For the millions of Americans who opposed the war in Iraq, including Barack Obama, Afghanistan was the good war—“The War We Need to Win,” as candidate Obama titled a key foreign-policy speech he gave in August 2007. Iraq, Obama said, was a sickeningly misguided gift to Osama bin Laden: “a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” Iraq posed no threat to American national security; Afghanistan and Pakistan did. Obama vowed to wind down the war we didn’t need to win in order to ramp up the one we did. He was elected president for many reasons, but that pledge was among the most important.
Today, with the twelve-month review of Obama’s strategy scheduled for the coming weeks, the war in Afghanistan is his—and it doesn’t feel very good. What it feels like, increasingly, is Vietnam, especially to people who formed their views of American military power, and indeed of America itself, in opposition to the Vietnam War. Obama has poured in 50,000 more troops, at a cost of about $100 billion a year. Half of the 1,400 American combat deaths in Afghanistan have occurred since Obama became president. American lives and treasure seem to be disappearing into the quicksand of a country governed by a corrupt regime whose indifference to the public good fuels the insurgency the U.S. is seeking to repress. Bulletins from an optimistic commanding general about enemy body counts and liberated villages fill us with hope for a moment—until we read the dismal news accounts from the front. The loudest voice in favor of pushing on, mocking the advocates of phased withdrawal, belongs to John McCain, the gung ho Vietnam vet.
The comparison is so painfully obvious and has been made so persistently, at least on the left, that we owe it to ourselves to think hard about the stakes in Afghanistan. The central lesson many Americans took away from Vietnam, and from the proxy wars the U.S. fought all over the world during the Cold War, was that our political leaders exaggerated, or even fabricated, the stakes. LBJ said that if Vietnam fell, the rest of Asia would fall with it. President Reagan said that if we didn’t stand up to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Central America would go Communist. They were wrong; the domino theory was a red herring. But what about Afghanistan? In the West Point speech in December 2009 in which he announced his plans to send 30,000 more troops, Obama asserted that the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan “is the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by Al Qaeda,” and thus the threat to American national security “will only grow if the region slides backward and Al Qaeda can operate with impunity.” White House officials say that the upcoming review will not lead to any change of course. U.S. and NATO officials have agreed that troops will fully hand off combat duties to Afghan forces only by the end of 2014, and even that is not a hard date. If Obama is right about the stakes, then he may be right about the strategy. Or is he hyping the danger, the way LBJ and Reagan—and George W. Bush—once did? And even if the fight really does matter, is victory, or however we choose to define success, even possible?
Let’s back off for a moment to consider how liberals in America have come to think about war. Woodrow Wilson was the first American president faced with the challenge of persuading the American people to fight a war against an enemy that did not directly menace our territory. At the time, pacifism was virtually the default position of American liberals. Blood-and-thunder Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt were eager to fight the Hun; Wilson’s “base,” as we would say today, was not. Before a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917—in one of the great speeches of American history—Wilson argued that German submarine warfare had thrown down a challenge “to all mankind,” and that the U.S. must respond not out of “revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right.” Wilson appealed to idealism as well as to an idealistic conception of America’s national security: German autocracy and bellicosity, he said, undermined the world order America was seeking to build. Thus Wilson’s ringing declaration: “The world must be made safe for democracy.”
It took another generation for U.S. interests to become so global, and for advances in technology to bring the world so close together, that another war halfway across the world could be seen as an immediate and dire threat to American national security. After Pearl Harbor, FDR didn’t have to reissue Wilson’s appeal to high-mindedness; Americans left and right united behind a threat to their way of life.