Monday, November 17, 2014

Misleading Vietnam parallels

Two historians of the Vietnam War, Frederik Logevall and Gordon Goldstein, suggest that President Obama faces a situation with regard to Iraq and Syria that is similar to what President Kennedy faced in 1961 regarding Vietnam. "Today as then, it appears the nation’s top military officials are seeking to box the president in to a commitment the White House is extremely reluctant to make."

I don't agree. While it's obvious that many senior military officers believe that the fight against ISIL would be more efficient and effective if U.S. military personnel were on the ground advising and supporting Iraqi units, I believe they are not openly challenging the president's "no ground combat troops" limitation. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has stopped short of saying either that we need American ground forces now, or that the strategy will likely fail if we don't employ them. Instead, he has responded to congressional questions with appropriate military judgments and advice, but without criticism of the commander-in-chief's clear condition.

I don't believe that Dempsey now, or Admiral Mullen when the Afghanistan troop surge was under review, were trying to "box the president in."

The more useful lesson comes from Goldstein's interview with Kennedy advisor McGeorge Bundy regarding the 1961 decisions. Yes, Kennedy repeatedly rejected the unanimous recommendations of his advisors for sending ground combat forces to Vietnam. But he refused to make that rejection declaratory policy. Bundy said, "The policy that is not acknowledged is easily reversed."

In other words, what's boxing the president in is his own words.

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