POTUS Reads History, But Which One?

by Joshua H. Liberatore

Long wars require long reviews, and POTUS conducted his marathon review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan with all the academic patience and deliberative rigor befitting his Hyde Park resume. In his address from West Point, NY, this past Tuesday, he was at pains to discourage what he called a “false reading of history,” whereby many Americans worry that our obsession with national security has us wading hip-deep into another viscous and putrid quagmire.

Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border. To abandon this area now and to rely only on efforts against Al Qaida from a distance would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on Al Qaida and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies. (December 1, 2009)

I’ve written at length in previous columns about the tragic folly of our efforts in Afghanistan, so here I’ll limit myself to a different kind of historical reading. In his adherence to the Vietnam-Afghanistan analogy, POTUS was succumbing to that quintessential American brand of solipsism that leaves us unable to imagine anything outside of our direct historical and cultural experience. In POTUS’s case, this tendency to view the war in Afghanistan principally as an American moment may well truncate his tenure as surely as it did for Johnson. In short, we may forgive ourselves our general amnesia and myopia in matters of foreign policy, but we tend to go hard on Democratic Presidents for crafting schemes that lead to more dead Americans. Liberals are notoriously bad at ending wars. Here it’s useful to go back to the words of one of POTUS’s fellow single-termers. On January 4, 1980, Jimmy Carter addressed the American people on the recent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the somber tones required for Cold War themes.

This invasion is an extremely serious threat to peace because of the threat of further Soviet expansion into neighboring countries in Southwest Asia and also because such an aggressive military policy is unsettling to other peoples throughout the world. This is a callous violation of international law and the United Nations Charter. It is a deliberate effort of a powerful atheistic government to subjugate an independent Islamic people. We must recognize the strategic importance of Afghanistan to stability and peace. A Soviet-occupied Afghanistan threatens both Iran and Pakistan and is a steppingstone to possible control over much of the world’s oil supplies. (January 4, 1980)

Carter’s address is full of period charms: the Soviet government is described as “atheistic”, the remarks appear in an actual three-ring binder, and the White House even provided a helpful map to TV audiences in need of a geographic refresher. Fully appreciating the salient differences in style and context, we can nevertheless find a lot of comparable material within POTUS’s prime-time announcement of the coming escalation in Central Asia. A brief digest in parallel:

A “surge” of troops acting in perceived national interest:

Massive Soviet military forces have invaded the small, nonaligned, sovereign nation of Afghanistan., which had hitherto not been an occupied satellite of the Soviet Union. Fifty thousand heavily armed Soviet troops have crossed the border and are now dispersed throughout Afghanistan, attempting to conquer the fiercely independent Muslim people of that country. (January 4, 2008)

And as Commander in Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan. (December 1, 2009)

The pledge to work with Congress:

Neither our allies nor our potential adversaries should have the slightest doubt about our willingness, our determination, and our capacity to take the measures I have outlined tonight. I have consulted with leaders of the Congress, and I am confident they will support legislation that may be required to carry out these measures. (January 4, 1980)

All told, by the time I took office, the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan approached a trillion dollars. And going forward, I am committed to addressing these costs openly and honestly. Our new approach in Afghanistan is likely to cost us roughly $30 billion for the military this year, and I’ll work closely with Congress to address these costs as we work to bring down our deficit. (December 1, 2009)

American responsibility compels action:

History teaches, perhaps, very few clear lessons. But surely one such lesson learned by the world at great cost is that aggression, unopposed, becomes a contagious disease. The response of the international community to the Soviet attempt to crush Afghanistan must match the gravity of the Soviet action. With the support of the American people and working with other nations, we will deter aggression, we will protect our Nation’s security, and we will preserve the peace. The United States will meet its responsibilities. (January 4, 1980)

This is no idle danger, no hypothetical threat. In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. And this danger will only grow if the region slides backwards and Al Qaida can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on Al Qaida, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region. (December 1, 2009)

International consensus:

Therefore, the world simply cannot stand by and permit the Soviet Union to commit this act with impunity. Fifty nations have petitioned the United Nations Security Council to condemn the Soviet Union and to demand the immediate withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Afghanistan. We realize that under the United Nations Charter the Soviet Union and other permanent members may veto action of the Security Council. If the will of the Security Council should be thwarted in this manner, then immediate action would be appropriate in the General Assembly of the United Nations, where no Soviet veto exists. (January 4, 1980)

For the first time in its history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization invoked Article 5, the commitment that says an attack on one member nation is an attack on all. And the United Nations Security Council endorsed the use of all necessary steps to respond to the 9/11 attacks. America, our allies, and the world were acting as one to destroy Al Qaida’s terrorist network and to protect our common security. . . . At a conference convened by the U.N., a Provisional Government was established under President Hamid Karzai, and an International Security Assistance Force was established to help bring a lasting peace to a war-torn country. (December 1, 2009)

The call for sacrifice:

These actions will require some sacrifice on the part of all Americans, but there is absolutely no doubt that these actions are in the interest of world peace and in the interest of the security of our own Nation, and they are also compatible with actions being taken by our own major trading partners and others who share our deep concern about this new Soviet threat to world stability. (January 4, 2008)

We have been at war now for 8 years, at enormous cost in lives and resources. Years of debate over Iraq and terrorism have left our unity on national security issues in tatters and created a highly polarized and partisan backdrop for this effort. And having just experienced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the American people are understandably focused on rebuilding our economy and putting people to work here at home. Most of all, I know that this decision asks even more of you, a military that, along with your families, has already borne the heaviest of all burdens. . . . If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow. (December 1, 2009)

Unlike Carter, who delivered his grave announcement while seated at the Resolute Desk, POTUS chose a military venue, a detail which one commentator read as a figurative bow of submission to the generals. Even if dubbing POTUS “the Commanded in Chief” seems a bit too harsh, we can objectively recognize the ominous mood of acceptance evident throughout the speech. It’s been remarked that POTUS didn’t make anyone happy in this speech. He offered fewer troops than the commanders wanted but decidedly more than a majority of voters wanted. He placated India’s concerns about an unstable Pakistan but worried Pakistanis about an influx of armed Pashtuns fleeing American marines across the border. What’s more, he even quoted the direct cost of his “surge”: exactly 1 million dollars per annum for each additional soldier sent. (In two years, that’s the entire budget of the Department of Education.) But I believe POTUS wasn’t trying to make anyone happy. What he’s doing, what we’re doing, shouldn’t make anyone happy. And POTUS knows it.

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One Response to POTUS Reads History, But Which One?

  1. Les says:

    Nice job in analyzing the war speech template of presidents; it’s the same old song. In a recent article, the day after the speech, Cynthia McKinney does a nice job in mentioning some of the other reasons the U.S. government needs to see a troop surge. Unlike Obama, she mentions the new pipeline being built in Afghanistan that will need security.

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