In the days and weeks ahead, President Obama will have to articulate a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan. I hope he decides on a limited strategy–the kind being advocated by a growing chorus of skeptics, like Steve Coll, Stephen Walt, Robert Pape and Fareed Zakaria. Such a policy will unfurl the demons of the Cold War, with all the sloganeering and faulty thinking that has plagued the American national security apparatus ever since. The hawks in Congress can be counted on to hurl insults at the administration for “failing our troops” and for “making America loose.” This is what I call the Vietnam syndrome: the (unfounded) belief in limitless American power and an unquestioning acquiescence to the judgment of military leaders.

The election of Barack Obama gave hope to those who wanted to see a fundamental change in the way the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought and in the way American power was used. John McCain, for all his dedication to the nation and his experience, suffered from the Vietnam mentality. He insisted that the war in Vietnam could have been won; that Afghanistan and Iraq could be pacified. His worldview rested on the folly that American military power would prove sufficient at all times, in all places. McCain, the Bush administration and hawks in Congress-Democrats and Republicans–saw the military leadership in mystical light, imagining them capable of crafting and implementing a military solution whenever.

The worldly new President, unencumbered by the generational scars of the Vietnam War and driven by a belief in diplomacy, it seemed would turn the tide on decades of illusions of power. His Democratic predecessor suffered too from the Vietnam syndrome, though he largely evaded his dues. Clinton sent American troops to “solve” Somalia’s failed state. During his campaign and even prior to his Presidential ambitions, Obama exhibited that much needed change in national security thinking. He protested the war in Iraq; “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.” Since in office, he’s insisted on a timed withdrawal in Iraq.

His thinking on Afghanistan, however, I fear is increasingly seen through Vietnam-shadowed lens. There are hints that he will announce a surge to quell the insurgency. But it won’t suffice. Despite General McChrystal’s belief in American military supremacy–that victory requires merely a calculation of the number of boots on the ground, “if we have just a thousand more, we’ll tip the balance in our favour”–the terrains of Southwest Asia remain intractable. The President is lucky in having in Joe Biden an outspoken opponent to the war. Bob Woodward, summarizing some of George McBundy and Robert McNamara’s final interviews on the Vietnam War, tells us the value of challenging the Vietnam syndrome. McNamara, who as Secretary of Defence presided over the Vietnam War under President Johnson, reflected on how his lingering doubts persisted and never gained currency in the White House, obsessed as it was with public opinion and its foolish faith in numbers. Fortunately, the some of the mistakes of that administration are not being repeated. The vigorous debate will perhaps undermine another quagmire.

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