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Yes Congress, Afghanistan is Your Vietnam

Just shy of fifty years ago on November 7, 1967, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by J. William Fulbright, Democrat of Arkansas, met in executive session to assess the progress of the ongoing Vietnam War. Secretary of State Dean Rusk was the sole witness invited to testify. Even today, the transcript of Rusk’s remarks and the subsequent exchange with committee members make for depressing reading.  

Responding to questions that ranged from plaintive to hostile, Rusk gave no ground.  The Johnson administration was more than willing to end the war, he insisted; the North Vietnamese government was refusing to do so. The blame lay with Hanoi. Therefore the United States had no alternative but to persist. American credibility was on the line.  

By extension, so too was the entire strategy of deterring Communist aggression. The stakes in South Vietnam extended well beyond the fate of that one country, as senators well knew. In that regard, Rusk reminded members of the committee, the Congress had “performed its function…when the key decisions were made”—an allusion to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution,  a de facto declaration of war passed with near unanimous congressional support. None too subtly, Rusk was letting members of the committee know that the war was theirs as much as it was the administration’s.

Yet Fulbright and his colleagues showed little inclination to accept ownership. As a result, the back-and-forth between Rusk and his interrogators produced little of value. Rather than illuminating the problem of a war gone badly awry and identifying potential solutions, the event became an exercise in venting frustration. This exchange initiated by Senator Frank Lausche, Democrat from Ohio, captures the overall tone of the proceedings.

Senator Lausche:  “The debate about what our course in Vietnam should be has now been in progress since the Tonkin Bay resolution. When was that, August 1964?

Senator Wayne Morse (D-Ore.):  “Long before that.”

Senator Albert Gore, Sr. (D-Tenn.):  “Long before that.”

Senator Fulbright:  “Oh, yes, but that was the Tonkin Bay.”

Senator Lausche:  “For three years we have been arguing it, arguing for what purpose? Has it been to repeal the Tonkin Bay resolution? Has it been to establish justification for pulling out? In the three years, how many times has the Secretary appeared before us?  

Those hearings, those debates, in my opinion, have fully explored all of the aspects that you are speaking about without dealing with any particular issue. Now, this is rather rash, I suppose: If our presence in Vietnam is wrong, [if] it is believed we should pull out, should not one of us present a resolution to the Senate[?] …. [Then] we would have a specific issue. We would not just be sprawled all over the field, as we have been in the last three years.”

Put simply, Senator Lausche was suggesting that Congress force the matter, providing a forum to examine and resolve an issue that had deeply divided the country and that, Rusk’s assurances notwithstanding, showed no signs of resulting in a successful outcome. No such congressional intervention occurred, however. As a practical matter, Congress in 1967 found it more expedient to defer to the wishes of the commander in chief as the exigencies of the Cold War ostensibly required.

So the Vietnam War dragged on at great cost and to no good effect. Not until the summer of 1970 did Congress repeal the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Even then, the gesture came too late to have any meaningful impact. The war continued toward its mournful conclusion.  

To characterize congressional conduct regarding the Vietnam War as timorous and irresponsible is to be kind. There were individual exceptions, of course, among them Senator Morse who had opposed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and Senator Fulbright who by 1967 openly regretted his vote in favor and recognized Vietnam for the disaster it had become. Collectively, however, legislators failed abjectly.

Well, with the passage of a half century, here we are again, back in the soup (or perhaps more accurately, the sand). With the United States currently mired in the longest armed conflict in the nation’s history—considerably longer than Vietnam—Senator Lausche’s proposal of 1967 just might merit a fresh look.  

Of course, the Afghanistan War (ostensibly part of a Global War on Terrorism) differs from the Vietnam War (ostensibly part of the Cold War) in myriad ways. Yet it resembles Vietnam in three crucial respects. First, it drags on with no end in sight. Second, no evidence exists to suggest that mere persistence will produce a positive outcome. Third, those charged with managing the war have long since run out of ideas about how to turn things around.

Indeed, the Trump administration seems unable to make up its mind about what to do in Afghanistan. A request for additional troops by the senior U.S. field commander has been pending since February. He is still waiting for an answer. James Mattis, Trump’s defense secretary, has promised a shiny new strategy. That promise remains unfulfilled.  Meanwhile, the news coming out of Kabul is almost uniformly bad. The war itself continues as if on autopilot. Lausche’s “sprawled all over the field” provides an apt description of where the United States finds itself today.

Where is the Congress in all of this?  By all appearances, congressional deference to the putative prerogatives of the commander in chief remains absurdly intact—this despite the fact that the Cold War is now a distant memory and the post once graced by eminences like Truman and Eisenhower is now occupied by an individual whose judgment and attention span (among other things) are suspect.

