral support for warfare. The same was true in Vietnam. One would not have to go far to find statements from President Lyndon Johnson about Vietnam couched in virtually identical terms. In fact, 39 nations provided support of one kind or another to the U.S. side during the Vietnam war—without at all affecting the consensus that Vietnam was an American war. “Free World Forces” in the Vietnam war peaked in February 1969 at 72,000 troops, about 13.3% of the U.S. troop level at that time. In Afghanistan today, counting the much-underdiscussed category of “DOD contractor personnel” (over 68,000 in March 2009), the roughly 44,000 NATO and International Security Assistance Force personnel constitute about a third of the overall force, but by the end of the surge this will decline to just over a quarter, and may decline further as major troop contributing countries pull out, as Canada is now doing. The proportion may be double that of Vietnam, but even at current levels the public already believes Afghanistan is an American war. Like Vietnam, foreign support will not prevent the Afghan conflict being seen that way.

As for the broad-based popular insurgency, President Obama is on somewhat firmer ground since the Taliban is rooted in a tribal group that amounts to a minority (though a large fraction) of the population. However, the war is an insurgency, and U.S. forces are losing it against the fraction of the Afghan population, however small, that is resisting. In itself that dynamic suggests that the adversary’s base is broadening. The jury is still out on how broad-based the insurgency will ultimately be. That judgment will have to be made in retrospect. At best Obama makes this point prematurely.

President Obama’s strongest point—that the United States was directly attacked—conflates the Al Qa’ida extremist group with the Afghan state. The Taliban, which controlled Afghanistan when the Bush administration attacked it, never attacked Americans. But the real problem is that the president’s argument here simply goes to the origins of the war—which are, of course, different for every war. It provides very little basis for the claim that critics who see a likeness to Vietnam in the Afghan war are making a false reading of history...
Read entire article at Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Blog

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