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Obama, Afghanistan, and American History

On September 14, President Barack Obama rejected comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam. He staked out his position even while considering whether, at the behest of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, to increase both U.S. troop presence and counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. Although Obama averred it is not so, Afghanistan is another Vietnam, just not in the way he and most Americans might imagine. 

Afghanistan is another Vietnam because the deployment of troops there or the training and use of proxy forces are presumed to be vital to the nation’s security. In that regard, Afghanistan is also another Iraq or, interchangeably, El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Caribbean, Cuba, and the Philippines. What these far-flung places, and the many lands where U.S. forces are currently stationed, have in common is a prominent role in the nation’s history as a world power.

Since the 1890s, American policymakers and those we might call “defense” or “security” intellectuals, have reflexively equated security with the projection of power abroad. Obama is no different as he indicated in his August address to a Veterans of Foreign Wars meeting in Phoenix, calling Afghanistan “a war of necessity” that “is fundamental to the defense of our people.”  One can almost hear Woodrow Wilson musing, as he dispatched troops to the Caribbean and Mexico, “We will teach them to elect good men.”  The elusive promise of self-determination in the context of military occupation has long been a central justification for seeking security through engagement abroad.  

Even skeptical commentators like conservative George Will and liberal Nicholas Kristof cannot conceive of a complete exodus from Afghanistan. There remain enemy targets to attack and, for some like Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan who recently undertook a fact-finding mission to Afghanistan, there is a nation to be built—as was the case in Vietnam and many other places as diverse as those mentioned above.

What are we to make of this American way of engaging the world, a foundational belief best termed a “security ethos”? One thing is certain: Obama shares it with virtually all his predecessors from William McKinley through Franklin D. Roosevelt and on to George W. Bush. During his campaign for the presidency, he noted:  “I have enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H. W. Bush.” Put simply, the security of the United States depends to a great degree on a military presence or, since the early years of the cold war, clandestine activities in foreign lands accompanied by an often unrealized promise of nation-building.

In their hearts, many Americans accept the security ethos. Opposition to the war in Vietnam did not persuade them in 1972 to elect George McGovern, who implored his country to “come home” and be true to its basic values. And more than a few members of Congress elected in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate voted to enhance the power of the executive branch when Congress in 1978 passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Also, whatever Americans really thought about Ronald Reagan, many of them readily accepted the assertion of victory in the cold war, believing it the result of a tough-minded foreign policy rather than problems inherent in the Soviet system.

Even as Americans increasingly turn against the war in Afghanistan, they do not want this opposition to alter the nation’s international posture. That is one implication of public opposition to a draft that would compel America’s sons and daughters to serve in Afghanistan, or elsewhere for that matter. A draft would force us to decide how we are to live in a dangerous world that has partly been of our making for more than a century. Accordingly, there will be no draft.

Has the security ethos kept the nation safe? The historical record is not a good one if honestly appraised. Military commitments have followed upon military commitments, depleting valuable human and material resources while making reliable threat assessment increasingly difficult. We are dependent upon others who do not share our values, most notably the Saudis for their oil and the Chinese for their willingness to support a weak dollar, to sustain our way of life.

President Obama readily acknowledges the importance of values to determining who we are as a people. He spoke of defending core values when he promised to rollback the excesses of George W. Bush’s war on terror. And yet, in one of his final actions as a Senator, he voted to extend FISA, thus perpetuating the primacy of executive power in our system of governance. The problem is that growth of executive authority has been the handmaiden of the security ethos since its inception.

Core values—the heart of American identity since 1787—have not always fared well in the process. A vigilant print and now electronic media, truly open debate over the national interest, curtailment of Fourth Amendment rights, and the rule of law have too often been the collateral damage of the security ethos. Even as Obama’s administration supports renewal of portions of the USA Patriot Act, we are a fractious, less secure people and, thus, a nation terribly in denial of its history on the world stage. 

In commemorating those who died on September 11, 2001, the president made it clear that pursuit of an admittedly weakened al Qaeda is not at an end. Perhaps that must be so as the attack of September 14 against insurgents in Somalia indicates. A deeper commitment in Afghanistan, when there is so much to do at home to reverse the costs of the security ethos to our literal well-being and our most cherished values, is not the best way, to employ Obama’s words, “to stand up for the country we all love.” A decision to make a greater military commitment to a war that has lasted longer than both world wars would further undermine the core of American identity, rendering our values little more than ceremonial artifacts. 

President Obama’s war in Afghanistan is becoming redolent of ill-considered commitments abroad by his predecessors who, like Obama, were in thrall to the security ethos. That condition should be a matter of grave concern for all Americans. Unless it soon changes, we may indeed have reached an end of history—one exactly the opposite of that which Francis Fukuyama and other devotees of the security ethos celebrated some two decades ago.