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  Heeding George Kennan's Sage Advice
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Heeding George Kennan's Sage Advice

by Ray McGovern
Published in earlier today, 3 November 2009

I can’t remember how many times I have said that the U.S. military adventure in Afghanistan is a fool’s errand.

The reaction I frequently encounter includes some variant of, “How can you blithely acquiesce in the chaos that will inevitably ensue if we and our NATO allies withdraw our troops?” While the central premise of the question is dubious, the question itself is a fair one.

By way of full disclosure, my answer is based largely on the fact that I asked the equivalent question 43 years ago regarding a place named Vietnam. Been there; done that.

As a young Army infantry/intelligence officer turned junior CIA analyst in 1963, I was given responsibility for reporting on Soviet policy toward China and Southeast Asia and was just beginning to get a feel for the complexities. My degrees were in Russian studies; I knew something about Communist expansion, but very little about Vietnam.

I should have listened to my brother Joe at Princeton, who tried to help me see that it was mainly a civil war in Vietnam, that the Vietnamese had ample reason to hate both the Russians and Chinese (and now us), and that the “domino effect” was a canard.

Joe was openly impatient to find me such a slow learner — so susceptible to the Red-menace fear mongering of the time.

Enter George Kennan

If my studies of Russia and of U.S. foreign policy had given me an idol, it was George Kennan, former ambassador to the U.S.S.R. and to Yugoslavia, and author of the successful post-war containment policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. He returned to the Princeton campus in 1963.

Early in the Vietnam War, I was delighted to discover one Sunday morning that Kennan had written a feature article on Vietnam for the Washington Post. Good, I said to myself, Kennan has finally ended his silence. Surely he will have something instructive to say.

What Kennan wrote on Vietnam was not at all what I expected. Ouch; an idol turns out to have clay feet, I thought. Had Kennan not heard of the dominoes? I am embarrassed to admit that it took me another year or so to see clearly that Kennan was, as usual, spot on.

It was Dec. 12, 1965, and there it was on the front page of the “Outlook” section — George Kennan calling for a major reality check on our involvement in Vietnam, and arguing for what he called a “simmering down” of our military adventure there as “the most promising of all the possibilities we face.” He wrote:

“I would not know what ‘victory’ means. ... In this sort of war, one controls what one can take and hold and police with ground forces; one does not control what one bombs. And it seems to me the most unlikely of all contingencies that anyone should come to us on his knees and inquire our terms, whatever the escalation of our effort. ...

“If we can find nothing better to do than embark upon a further open-ended increase in the level of our commitment simply because the alternatives seem humiliating and frustrating, one will have to ask whether we have not become enslaved to the dynamics of a single unmanageable situation — to the point where we have lost much of the power of initiative and control over our own policy, not just locally but on a world scale.”

Kennan was harshly critical of those asserting that the U.S. had no choice other than to “live up to its commitments.” Commitments to whom? he asked.

More pointed still, he asked if the “commitment” was conceived as “something unrelated to [South Vietnam’s] own performance, to its ability to command the confidence of its people?”

Kennan’s prescription of “simmering down” involved letting negotiations begin — “quite privately and without elbow-jogging on our part, by our friends and others who have an interest in the termination of the conflict...

“We must be prepared, depending on such advice as we receive from them, to place limited restraints at some point on our military efforts, and to do so quietly and without published time limits or ultimate.”


Kennan’s bottom line:

“The most disturbing aspect of our involvement in Vietnam is its relationship to our interests and responsibilities in other areas of world affairs. Whatever justification this involvement might have had if Vietnam had been the only important problem, or even the outstanding problem, we faced in the world today, this not being the case, its present dimensions can only be said to represent a grievous disbalance of American policy.”

His article was no academic exercise. Washington was abuzz with talk of further escalation in Vietnam. (To offer some current context, Gen. Stanley McChrystal was 11 years old; Vietnam was not in the history books, apparently, until well after he left West Point in 1976.)

A companion “Outlook” front-page piece by the Washington Post’s Chalmers Roberts opened with, “One of history’s undated moments for great decisions is at hand. President Johnson must decide where to lead the nation in the war in Vietnam.”

Roberts reported the prevailing thinking that, given Hanoi’s obduracy, “the United States will have no alternative but to pour in more and more manpower, to widen the bombing in the North and to intensify the military struggle in the South.”

Chalmers continued: “Thus, as an increasingly bloody year draws to a close, as mounting casualty lists appear... the President faces momentous decisions. What should he do?”

Noting that there was “confusion over the aims of this war,” Roberts asked:

“What should he [President Johnson] tell his fellow Americans? How can he prevent the loss of the consensus he so far has had on the war? How can he restrain the increasingly vocal war hawks? ... Is the United States simply to slide into the next phase of the war?”

Roberts added that, “Looking back, it is evident that both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson upped the ante bit by bit without really telling the American public where it [the war] was heading.

“That process continues today as Mr. Johnson merely says ... that the United States ‘will supply whatever men are needed to help the people of South Vietnam resist aggression.’”

Does anyone see any parallels to Washington’s parlor games – and its more serious discussions – today regarding upcoming decisions on Afghanistan?

Johnson was not about to be the first U.S. President to lose a war — but, succumbing to the Greek tragic flaw of hubris, he became exactly that. The result: Not only were two to three million Vietnamese and 58,000 American troops killed, but also his Great Society bit the dust.

Fortunately for seniors like me, Johnson was able to sign Medicare into law (on July 30, 1965) before the bottom fell out. Virtually all of the other promising reforms his administration had in mind became unsung casualties of that ill-conceived war.

And, bad as that was, the Treasury was not nearly as broke then as it is now.

Shortly after his Washington Post Outlook article, Kennan accepted an invitation from Sen. William Fulbright to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It was February 1966. There were some 200,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam; two years later there would be 536,000.

Kennan minced few words:

"There is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives. ...

“Our country should not be asked, and should not ask of itself, to shoulder the main burden of determining the political realities in any other country, and particularly not in one remote from our shores, from our culture and from the experience of our people.

“This is not only not our business, but I don't think we can do it successfully. ...

“Vietnam is not a region of major military, industrial importance. It is difficult to believe that any decisive developments of the world situation would be determined ... by what happens on that territory. ...

“Even a situation in which South Vietnam was controlled exclusively by the Viet Cong ... would not, in my opinion, present dangers great enough to justify our military intervention."

Kennan concluded his Senate testimony with a familiar quotation from John Quincy Adams. "[America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy," said our sixth president. "She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."

Kennan added: "Now, gentlemen, I don't know exactly what John Quincy Adams had in mind when he spoke those words. But I think that, without knowing it, he spoke very directly and very pertinently to us here today.”

And to us here today.

More than 55,000 of the eventual 58,220 American deaths in Vietnam came after Kennan testified. It is yet to be known how many Americans will die in Afghanistan if President Obama follows the advice of his generals – much as President Johnson did – and escalates.

Can we not learn from history? Kennan (and John Quincy Adams) were, of course, right on target. It is a pity that the United States lacks a statesman of Kennan’s caliber today who would dare set aside concern about status within the power circles and make as pointed a critique about Afghanistan as Kennan did about Vietnam. [George Kennan died on March 17, 2005.]

And it is a pity that West Point didn’t teach much about the lessons of the Vietnam War when McChrystal was studying there in the 1970s. [For a flavor of the current elite "group think" on Afghanistan, see's "Kipling Haunts Obama's Afghan War."]

Is this not the lesson to apply to deliberations on Afghanistan? When it becomes clear that current policies are not working or, worse, are self-defeating, experienced folks with those insights need to find ways to say that — loudly.

It is incumbent on them to make a stab at coming up with better alternative policies, but — as in George Kennan’s case — this is not a prior requirement.

Great powers can mitigate the effects of great mistakes, especially if they have the good sense and humility to reach out for help. But the key decision to halt a futile course can — and must — be made as soon as its futility is clear, even if the details of a more promising alternative policy remain to be worked out.

I think Kennan was right in his December 1965 article in proposing a multilateral path toward a solution in Vietnam. Something similar might be possible for Afghanistan today.

As Sonali Kolhatkar suggested Monday in Foreign Policy in Focus, if the U.S. would withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban’s raison d’être there would be greatly weakened. She added:

“If the United States were to take the lead in regional talks between Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, and China to address the Pakistani government’s fears of a hostile regime in Afghanistan, it would go a very long way toward undermining the Taliban.”

Helicopters Down; Hawks Up

By way of footnote: After an American Chinook helicopter was shot down over Iraq on Nov. 2, 2003, killing 16 U.S. troops, I was reminded of a similar guerrilla attack on U.S. forces in Pleiku, Vietnam, on Feb. 7, 1965.

President Johnson seized on the Pleiku incident to start bombing North Vietnam and to send 3,500 Marines to South Vietnam with orders to engage in combat (beyond the earlier advisory role for U.S. troops), marking the beginning of the Americanization of the war.

When the Chinook went down in Iraq 38 years later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made it a point to emphasize that the Iraq War was still “winnable.” (It is hard to know whether he really believed that — his reputation for candor being somewhat tarnished.)

Suffice it to note that Rumsfeld’s comment reminded me of Pleiku and spurred me to write an article exactly six years ago, entitled “Helicopter Down,” in which I said, five times, that the Iraq war was “unwinnable,” no matter how many more U.S. troops would be sent into the fray.

It seems appropriate today to remember that, when choppers go down, hawks go up in influence. For what it may be worth, then, let me state my same conclusion today regarding Afghanistan — and not only because still more helicopters went down just last week.

The war in Afghanistan, too, is UNWINNABLE.

Somebody please tell President Obama.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. He is a 27-year veteran analyst of the CIA and co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.

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This story was published on November 3, 2009.


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