JFK and Obama


The world falls in love with a charismatic young president, his stylish wife, and their charming young children. In the campaign for the presidency he has defeated his opponent in part by charging Republican failure in the war against America’s enemies. In the dawn of his administration this Harvard man musters strategic buttress from intellectuals bunkered  in think-tanks and academe, for a decisive escalation by which the foe will be routed. Counter-insurgency will go hand in hand with nation-building. Corruption will be banished and local troops trained to shoulder the burden of the war.

To be sure, there are differences between Jack Kennedy’s America in 1961 and Barack Obama’s in 2009. At the start of the Sixties the U.S. economy in its productive phase hadn’t crested. It was still on the way up to its peak in about 1969. The mantra was “guns and butter.” In 1961 the best and the brightest, defeating Vietnamese guerillas in their Top Secret memos to Kennedy and his commanders, invoked  Britain’s defeat of the Communist  insurgency in Malaya, courtesy of Frank Kitson’s counter-insurgency tactics and America’s victory over the Huks in the Philippines, with Edward Lansdale claiming the achievement. In 2009,  veterans’ hospitals here offer bleak testimony  that in Iraq 150,000 US troops, lavishly equipped with advanced weaponry were held down for years  in Iraq by the guerillas’ rudimentary roadside explosives.

Woe betide a president who believes his own stump speeches. In his campaign Obama outflanked charges initially from Hilary Clinton and then from John McCain that he was a peacenik and a wimp by declaring week after week that Iraq was the wrong battlefield, that the enemy was al Qaida and their sanctuary Afghanistan. An excited vibrancy colored the community organizer’s rhetoric as he spoke of his determination to “kill bin Laden.”

Most people thought this pledge would get lobbed into the trashcan the moment McCain conceded. But no. Last Friday I drove down Interstate 5 through the early spring blossom in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, listening to Obama on the radio marching through his schedule  for  escalation and victory in Afghanistan. He was born in the year JFK became president, but has this supposedly smart fellow not read a single decent history of the Vietnam war and of America’s defeat? Apparently not. Otherwise how could he blithely announce that “We will accelerate our efforts to build an Afghan Army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000 so that we can meet these goals by 2011…Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course. Instead, we will set clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable.”  Nothing perishes quicker in war than “clear metrics”.

Signficantly,according to Ray McGovern’s recent piece on this site Obama did not order a National Intelligence Estimate as he evolved his plan, doubtless because he and his National Security Adviser feared such an NIE might arrive at the same sort of depressing assessment as the April 2006 NIE on global terrorism, which  concluded invasions and occupations do not make America safer but lead instead to an upsurge in terrorism.

It seems, from an inside dopester story by Bill Gertz in the Washington Times, cited here by William Lind last week, that in the White House sessions formulating Obama’s Afghan policy Vice President Joe Biden,  and Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg, argued  for a minimal strategy of “stabilizing” Afghanistan. Against them Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama’s  special envoy for the region, U.S. Central Command leader Gen. David H. Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton successfully  sold Obama on a major nation-building program, bringing Afghanistan out of feudal poverty and backwardness into the healthful air of a stable and prosperous economy, respectful of women and the polling booth.

Maybe Biden forgot to point out to his boss that this was the Afghanistan model espoused by the leftist Noor Taraki in the late 1970s, setting off US alarm bells which duly led to Taraki’s murder and  the CIA’s huge covert and successful  intervention in support of the drug barons and warlords, whose feudal offspring are now America’s actual or prospective allies in the war on the Taliban.

As Obama proudly flourished his alliterative triad (“to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan’) , I listened with the same dismayed frisson as  I did more than four decades ago to Kennedy’s similarly  childish rhetoric of intervention, whose dark underbelly was the murder of the Diem brothers, and the birth of the Phoenix assassination program of “Viet Cong infrastructure”.

Obama’s brisk sentences commit  thousands of fresh US troops to overwhelm the Taliban, oblivious of the judgment of sensible observers that it’s precisely the presence of foreign troops that prompts Pashtuns to support the Taliban and join their ranks. More brisk sentences summoned Pakistan to the crusade against terror, as if Pakistan’s intelligence establishment does not work hand in glove with the Taliban and protects al-Qaida leaders.

The march of folly is under way. Bush and Cheney’s “war on terror” is now married to Clintonian blueprints for nation building and social engineering, a wedding  officiated over by General Petraeus, whose mythical surge in Iraq was hailed last year by Obama as having “succeeded beyond our wildest dreams”.  The fantasy of America’s healing kiss smolders and flares  in Obama’s heart just as it did in Kennedy’s. Ray McGovern quotes Gen. Douglas McArthur as telling Kennedy in 1961: “Anyone wanting to commit American ground forces to the mainland of Asia should have his head examined.”

True then, true now.

For a little vignette of the follies of US intervention, let me quote from  a recent eyewitness report by Philip Smucker of a US patrol in eastern Afghanistan, published in the McClatchy papers on April 2:

It took the 10th Mountain soldiers nearly two hours to make a descent that usually takes Afghans 20 minutes. Each Combat Company soldier carried between 80 and 130 pounds on his back. Inexperienced Afghan soldiers, unsure of the route, caused further delays, losing their way and threatening to gun down an unarmed shepherd.

Up to 130lbs on your back, in the Hindu Kush! Shades of S.L.A. Marshall’s studies of U.S.Marines on D-Day drowning in a couple of feet of water, pinioned under the weight of their vastly overloaded knapsacks. No wonder the Pentagon prefers to fire off Predators or bomb wedding parties from a safe height.

This essay originally appeared in the April 2009 print edition of CounterPunch.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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