When Vice President Biden spoke about the certainty that his new boss would be tested on the world stage only two weeks before Barack Obama’s 2008 election, it may have been the one subject on which Biden has ever shown both prescience and coherence. Speaking to a small group of Democrat donors in Seattle on October 19, 2008, the master of gaffes donned his serious hat to offer those in attendance an audience to his oracle vision of the near future. Only audio from the speech became public so there is no way of knowing if Biden darkened the room and cast a flashlight beam eerily across his face, but it was clear by his words that Biden was not spinning a yarn about snipe hunts or hook-handed escaped mental patients.
“Mark my words,” Biden said. “It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking.”
Common interpretation of the prediction was that Biden had divined that a single foe would challenge President Obama, as Biden put it, “to test the mettle of this guy.” Nine months of history clarify that Biden must have actually been using the word “world” in a pluralistic sense, meaning that Obama’s challenges would come from all points on the globe. Venezuela, Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Europe (East and West), even the combined organization of the International Olympic Committee have seemed eager to gauge the ability of the American president to assert American power. But the one test that Obama claimed to have mastered prior to pursuing the presidency — one that he committed to putting quickly behind him upon taking office — was that of securing victory in Afghanistan. Tragically, of all the trials he has failed thus far, it has been the one he professed to have studied up for that has the greatest implications for national security.
The months since President Obama’s inauguration have not been a honeymoon as much as they have been a hangover, with Obama weaved to and fro in his avoidance of choosing a stable and productive strategy for our war in Central Asia. The world has watched the president fumble for his car keys with a sense of dread, knowing he has no idea where he will be headed once he finally starts up the engine and drives off. Is this the challenge of which Biden spoke, the world daring Obama to resolutely set the course?
Obama can be credited with making some decisions, chief among them escalating the use of drone attacks that have inflicted a high ratio of civilian casualties and may be seen by our enemies and the local population as a cowardly and disrespectful form of warfare, and replacing Bush’s Afghanistan commander Gen. David McKiernan with his own man in the field, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. But, in the broad analysis, what might have only been the President’s “lost weekend” has become a nine-month bender that burns at America’s gut like an ulcer. As an absence of American strategy continues to cost America the lives of its sons and daughters, the ghosts of Vietnam still lurk in the Oval Office. They are specters that the President cannot ignore.
On the road to the presidency, Obama made his proposals for the realignment of American military resources to focus on what he correctly identified as the “central front” in the war on terror, the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. David Axelrod costumed this approach by skillfully loading Obama’s foreign policy speeches with a fusion of anti-war code and ‘big stick’ diplomatic lingo, recreating the candidate as a barely plausible lovechild of John Kerry and John Wayne. Incredulously, the rhetorical cocktail appealed to an electorate weary of war but intolerant of defeat. The keystone for the positioning of Obama as reluctant hawk, Afghanistan was cast as a Vietnam in the making, a meme that eased into the American subconscious due to it being arguably true.
Although there are many parallels that can be drawn between the American war in Vietnam and our engagement in Afghanistan, it is a single distinction between the two conflicts that should encourage President Obama to heed the advice of his current Afghanistan commander for increase in troop levels. Even in the low point of our withdrawal US military planners had no fear that communist Vietnam might sense American weakness and pursue a larger war against the leader of the free world. Thoughts on this precise question do not exist in the memoirs of President Ford, but I feel safe in making an in absentia inference that Bill Ayers’ Weather Underground Organization and the Black Panthers were considered greater threats to Americans at home than the communist Vietnamese.
When the US withdrawal was complete, and the last helicopter had evacuated Ambassador Martin from the US Embassy in Saigon, although returning soldiers faced an emotional assault from an ungrateful nation there would not be cells of Viet Cong sleeper agents who, emboldened by U.S. withdrawal, would begin attacking Americans on our own soil. North Vietnamese Army units were not training young men, embittered by the death and destruction experienced in their homeland, to seek out Americans wherever they might be across the globe and spill their blood in the name of Ho Chi Minh’s ideology. No similar feeling of security will exist in the case of US withdrawal from Afghanistan should we fail to achieve victory, victory that must be measured against overall objectives as yet undefined, a larger issue that must be resolved in advance of the increase in troops requested by Gen. McChrystal.
Will Obama’s legacy reflection his indecision on this day, Veteran’s Day, his choice to kick the can down the road and avoid a critical decision to commit additional troops to achieve a superiority of force in-theater? In another visitation of cosmic irony on our Karmic Target-in-Chief, Sen. McCain’s proclamation that the US would need to be in Iraq for 100 years may become the reality for our commitment in Afghanistan if the President’s delay allows a crucial window of victory to close. The other possible outcome of his executive ambivalence would be withdrawal after failing achieve any benchmarks of victory, a result that would invite the drawing of far more unstructured battle lines on the streets of Los Angeles, New York, or even cities like Seattle.
Deliberation and overthinking of politics permitted victory in Vietnam to slip away from Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, forcing President Nixon to pursue a schizophrenic strategy that ended up costing thousands of additional American lives and countless thousands more Vietnamese casualties. Obama must shake off his executive paralysis to ensure that Afghanistan does not become the first front lost in the critical war on Islamic terror.
[This post originally appeared on UnequalTime.com at http://unequaltime.com/2009/11/afghanistan-may-not-be-a-modern-vietnam-it-could-be-much-much-worse/]