What Obama Learned From My Book

Vietnam loomed large over Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. Historian Gordon M. Goldstein, whose book the president has been reading, on why he thinks Obama might get things right.

12.11.09 12:26 AM ET

The legacy of disaster in Vietnam has permeated the recent White House debate over whether, and how, to escalate in Afghanistan. So preoccupied was President Obama with its grave historical implications that in the midst of an 11-hour day of discussions on the Friday after Thanksgiving, he instructed his speechwriter to begin work directly rebutting the comparison between the two conflicts. This episode is consistent with other reports indicating that Vietnam has been an ever-present consideration in the president’s decision-making during his probing deliberations this fall.

It is obvious that this commander in chief is assuming leadership in Afghanistan with a deep respect for the wisdom—and failures—of his predecessors.

Knowing that Obama and his advisers have explicitly reflected on the lessons of Vietnam, we can ask now what a new and comparatively inexperienced commander in chief may have learned from the narrative of how two of his predecessors, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, managed the crisis in Vietnam.

Some have disputed the salience of Vietnam for the Afghan strategy debate. Yet seen through the prism of a parallel history the president has himself studied, it appears that Obama may be trying to emulate the strategic discipline of JFK while attempting to mitigate the risks that he, like LBJ, could become a captive to the Pentagon and its repeated demands for new troop deployments to be pumped into a failing counterinsurgency campaign. Presidential lessons from JFK’s and LBJ’s mistakes and successes can be observed in five aspects of Obama’s recently unveiled Afghan strategy.

Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. By Gordon M. Goldstein. 320 pages. Holt. $16.

Obama’s ExComm: In his first year of office, Kennedy experienced humiliation and a devastating geopolitical setback at the Bay of Pigs. His failure, however, nourished caution, skepticism, and a firm command of the military when it lobbied unsuccessfully later that year for intervention in Laos and the deployment of the first ground combat forces to South Vietnam, a down payment on a commitment Kennedy was advised could grow to more than six divisions, or 200,000 men. The apotheosis of Kennedy’s dispassionate method of decision can be found in his management of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and his creation of the so-called Executive Committee, or ExComm, which he used as a mechanism to study the embedded assumptions and potential pitfalls of the military and diplomatic options presented to him. Obama seems to have mirrored Kennedy’s approach to national-security decision-making: dispassionate, deliberate, controlling, questioning, and cool. Like it or not, the president’s embrace of an “escalate and exit” strategy in Afghanistan is the product of a rigorous and unrushed process. Like Kennedy, the 10 White House sessions on Afghanistan this fall constitute Obama’s ExComm.

The Centrality of the Training Mission: Kennedy confided to his Vietnam expert Michael Forrestal that he believed the odds of U.S. troops prevailing over the Vietnamese insurgency were 100 to 1. JFK therefore focused intensely on the advisory and training mission to build a viable South Vietnamese army, which he believed was the key both to limiting U.S. military exposure and an eventual extrication from South Vietnam. Like Kennedy, Obama has now correctly elevated the centrality of the mission to recruit and train a viable Afghan security force, which is the linchpin of his strategy and the means by which he can engineer an orderly drawdown of American forces.

The July 2011 Transition: In October 1963, following a sharp White House debate that pitted National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy against Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, President Kennedy announced his intention to complete the training mission in South Vietnam by the end of 1965. “We need a way to get out of Vietnam,” McNamara argued. “This is a way of doing it.” By setting a public date to begin a withdrawal, Kennedy hoped to pressure the corrupt Diem regime in Saigon and reassure a wary American public that the U.S. would not pursue an open-ended and protracted commitment in Vietnam. In announcing that he intends to begin the transfer of security operations to Afghan forces in July 2011, Obama is attempting the same gambit as Kennedy—pressuring a weak and corrupt regime in Kabul while projecting his determination to limit America’s commitment in Afghanistan.

Capping Further Increases: President Obama is acutely aware of the black hole that swallowed Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in 1965. Beginning on March 8 with the first Marines wading ashore in Da Nang and skyrocketing that summer to a force of 44 battalions proposed by General William Westmoreland, LBJ fell captive to his theater commander and the Joint Chiefs, who together had an insatiable appetite for the deployment of ever-larger contingents of ground combat forces. In making his decision to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by 30,000, President Obama has made it clear he will be tougher than Johnson in managing the military’s expectations. Obama has made it clear to his advisers that in the next assessment of the Afghan mission in December 2010, he will not contemplate more troops.

“Proof of Concept”: The most prescient and astute of Johnson’s advisers on Vietnam was Undersecretary of State George Ball, who correctly predicted that the United States would become entrapped in an unwinnable quagmire with no plausible expectation of exit or victory if Westmoreland’s massive escalation proposal was accepted. Ball, tragically, was right. On Afghanistan, Obama’s most incisive counselor may be his vice president, Joe Biden, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Biden has emphasized the core counterterrorism mission against al Qaeda and has cast a skeptical eye on the grandiose “population protection” strategy promulgated by General Stanley McChrystal, the Afghan theater commander, who is a passionate proponent of the virtues of comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. Biden has reportedly urged the president to demand a “proof of concept” in Afghanistan to validate the assumptions upon which the McChrystal counterinsurgency mission is predicated. Biden is said to have called for a two-year window at most to demonstrate the efficacy of the first troop reinforcements dispatched to Afghanistan in the early months of the Obama presidency. It appears that in contrast to the mere lip service Johnson bestowed on Ball, Obama has a more mature respect for the tough, realist critique of Afghan military strategy articulated by Biden.

With his West Point speech and the exhaustive review that preceded it, President Obama has conceived of a risky, bold, and creative strategy in Afghanistan. Indeed he has wagered his presidency on its success. For some time to come, it will remain unclear if the delicate balance of Obama’s escalate and exit theory of the war can be executed effectively. But it is obvious that this commander in chief is assuming leadership in Afghanistan with a deep respect for the wisdom—and failures—of his predecessors.

Gordon M. Goldstein is the author of Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam.