Which Way for Obama?

by Claude Garrod

Every new president inherits some things from his predecessor that he'd just as soon do without. Roosevelt inherited an economic catastrophe, Eisenhower inherited a war in Korea that was very bloody but stalemated, and Johnson inherited a seemingly small conflict in Vietnam that was going badly. But, few presidents have been stuck with as many white elephants from the previous administration as has Obama; a financial collapse, a war in Iraq that may be very hard to extricate ourselves from, an eight-year-old war in Afghanistan that is not going well and seems to be spreading into Pakistan, and a powerful political lobby that is pushing him to start a third, even bigger, war in Iran.

Obama would do well to compare the relative policies and outcomes of the Eisenhower and Johnson administrations. Both former presidents had military men who promised a definite victory if they were only given more troops and supplies and who predicted very dire things otherwise. In a letter to Congressman Joseph Martin, General MacArthur stated that "If we lose the war to Communism in Asia the fall of Europe is inevitable, win it and Europe most probably would avoid war and preserve freedom. As you point out, we must win. There is no substitute for victory." Of course, 'winning the war' meant driving the North Korean and Chinese armies into China and unifying the Korean peninsular under the Western-backed regime of Syngman Rhee. There was widespread fear in the US of communist advances. Between the Soviet Union and China, the communists controlled the world's largest countries in terms of area and population. Senator Joseph McCarthy was at the peak of his power, raising specters of communist infiltration within the American Government itself. During the election campaign, Eisenhower made a speech in which he promised that "I shall go to Korea" if elected. This was widely interpreted as meaning that he would go there to ascertain the situation and develop a winning strategy. However, in looking at the text of the speech, one notices that he never promised to 'win' in Korea, but only "to bring the Korean War to an early and honorable end" and to "concentrate on the job of ending the Korean War." When elected, Eisenhower fulfilled his promise to travel to Korea, but, after detailed discussions with the military commanders there, all of whom he knew from his own military service, and observing in detail the terrain and military positions on both sides, he came to the clear conclusion that the war could not be 'won' with any acceptable cost in lives and money. He would have to compromise and accept simply a non-defeat; that is, leave the political situation as it was prior to the start of the war. Within the next year that was accomplished, and that is how the situation exists right now, except for the fact that South Korea is now an extremely prosperous and powerful democratic country. Eisenhower continued on to be a relatively successful two-term president.

If we look at the situation in Vietnam at the start of Johnson's term, there is a very eery similarity with the Afghan-Pakistan situation. The Vietnamese government was corrupt and ineffective, just as the Afghan and Pakistan governments are corrupt and ineffective. In Vietnam, the President was originally Ngo Dinh Diem, but in a CIA-backed coup, he was assassinated and replaced by President Duong Van Minh. After the Diem coup, the government of Vietnam became permanently unstable, with five more leadership changes within the next two years.

Johnson, who entered office with popular backing for an ambitious program of economic and social transformation, unfortunately followed the advice of his generals and gave them constantly more troops and supplies. The result was the slow destruction of his presidency.

In Pakistan, the Musharaf government became corrupt and unpopular, leading Washington to conclude that the war effort would become more effective if he were replaced by Benazir Bhutto. After Benazir's assassination, Musharaf was replaced in an election by Benazir's husband, Ali Zardari, a man with a long and well-deserved reputation for notorious corruption. The US government is now sidling up to Zardari's opponent, Nawaz Sharif. Just as in Vietnam, our government is involved in, but not in control of, an extremely complex political situation. Much of Pakistani society is essentially feudal, with aristocratic landowners, such as the Bhutto family, who own vast tracts of land on which the peasants are almost serfs with very little chance for advancement. The Pashtuns, the ethnic group that populates both sides of the Afghan/Pakistani border, like the Kurds in Iraq, have never recognized the international borders drawn through the middle of their territory by the colonial British.

A similar situation exists in Afghanistan. The Kharzi government is both corrupt and ineffective. The president's brother is a major dealer in the opium trade. But Kharzi is the only president we have and thus he can ignore the constant US complaints about corruption and inefficiency.

To Obama, I would simply say: Follow Eisenhower and not Johnson - make whatever compromises are necessary and just get out before a grinding never-ending war drags down your whole program.