Vietnam memories and the Afghanistan decision

I had decided to go to New Hampshire to oppose President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War policy and to support his opponent in the Democratic presidential primary, Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy. I did so after attending numerous educational lectures during the evenings at Yale College in the previous 12 months (the so-called “teach-ins”) concerning the war.


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At first, when President Johnson announced a buildup of troops in Vietnam in 1965-66, I thought I understood the reason why: to stop the advance of communism from the Chinese, who supported North Vietnam’s attempted takeover of South Vietnam, and on through the rest of Southeast Asia and, it seemed, across the Pacific and all the way to San Francisco.

Sometime in 1966 and early 1967, I and lot of other college students across the nation started to read and learn more about the history of Vietnam. We learned that the Vietnamese for more than 1,000 years were culturally and politically hostile to the Chinese; and that nationalism — the desire of North Vietnam to be reunited with South Vietnam as one country — was far more important than a desire by the North Vietnamese to “spread” communism as in a row of dominoes falling.

Slowly it began to dawn of us — and by the late ’60s “us” consisted of a large segment of college students — that we might be sent off to war based on assumptions that were contradicted by facts, in a war that had little to do with American interests, and in a jungle quagmire where victory could not ever be achieved at a cost the American people would never accept.

So as I take those memories of Vietnam and apply them to the Afghanistan situation, I see no clear answers, but I do know there are three questions that President Barack Obama must ask and answer before he decides to increase our commitment in Afghanistan and dig in for the long term:

(1) What is the strategic interest we are seeking in Afghanistan that justifies the loss of American lives and the expenditure of billions of scarce American dollars?

(2) Can the strategic interest be achieved, even with more troops?

And finally, even if that interest can be achieved, (3) is it worth the cost — in lives and treasure, both human and financial?

There are some who are saying, “Trust the generals to answer these questions — whatever they say they need to get the job done, we must abide by their expertise.” I agree that they have the expertise and that they are great patriots and are often right.

I don’t easily forget that Gen. Petraeus — and President George Bush, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), among others — turned out to be right about the effectiveness of the “surge” in Iraq and most anti-Iraq war Democrats, including me, turned out to be wrong.

So this is no time to dismiss lightly the opinion of Gen. McChrystal that another 45,000 troops are needed to stabilize Afghanistan and defeat the Taliban.

I am guessing that in the final analysis, President Obama will decide to take a “third way” — a modest increment in troops but a different strategy, similar to that recommended by Vice President Joe Biden: a focused strategy of using special forces operations and drones and better human intelligence, working closely with Pakistan, to destroy or debilitate al Qaeda and the Taliban from once again controlling Afghanistan and allowing it to be used as a safe haven for another Sept. 11-like attack against the U.S. and other Western nations.

That’s my guess.

But one thing I know:

President Obama will ask these and other questions, challenge all assumptions, and demand the facts as best as they can be ascertained. He will listen to and respect the opinions of his military generals, Republican and Democratic congressional leaders and, most of all, the three most brilliant and politically savvy of his national security colleagues in the administration — National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Vice President Biden.

And in the final analysis, he will make his best good-faith judgment, based on an intelligent assessment of all these facts and opinions, without predisposition or ideology getting in the way.

And that’s good enough for me. That is why I trust President Obama and am glad he is my president.

Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton from 1996-98, served as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2005-06. He is the author of Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics is Destroying America.