Party Like It's 1969
The most significant parallel between Afghanistan and Vietnam isn't the potential quagmire abroad.
Comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam are popular these days, as worries of another "quagmire" mount. But the most significant parallel might not be the wars themselves, but rather the divisions they cause among Democrats in Congress. As with Vietnam, Congressional divisions could set the public narrative on Afghanistan and leave the President with a political quagmire at home.
Democrats won big in the 1964 election, but President Lyndon Johnson struggled to convince his party to continue America's involvement in Vietnam. Johnson was concerned that if South Vietnam fell, so would the other countries in the region; furthermore, he upped the ante on Vietnam after the Gulf of Tonkin incident earlier that year. Johnson's war policy of "gradualism" called for steadily increasing military pressure against the North Vietnamese. Congressional Democrats, however, criticized this approach from both sides.
These divisions played out through televised hearings at a time when foreign policy differences were rarely aired in public. On one side, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, William Fulbright of Arkansas, heard testimony in 1966 from intellectuals who opposed an escalation of the war and called for a negotiated settlement. Shortly thereafter, Senator John Stennis of Mississippi held Senate Armed Services Committee subcommittee hearings in which military leaders testified in favor of escalating the commitment further than the administration advocated.
Since the Johnson administration proved inept at articulating its own strategy, the Congressional debate took center stage in the public mind. The national conversation boiled down to a discussion of two extremes-scale down or dramatically ramp up-and left no room for other strategies. The hearings, and the debate they shaped, crowded Johnson's "gradualism" from the field.
A similar scenario could be playing out today. Intra-party fissures among congressional Democrats exist over General Stanley McChrystal's request for 40,000 additional troops. Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Ike Skelton supports General McChrystal's request, but chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin is skeptical. Disagreement also exists between the leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, with Senator Daniel Inouye in favor of a counterinsurgency strategy, and Congressman David Obey in opposition to a troop buildup.
Not only have Congressional Democrats begun staking out their positions, they have also begun pushing actions to advance their causes. Congressman Skelton is calling for General McChrystal to testify to Congress at his earliest convenience. In echoes of the 1969 Church-Cooper resolution, which restricted funding for expanding the Vietnam War, Congressman Obey has promised scrutiny of the administration's funding request for any additional troops.
On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the President has already ruled out withdrawing from Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Congressional Democrats have started a debate that presents America with a binary choice-give General McChrystal what he wants, or start getting out. But those aren't the only two options. The President could send more troops, but perhaps fewer than requested. He could also re-tailor the mission by concentrating on the use of U.S. troops to train Afghan troops. Or he could maintain troop levels and change what the troops are actually doing. The list goes on.
The President has chosen to conduct a comprehensive review to determine which of these options presents our best bet for creating a successful strategy for Afghanistan-an eminently responsible action for a Commander-in-Chief. However, as he takes the time to reach a decision, the extremes represented in the Congressional conversation are growing more entrenched. If the President recommends a strategy that does not exactly reflect one of the two extremes-as is likely to be the case-he risks being drowned out in the public square, where those extremes have begun to take root.
In other words, the longer President Obama remains mum, the more difficult this task will become.
The President has clearly taken some lessons from Vietnam to heart, evoking that war while emphasizing the need to support our troops with the right strategy and resources. Vietnam, however, is also a lesson in how intra-party splits can hinder a President's strategy, particularly if it's an alternative approach that does not have its own advocates on Capitol Hill. Given the stakes, Americans deserve to hear all the options at our disposal in Afghanistan. By taking this lesson of Vietnam to heart, the President can help make sure that happens.
Jessie Daniels is a Principal of the Truman Project and is currently an independent writer living in New York City.
Photo courtesy of The National Archives.