A citizen might ask: What more does the Congress need to reassert its constitutional prerogatives on matters related to war? Surely there must be at least a handful of members who, setting aside partisan considerations, can muster the courage and vision to offer a rash proposition similar to Senator Lausche’s. Doing so has the potential not only to inaugurate debate on a conflict that has gone on for too long to no purpose, but also to call much needed attention to the overall disarray of U.S. policy of which Afghanistan is merely one symptom. Otherwise, why do we pay these people?

Andrew Bacevich, a Vietnam Veteran, is TAC’s writer-at-large.

28 Comments (Open | Close)

28 Comments To "Yes Congress, Afghanistan is Your Vietnam"

#1 Comment By amir On August 10, 2017 @ 11:43 pm

I hope Afghanstian act once more as the graveyard of another Empire.

#2 Comment By NoldorElf On August 11, 2017 @ 12:28 am

Probably the only person that has been consistent on this is Barbara Lee.

Most of the other Congress members are bought.

#3 Comment By Jon S On August 11, 2017 @ 8:40 am

This Bacevich guy rocks.

How about House Bill (HB) ####: To Declare a glorious victory in the battle fields of Afghanistan and fund a ticker tape parade in New York City for our heroic, valorous soldiers.

All in favor say aye.

#4 Comment By cred crud On August 11, 2017 @ 9:34 am

“American credibility was on the line. “

Our “credibility” seems to be on the line all the time. Especially when countries like Saudi Arabia or Israel want us to do something for them and get their agents of influence to advocate for them in our media.

It’s heart-warming to see how concerned these foreign countries and their agents are about our “credibility”. They must be very good friends, no? Except of course that – according to them – the only way to assure our credibility seems to be to bankrupt ourselves and do stupid, self-destructive things that benefit … them.

In Afghanistan we don’t need to worry about credibility anymore because we have none. In addition, Americans don’t care what’s happening in or to Afghanistan any more.

It’s over, Mr. Congressman or woman. Get us out.

#5 Comment By jb On August 11, 2017 @ 9:46 am

What is so frustrating Dr Bacevich is that from my little corner of the world…no one cares. Soon our football stadiums will fill with flashy shows of support for “our military” with jets flying overhead etc. Our politicians, as you have pointed out, are impotent. The public – detached and disinterested in the whole business. I am not sure what can be done. You are a voice crying in the wilderness…and now we facing a crisis in Korea, an region that is quite capable of defending itself if we stopped playing empire. I feel hopeless of any change.

#6 Comment By Interguru On August 11, 2017 @ 10:36 am

Bin Laden must be looking down (up?) and be smiling. His strategy was to bankrupt the United States.

Apparently not. Bin Laden, according to Gartenstein-Ross, had a strategy that we never bothered to understand, and thus that we never bothered to defend against. What he really wanted to do — and, more to the point, what he thought he could do — was bankrupt the United States of America. After all, he’d done the bankrupt-a-superpower thing before. And though it didn’t quite work out this time, it worked a lot better than most of us, in this exultant moment, are willing to admit.

The [USSR in Afganistan] campaign taught bin Laden a lot. For one thing, superpowers fall because their economies crumble, not because they’re beaten on the battlefield. For another, superpowers are so allergic to losing that they’ll bankrupt themselves trying to conquer a mass of rocks and sand. This was bin Laden’s plan for the United States, too.

For bin Laden, in other words, success was not to be measured in body counts. It was to be measured in deficits, in borrowing costs, in investments we weren’t able to make in our country’s continued economic strength. And by those measures, bin Laden landed a lot of blows.

9-1-1 was wildly successful. It gave Bush the opening he wanted to get us into Iraq and fool that he was, we went in.

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#7 Comment By Dan Green On August 11, 2017 @ 11:38 am

Obvious the competency of our lawmakers, probably isn’t there, for them to review our un-succesful wars. North Korean, (haunting us now). Vietnam, Iraq, and this saga in Afghanistan .All marketed as protecting our interest, which included never winning.

#8 Comment By SteveM On August 11, 2017 @ 11:51 am

Congress should have repealed the hyper-metastasized AUMF by veto-proof majorities during the lame duck period before Trump took office. But they didn’t.

The federal government is pathologically dysfunctional. And Washington is pathologically dangerous as it uses the War Machine in wasteful Global Cop excursions as diversions away from the domestic wreckage that is accruing.

The generalized Implosion is coming and it is going to be very ugly…

#9 Comment By bacon On August 11, 2017 @ 11:57 am

COL Bacevich makes the error (or perhaps is being rhetorical) of looking at the congress thru the lens of a civics course. No matter how much current members were like Mr. Smith when they first went to Washington, almost all understand that they will never again have a job as good as the one they now have and to the extent they have any of their original idealism left have convinced themselves that no one can better serve the country. Don’t put any money of their acting in the country’s interest if such action might cost votes.

