Learning from Past Wars

Posted Dec. 09, 2009, at 5:27 p.m.

Just as President Barack Obama’s security team was in the midst of its Afghanistan strategy review, they came across a strikingly similar dilemma a half century ago in the Vietnam War. It helped them try to avoid an open-ended commitment and another seemingly endless conflict.

Their text was a 2008 book that became a must-read at the White House, “Lessons in Disaster,” by Gordon M. Goldstein. He is a political scientist who worked with McGeorge Bundy, an architect of the U.S. Vietnam strategy, in a review that led Mr. Bundy to finally acknowledge that he had helped produce “a great failure.”

Mr. Goldstein recounted White House meetings in June 1965 on a request by Gen. William Westmoreland for 50,000 more troops, to increase the U.S. force in Vietnam to 100,000. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara supported the escalation, arguing that it would show the insurgents that there was “no prospect of an early victory and no grounds for hope that they can simply outlast the U.S.”

Undersecretary of State George Ball reminded President Lyndon Johnson that a French army of up to 250,000 fought an earlier war there for seven years and was finally defeated. He suggested that even 500,000 American troops might not be enough to succeed. Gen. Earle Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked Gen. Westmoreland directly if the increase would be enough to break the insurgency. The commander answered with a flat “No.” He later sent word to President Johnson that victory could take seven more years. Actually, the war lasted another nine years and ended in the American defeat and withdrawal.

Of course there are major differences between the two wars. But each was against a resourceful and determined enemy fighting guerrilla warfare, each supported a weak and corrupt local government, and in each case American public support was waning. In the current war there is no George Ball to say it is unwinnable. Vice President Joe Biden proposed a smaller ground force and reliance on unmanned drone planes to track down enemy leaders, but he accepted the Obama plan.

From London had come a reminder that allies can differ sharply over strategy. A British diplomat, Jeremy Greenstock, told an inquiry that the United States was “hell bent” on a 2003 invasion of Iraq and actively undermined British effort to legitimize the invasion through a United Nations resolution. He said serious preparations for war had begun by early 2002 and took on an unstoppable momentum. He was Britain’s ambassador to the U.N. and later its envoy to Iraq after the invasion.

Leaked Defense Ministry documents revealed bitter animosity during the war among senior British officers toward American military commanders, particularly over British efforts to negotiate with Shiite forces, while the U.S. officers insisted on military action.

Past wars cast their shadows on the Afghanistan war and can raise doubts about President Obama’s effort to limit the conflict. The president ignores those shadows at the country’s peril.

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