Avoiding a Second Vietnam: 'Obama Is Absolutely Right to Re-evaluate Afghanistan Strategy'

Gordon Goldstein's book on the lessons of the Vietnam War is required reading in the Obama White House. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Goldstein talks about why Obama should think long and hard about sending more troops to Afghanistan and not rush into the kinds of decisions that Vietnam-era politicians now regret.

Goldstein: 'In the case of Afghanistan, the parallels with Vietnam are substantial enough to demand that these lessons be studied once more.' Zoom
REUTERS

Goldstein: 'In the case of Afghanistan, the parallels with Vietnam are substantial enough to demand that these lessons be studied once more.'

SPIEGEL ONLINE: President Barack Obama asked his national security team to read your book "Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam," which examines America's tragic involvement in Southeast Asia. Why do you think he did that?

Gordon Goldstein: It's not uncommon for presidents to look at history to guide them as they confront challenges. As he pondered the risks of accidental war in the nuclear age, President Kennedy required his senior counsellors to read Barbara Tuchman's book, "The Guns of August," which is about the chain of events that culminated in the outbreak of World War I. In the case of Afghanistan, the parallels with Vietnam are substantial enough to demand that these lessons be studied once more.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: One of the lessons of your book is that counsellors give advice, but presidents must make decisions. Obama has still not made a decision about deploying more troops to Afghanistan and, in fact, he has been accused of "dithering" for not making up his mind.

Goldstein: This president is facing an enormously complex and fluid situation on the ground in Afghanistan. He is also facing what will be the most consequential decision of his presidency in terms of foreign affairs. Obama is completely justified to take the systematic approach he has started and to look methodically at all the options.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Still, he already announced the results of a "comprehensive review" in March. So many experts are wondering why the White House is reconsidering its strategy all over again.

Goldstein: Six months ago, Obama appointed a new field commander in Afghanistan and put a new emphasis on implementing a counterinsurgency strategy. Since then, however, the internal security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated. The addition of 21,000 troops to the command of General Stanley McChrystal there has not had a visible impact in terms of pacifying the country. We are suffering the highest number of US casualties in the eight years of this war. And thousands of more troops have been requested. For there reasons, the president is absolutely right to re-evaluate the strategy and its realistic prospects for success.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Two of your other lessons are that the president has to command the generals and that politics is the enemy of strategy. Given the ongoing public debate about the Afghanistan strategy, can Obama still follow these precepts?

Goldstein: Obama is in the process of commanding the generals; this is the purpose of his strategic review. Despite some criticism about the length and scope of that exercise, he has been indifferent to political considerations.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But others haven't. General McChrystal was very public in his demands for 40,000 more US troops.

Goldstein: It's unclear how his memo to the president about the bleak situation in Afghanistan ended up in the Washington Post, and we don't know whether he had any culpability in this. But I was surprised to see McChrystal give policy speeches in London, to see him featured on the TV program "60 Minutes" and to read reports of his private recommendations to the president. None of these things are constructive from the perspective of the commander-in-chief.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: As a historian, do you think US generals are again trying to intimidate a young, rather inexperienced president, just as they did when John F. Kennedy moved into the White House?

Goldstein: In President Kennedy's case, he was the victim of some remarkably flawed advice with respect to the Bay of Pigs invasion, which was conceived by the CIA, but also supported by the military. After this failure, Kennedy was determined not to be "overawed" by the military advice he received.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And Obama?

Goldstein: He has not been the victim of comparably poor advice by the military. But there is always a process of sensitive communication between the president and his generals when those two sets of actors are converging on their first decision -- and particularly when the decision is as consequential as the one he is weighing now.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your book focuses on key players in the Vietnam debates, the so-called "best and the brightest." If you had to write a book about the debates on Afghanistan in Obama's White House, how would you describe the most important actors?

Goldstein: We don't know exactly where the president stands and have little evidence for the positions of some other players. The two people in the debate we have the best read on are General McChrystal and Vice President Joe Biden. McChrystal stands for classic counterinsurgency and the military objective of shielding the Afghan people from all threats. For that, according to official US counterinsurgency doctrine, he would need a total American, allied and Afghan force of more than 600,000 soldiers. At the other end of the spectrum, we have Biden, who is arguing for a narrowly focused counterterrorism mission. We have a tension between these two different objectives: Is the mission the protection of the Afghan people and the confrontation of the Taliban? Or should it remain a narrowly focused counterterrorism operation, which might not require the deployment of many additional troops? That is really the question the President needs to decide.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The final lesson from Vietnam in your book is to never deploy military means in pursuit of indefinite goals. Isn't that the very thing happening in Afghanistan right now?

Goldstein: By nature, classic counterinsurgency missions are protracted and require enormous resources over an extended period of time, including a higher level of casualties. When the Bush administration applied its surge in Iraq, fatalities went up. If we take these numbers and apply them to Afghanistan, we would have to deal with 50 fatalities per month. And, of course, we have to ask the questions: How achievable is this mission? How do we define victory in Afghanistan if all other historical powers who tried to impose order there have failed?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Should administration officials opposed to an escalation of the war in Afghanistan resign if Obama does just that?

Goldstein: People decide things differently. In the Carter administration, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigned because he was so opposed to an attempt to liberate American hostages in Iran. In the Bush years, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell did not resign, despite his serious reservations about the prudence of the invasion of Iraq and the false evidence he was provided to persuade the world that the invasion was justified. It will be interesting to see whether there are any people in the Obama administration who will feel compelled to act.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do people generally regret it later if they don't resign?

Goldstein: I had the chance to discuss these questions with two of the main architects of the Vietnam War, former Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara and former National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. Both did not speak up against the escalation of the war, for various reasons. But, late in life, both came to the conclusion that it was a mistake and that the Vietnam War should never have been fought.

Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz

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