President Barack Obama has been deliberating for some time over one of the many messes left to him by Bush-Cheney: the eight-year-old war in Afghanistan. Our president’s administration has been compared to John F. Kennedy’s “best and the brightest,” and he has a chance to learn from JFK’s misadventure in Vietnam and his finest hour in Cuba.
President Kennedy sent two men to Vietnam to assess our prospects and report back: one each from the state department and the defense department. When they returned, the state department official said that the South Vietnamese government was corrupt and had no popular support and the situation was hopeless; the defense department representative said that all that was needed for success was more troops. Kennedy asked them if they had visited the same country. Could Afghanistan be a similar situation?
Coincidentally, we have now had another anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which took place from October 16 to October 28 in 1962. If you know little about this crisis or need an excellent, quick refresher, I highly recommend ABC’s 1974 dramatization The Missiles of October, available on DVD. If you’re interested, I also recommended it in Films for Presidents’ Day under my “movies” category. President Obama, as well as all our future presidents, should be required to see it.
Briefly, the Soviet Union secretly placed offensive missiles in Cuba after assuring the U. S. it would never do so. One of our U2 spy planes photographed the building of a nuclear missile installation site and the jig was up. The crisis was about how to get the Soviets to remove the missiles without JFK or Premier Nikita Khrushchev being provoked into losing control of events and starting a suicidal nuclear war. Fortunately, both leaders rose to the occasion.
Looking back on the skill displayed by our American president and a Russian dictator to avoid a needless war in 1962, we can regrettably contrast their performances to that of Bush-Cheney and Saddam Hussein in the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Center for Public Integrity and the Fund for Independence in Journalism documented 935 lies made by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and six of their top officials to promote their effort to go to war in Iraq.
“They put on a very good show for us, and we bought it,” said Sheriff Jim Alderden about the recent “balloon boy” hoax. The boy’s parents are now facing felony charges. So far, though, the only member of Bush-Cheney’s administration that has been charged and convicted for anything connected with the Iraq War hoax was Cheney’s chief of staff “Scooter” Libby.
Surprisingly, even the despicable Saddam Hussein actually did what he could to avoid war. He eventually allowed UN inspectors, led by Hans Blix, into Iraq to look for weapons of mass destruction. He was willing to be exposed as a fraud who had no WMD’s rather than have his country invaded. I personally think he was trying to protect those lavish palaces that he had been spending most of his money on. Bush-Cheney ordered the inspectors to leave Iraq so that we could invade.
In stark contrast to Bush-Cheney’s eagerness to go to war, JFK and his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy were determined to avoid war if it was at all possible. It was a brilliant suggestion by Robert Kennedy that ultimately resolved the crisis. Khrushchev sent a favorable response in which he agreed to remove the missiles if we would promise not to invade Cuba. While we analyzed his offer, a second offer arrived that was unacceptable. It appeared to have originated from the Soviet military or Khrushchev’s Presidium, and there was some question as to whether Khrushchev had been removed from power. Bobby Kennedy recommended that we pretend we never got the second offer and accept the first. It worked! The Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba.
As to Afghanistan, President Obama might do well to pull off some variations of the Bobby Kennedy ploy.
A 1995 report by our own War College suggested that securing stability in a country the size and population of a country like Afghanistan would require a minimum of 620,000 troops. When Bush-Cheney wanted to divert our attention away from Afghanistan and invade Iraq, Gen. Shinseki told the Congress that it would take hundreds of thousands of troops to secure Iraq. He was essentially fired by Bush-Cheney. Since Obama has appointed Shinseki to head Veterans Affairs, his expertise should be used in the president’s decision making. If we finally accept the War College’s report, which Bush-Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld chose to ignore, Mr. Obama may decide that it is time to find a way for us to leave Afghanistan.
Gen. Petreus has never claimed the surge in Iraq in 2007 was the primary reason that much of the violence dissipated. The U. S., understandably, has not wanted to advertise our most effective tool in Iraq: it has been the use of bribes to get Sunni leaders to stop fighting us and to fight the insurgents instead. President Obama may be counting on Afghan Sunnis being just as bribable as Iraqi Sunnis. That may be true, but we are going to have to outspend the opium lords for it to work.
More along the lines of a Bobby Kennedy ploy would be for us to accept some version of the offers that were made years ago but were rejected: Then-President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan suggested using Muslim troops from the 22-member Arab League and the 57-member Islamic Conference as peacekeepers. Also, in 2004, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, six Muslim nations (Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, and Yemen) offered to send Sunni and Shiite troops as peacekeepers in Iraq.
American troops and our contracted mercenaries, like Blackwater, are considered to be foreign occupiers and are deeply resented by Afghan Muslims. Remember, American colonists resented being occupied by British troops. The colonists considered themselves to be loyal to the king, but our Revolutionary War broke out anyway. Likewise, sending more Americans into harm’s way will probably further antagonize the local Afghans throughout the country.
Who knows? If President Obama addresses the possibility of using Muslims, some of the numerous Muslim nations may still be willing to form a peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. It would be a daunting task with multiple problems to work out, but it certainly would allow us to find out whether Muslim nations truly want our troops out of the Middle East. Also, after Bush-Cheney neglected Afghanistan so they could invade Iraq, the result has been such a muddle that for us to try to do now what we should have done originally may very well be impossible.
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published October 30, 2009, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.