#10 Comment By Ana On August 11, 2017 @ 12:11 pm

Mby but Trump wont tie the troops hands like Vietnan.

#11 Comment By Cynthia McLean On August 11, 2017 @ 12:59 pm

Perpetual War = Perpetual Elections paid for by the military industries that fund those Elections and the Elected who then vote for more War.

#12 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 11, 2017 @ 1:05 pm

Say what you will, Trump hasn’t performed any worse than all the previous occupants of a post that really ought to be called out for what it became – CEO of War, Inc. Despite the attempt to diversify the business back to peacetime businesses, just how can that be done by anyone, without harming short term profits and employment? In the age of Make Money Fast, you have to get votes fast, too, or get a Golden Parachute bailout for failing to think only short term.

#13 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On August 11, 2017 @ 3:40 pm

Congress has abdicated its authority on the War Power since 1967. Now you have DJT with the nuclear football in his tiny hands.

August 1914–August 2017. We learn from history that we do not learn from history.

#14 Comment By Rehmat On August 11, 2017 @ 4:36 pm

US war in Afghanistan is much longer than Vietnam. It was lost over ten years ago. Taliban still control more than 60% of Afghan territory.

US-NATO is still hoping that by staying inside Afghanistan – it would stop the country falling under Iranian influence as happened in Iraq after the American forces withdrawal.

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#15 Comment By Charles Cosimano On August 11, 2017 @ 4:54 pm

The constituents do not care, therefore Congress has no reason to care. It can go on forever.

#16 Comment By Rossbach On August 11, 2017 @ 9:48 pm

As long as the conflict does not inconvenience them personally, congressmen and senators will likely do nothing about the Afghan War or any of the other wars that they have enabled (Iraq, Yemen, Syria, etc). Unless the conflict threatens to become a campaign issue, they just aren’t going to worry about it, no matter how futile it is, how much it has cost, or how many of our young men have died.

Sad, but true.

#17 Comment By Cal On August 11, 2017 @ 10:06 pm

My congressman Walter Jones (R-NC)has been constantly calling for the US to get out of
Afghanistan.
But no one is listening, they are too busy kissing the asses of the Israeli Fifth Columnist in the US.

#18 Comment By ZenitFan On August 11, 2017 @ 11:07 pm

Apparently what goes around comes around. The CIA spent the 1980s making Afghanistan the Soviets’ Vietnam. Gorbachev had the sense to pull out after 10 years.

#19 Comment By Vietnam veteran On August 12, 2017 @ 8:50 am

All of this was foreseeable from the outset. Congress had its opportunities to prevent both the disastrous Vietnam War and the wars in the Middle East, and did not. The media, in both cases, had the opportunity to warn the public, but did not. We were repeatedly assured that “Iraq (or Afghanistan) is not Vietnam”, but they really turned out to be, didn’t they?
The similarities between the fiasco in the Middle East and the fiasco in Vietnam go beyond those mentioned by Mr. Bacevich: (1) the unquestioned assertion that American national security and prestige were at stake (2) the belief that no foe could withstand American military power (3) the unsuccessful use of American military power to shore up or form a stable government in the territory we invaded (4) absence of any coherent strategy, and (5) the inertial continuation of a failed enterprise.
Why should any Congressman or Senator stick his neck out, when the onus is on the Presidents who started both adventures? This is why Congress always defaults to giving a President the leeway to do what he thinks necessary.

#20 Comment By Jim Houghton On August 12, 2017 @ 11:46 am

AB is right, as always. But a voice shouting into the wind, also as always.

Sigh…

#21 Comment By Anne Mendoza On August 13, 2017 @ 6:33 am

An astute analysis as always.

The U.S. has lost the war in Afghanistan. So why do we remain mired in that hellish snake pit? I suspect that the culprit is U.S. imperial ambitions which Congress fully endorses buttressed by a frank inability to accept any limits to American power including the biggest one of all, the enormity of losing a war.

Afghanistan is now a part of our empire, and the U.S. will hold onto it until Afghanistan bleeds us dry or expels us. Because incoherence, hubris, and pipe dreams drive our Middle East policy, maintaining a permanent U.S. presence in that godforsaken country might prove useful to check the Russians or the undue influence of a hostile regional power or – gasp – an incursion by the Chinese. Or it might not. Either way, it’s useful for full spectrum dominance even though it serves to undermine our national security interests.

#22 Comment By Mike Garrett On August 13, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

At least America’s former generation did protest the Vietnam war, while the current younger generation has done little to stop it. Ending the draft took away the more affluent and educated students’ interest in ending this conflict. The Church in America was forever changed by Vietnam in a way that is seldom recognised. Because divinity school students got a 4D deferment from the draft the percentage of homosexuals entering these programs soared to very high levels. This made it possible for them to reverse church positions on homosexuality and the priesting of women that had been a solid part of the entire Western religious tradition for three thousand years.

