Out of the Woods / End the war
Barack Obama, a man whom I admire and for whom I have enormous respect, has fallen into what I would call the "Lyndon Johnson trap" of fighting a losing war just to prove he is tough and because it is reportedly in the interests of America's national security. It is not.
And the fact that the American people are not demonstrating in the streets against it does not mean it is popular. It is not.
The latest Washington Post-ABC News survey finds that 43 percent of the voters feel the war is worthwhile.
The fact is that George W. Bush attacked Iraq without provocation, and then left Afghanistan -- where the 9/11 attack originated -- before he finished the job. He clearly deserves the lion's share of the blame even though the pundits appear to be letting him off the hook.
The question I would put to our current president is a famous question that young John Kerry, then a highly-decorated Vietnam veteran, asked rhetorically in the summer of 1969 before the Senate Committee, which was investigating the Vietnam War: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
In effect, that's what Obama is doing by setting an arbitrary deadline of July 2011, when the U.S. is scheduled to start withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, here in Westport, the beat to stop the war goes on.
The small but dedicated bunch of anti-war protestors are still marching on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge on Saturdays, like they have since June 2005, led by the resolute couples, Estelle and Manny Margolis and Mary and Howard Maynard. Their protests no longer make news because -- sadly -- Westporters are getting used to it. However, Estelle and Manny pointed out to me last weekend that there has been an increase in the number of people honking their car horns in approval this summer as they drive over the bridge.
Most Westporters, however, are still going about living their lives in our pocket of plenty without much regard to what is happening in faraway Afghanistan. That, in itself, should tell us something. How can there be so little anti-war sentiment in a town like Westport which, over the decades, has become known nationwide for its peace marches and its anti-war activities?
One good reason, I suspect, is the fact that there is no national draft. Without a draft, most Westport families are not directly threatened. Our military forces abroad are comprised almost entirely of volunteers. Another reason is the overwhelming pall that the Great Recession has cast on all of us in Westport and across our nation. No matter how the administration spins the unemployment statistics and the slowing GNP and housing stats, everyone knows that the country is far from a vigorous rebound.
George W. Bush's disastrous eight-year legacy of deregulation of the banks and financial industry, turning a budget surplus into a runaway deficit, and squandering billions of dollars on two wars has put this nation in a ditch for many years to come.
The fact is that no matter what the Obama administration call its long-range strategy in Afghanistan, we all know it has been reduced to a thus far failed attempt at "nation building" and a last-ditch effort to shore up Afghanistan's rag-tag Army to defend itself against the terrorists and the Taliban. The war strategy has become so unpopular in Congress, in fact, that even many of Obama's own liberal House Democrats defected, as the vote for the war appropriations bill showed last week. Ironically, it is the Republican hawks who still support the president's seemingly endless bloody conflict in South Asia.
Drawing a parallel between the current war and Vietnam, The New York Times columnist Frank Rich last Sunday commented: "The one thing no one imagined back then [post-Vietnam] was that four decades later it would be South Asia, not Southeast Asia, that would still be beckoning America into a quagmire."
By now, the pundits in the press have made it quite clear that the Taliban is resurgent, that Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai's government is arrogant, weak and corrupt, that Al Qaeda's training grounds have moved to Pakistan where the U.S. cannot penetrate with full force, and that there reportedly is much more distrust of "the Americans as invaders" in Afghanistan than there is support. Not to mention that the Pakistani government is focusing more on India than it is on helping America defeat the Taliban in Pakistan.
I am well aware of the political price Obama would pay should he decide to pull out earlier than next summer. Perhaps General David Petraeus's scheduled review of the status of the war this December -- should it be downbeat -- would serve as "cover" for the announcement of a quicker withdrawal. It would be very difficult, in any case. But it can -- and should -- be done.
I have been around long enough to have lived through four of America's five wars in the 20th and 21st centuries: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. I served during the Korean War, although not in Korea, and never could buy into the rationale that we were fighting that war to stop the "domino" theory of the Communists taking over as many countries as possible around the world. The proof is that the war ended in a stalemate that has lasted 60 years and, left us with tens of thousands of U.S. troops remaining on the "Demilitarized Zone" between North Korea and South Korea.
I fear that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could come to a similar conclusion: stalemates with tens of thousands of troops remaining behind for decades to come. Worse, if we do not succeed in holding enemy territory in Afghanistan and replacing our troops with capable Afghan counterparts capable of protecting their own population -- which is the current strategy -- then we will continue to read and watch on nightly television the daily stream of body counts of American and coalition troops.
Hardly a day goes by when I do not have a sinking feeling in the gut of my stomach when, at the close of the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer at 7 p.m., I see the faces, ages and home towns of the young American troops -- men and women -- who have died in combat, most of them as a result of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that we have yet to figure out how to disable. I am astounded that the one nation on earth with the most smarts when it comes to inventing technology cannot find a solution to eliminating IEDs before they blow up.
How many more faces of brave young American troops do we have to look at on TV before we come to the conclusion: that enough is enough? I wonder how long it will be before the mothers and fathers and families of those troops killed in Afghanistan will be disillusioned enough to acquire the mindset of that small but determined band of demonstrators in Westport who have already seen the light. Even some of America's leading military leaders admit the war cannot be won by military force alone.
How many more deaths will it take? How many more years? Is there to be no end to the sacrifice of our volunteer military forces that have spent one, two, three -- or more -- tours of duty in combat?
Obama opposed the Iraq war even before he came to the U.S. Senate. He opposed it while running for president during the 2008 campaign. I put it to you that in his heart he is still against it, but cannot find a workable diplomatic way out of it ... yet. If there is a diplomatic solution, he will find it. And the sooner, the better.
How many lost lives will it take before some gutsy members in Congress have the courage -- based on increasing voters' opposition across the country -- to call for an end to this painful war? Isn't 10 years long enough?
Woody Klein's "Out of the Woods" column appears regularly in the Westport News.