#23 Comment By David Skerry On August 13, 2017 @ 2:08 pm

How many inocent,unarmed women and children did Bacevich murder in Vietnam? Can’t help but ask when men tout their”service” in Nam. Maybe he merely aided and abetted those murders. Do tell.

#24 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 13, 2017 @ 4:52 pm

I guess I have avoided this long enough. As noted on numerous occasions. My view on Vietnam is in the minority and while I appreciate the nexus points of similarity between the two conflicts, the lack of distinct borders, the factions involved, makes the issue decidedly, the fluidity of loyalties among the various taliban leaders still creates major challenges, not to mention how deeply sectarain all issues remain – keeps the matter out of reach in my view.

However, I would agree that Congress and the WH (despite an issue not of their making) must take ownership. Congress has no excuse, this has been on her plate since 2002.
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While I find the discussion on Vietnam interesting, nothing in it really challenges the veracity of our effort in Vietnam. We certainly had more justification for being in Vietnam than a full scale invasion to capture, detain, arrest and kill if need be the actors involved in 9/11. None of which to date involved a single native of Afghanistan public or private.

“So the Vietnam War dragged on at great cost and to no good effect. Not until the summer of 1970 did Congress repeal the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.”

The wounds here are so deep and the politically correct recriminations so intense that I get the embrace of this step. But in all reality, the Vietnam War for the US ended on a treaty, which the North Vietnamese finally capitulated to and signed. No more than was offered at the beginning of the conflict.

Only after the US departure did North Vietnam obtain a victory b y violating that same agreement.

As someone who thought the invasion Afghanistahn nearly without merit on several levels. I am reminded that we have carved out promises, and unlike the mess in Iraq, I am not someone who supports the abandoning of people who be subject to reprisals based on our ineptitude. We must find a means of ensuring the safety of those who we would leave behind.

Our failure to protect the Sunnis, whatever the reason is a major contributor to the mess we have today.

#25 Comment By D On August 14, 2017 @ 6:42 am

Since 2002, the Defense (War) Industry has contributed ~$188M to Congressional candidates. That could be part of the problem. Also, readers may wish to locate this article for further reading:

“How Saudi Arabia captured Washington

America’s foreign policy establishment has aligned itself with an ultra-conservative dictatorship that often acts counter to US values and interests. Why?”

by Max Fisher on March 21, 2016

#26 Comment By Frank Blangeard On August 14, 2017 @ 11:00 pm

Too many people in the United States are making money off of the opium poppy grown in Afghanistan to let such a lucrative asset go. The troops are there to protect the opium which is made into heroin. The CIA (Criminals in Asia) are the largest drug cartel in the world.

#27 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 19, 2017 @ 2:58 am

“Apparently what goes around comes around. The CIA spent the 1980s making Afghanistan the Soviets’ Vietnam. Gorbachev had the sense to pull out after 10 years.”

Hmmmmm, nope. When exited Vietnam, we left a democratic government. The North signed a treaty. The US did not leave because we we failed to subdue a country. It did not bankrupt the country.

In fact, I will go a step further and say Afghanistan did not bankrupt the soviet union. It was one factor in a series of over expanded adventures that central planning simply could not support on several levels, finances being a huge part of it. but Afghanistan alone, probably not.

#28 Comment By Charlieford On August 21, 2017 @ 5:04 pm

“The North signed a treaty” that was worth almost as much as the paper it was printed on.

All parties knew that at the time.

Not all shouted it from the roof-tops, for obvious reasons, although President Thieu certainly did. For the North, getting the US to sign an agreement that required the US to leave, while the North got to keep its military in the South on one-fifth of South Vietnamese territory, was a) a war aim, not a conclusion of the war, and b) an admission that the GVN was unable to secure its borders, even with US help–as any sovereign nation must be able to do–and thus a pointer towards what was to come, fairly soon (after a “decent interval”).

Thieu knew it, Le Duc Tho knew it, even Kissinger and Nixon knew it.

Some Americans still, at this late date, prefer not to acknowledge it.

Why it’s so difficult is unclear. President Rhee, of South Korea, certainly understood what was happening, and refused to go along with a similar cease-fire in 1953 unless Eisenhower gave him iron-clad guarantees that US troops would be stationed in the ROK, thus ensuring that the US would be inextricably involved should the DPRK launch an invasion.

Thieu couldn’t get such a guarantee from Nixon because Nixon couldn’t get a ceasefire without a complete American withdrawal. That was because the North Vietnamese had no intention of honoring an agreement they made with people they referred to as “pirates” (the US) and “puppets” (the GVN).

As we well knew, going into the peace talks.

If we really want to guarantee the safety of people who worked with us in Afghanistan–especially with this new president–we’ll need to get ready for an indefinite occupation (Nixon had used the same word to Thieu, btw).