[sixties-l] Arthur Schlesinger: Are we trapped in another Vietnam? (fwd)

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Date: Sun Nov 04 2001 - 18:56:19 EST

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    Date: Sun, 04 Nov 2001 13:26:02 -0800
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: Arthur Schlesinger: Are we trapped in another Vietnam?

    Arthur Schlesinger: Are we trapped in another Vietnam?


    'Our leaders gambled that the unpopularity of the regime would enable
    bombing to bring about the Taliban's rapid collapse'

    November 2, 2001

    The national mood in the United States today is one of apprehension -
    apprehension over the military stalemate in Afghanistan; apprehension over
    the anthrax eruption in America; apprehension, as yet incipient but
    nevertheless visible, over the competence of our national leadership. As
    Senator Robert Graham of Florida, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence
    Committee, put it this week: "The American people are already at a high
    state of anxiety.''

    I would emphasise apprehension and anxiety; not panic or hysteria or
    despair, and certainly not disunity over the administration's objectives --
    the punishment of Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida and the campaign to stop
    international terrorism. On this, nearly all Americans are agreed.
    Apprehension and anxiety spring rather from the fact that the 11 September
    outrages have created a sense of personal vulnerability previously unknown
    to most Americans.

    Even Pearl Harbor, though far more consequential in most ways than the
    attack on the World Trade Centre, did not produce comparable feelings of
    personal vulnerability. After all, we knew on 7 December 1941 who the enemy
    was; the attack took place on a remote island in the mid-Pacific; the
    target was American naval power, not civilians going about their daily
    business. Today the enemy is in the shadows; he strikes in cities well
    known to every American; and he turns the most familiar conveniences, the
    airplane and the letter, into vicious weapons - and ordinary people are the

    As Vice-President Dick Cheney has observed, this may be the only foreign
    war in US history in which more Americans will be killed at home than
    abroad. Already almost a tenth of the Americans killed in 10 years in
    Vietnam were killed in New York on a single day.

    Meanwhile the popular expectation of a knockout blow against the Taliban
    has been cruelly disappointed. Remember the optimistic remarks a couple of
    weeks back about the way American bombs were eviscerating the enemy? This
    has given way to sombre comment about the Taliban's dogged resistance.
    Evidently our leaders gambled on the supposition that the unpopularity of
    the regime would mean the bombing would bring about the Taliban's rapid
    collapse. And they also seem to have assumed that it would not be too
    difficult to put together a post-Taliban government.

    This was a series of misjudgements. The Joint Chiefs may have been misled
    by the apparent success - now that Milosevic has been defeated - of the
    bombing campaign in Kosovo. Perhaps they should have reflected on Vietnam.
    We dropped more tons of explosives on that hapless country than we dropped
    on all fronts during the Second World War, and still we could not stop the
    Vietcong. Vietnam should have reminded our generals that bombing has only a
    limited impact on decentralised, undeveloped, rural societies.

    Bombing has potent appeal to any American administration because it
    minimises American casualties. But bombs also kill enemy civilians.
    Civilian deaths are mobilising pro-bin Laden volunteers throughout the
    Moslem world. The trick we have not yet learned is how to fight terrorism
    without creating new terrorists.

    So now, with air power failing to achieve the expected result, we gloomily
    contemplate turning loose the Northern Alliance, a dubious collection of
    tribesmen, opportunists and mercenaries, backed by the Russians and
    detested by the Pushtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, and by
    Pakistan, a crucial ally.

    If the Northern Alliance fails to overthrow the Taliban, we may have to
    send in our own ground forces. Do we do that next month in face of the grim
    Afghan winter, Moslem religious holidays and unexploded land mines? Or do
    we wait for spring? In any event, a quagmire looms ahead. As for the
    post-Taliban regime, this has vanished into a gruesome tangle of tribal
    feuds and rivalries.

    The American military's conflicting accounts of Afghanistan have inflicted
    "collateral damage'' by losing the Joint Chiefs a lot of credibility.
    Contradictory accounts of perils on the home front have wrought the same
    collateral damage. Nearly every day newspapers carry stories about new and
    mysterious instances of anthrax poisoning. Behind anthrax looms the spectre
    of smallpox, which, unlike anthrax poisoning, is contagious. Since smallpox
    was supposedly beaten a quarter of a century ago, very few people today
    have active vaccinations, and smallpox vaccine is in very short supply. If
    terrorists can find ways of unleashing a smallpox plague, it might be like
    the Black Death, which ravaged Europe in the 14th century.

    One can hardly blame the administration for not foreseeing such problems.
    Few among us foresaw them. But official reactions have been discordant and
    confusing. Did the poisoned letter sent to Senator Tom Daschle, the
    Senate's majority leader, contain low-grade or high-grade anthrax? We were
    told one thing one day; another thing, another day. The impression given is
    of a group of public servants who are rattled and out of their depth, and
    of an administration in disarray. Official exhortations to behave normally,
    and at at the same time to report every suspicious circumstance to the
    authorities at once, confuse people. The Attorney General's warnings that a
    new terrorist outrage is just around the corner have the air of CYA (cover
    your ass) documents. The Attorney General also runs the risk that was sadly
    discovered by the boy who cried wolf.

    All of this raises questions about the competence of our national
    leadership. At the start, the Bush administration responded effectively and
    well to the terrorist attack. Seven weeks later, miscalculations abound on
    both the foreign and domestic front, and the flow of information to press
    and people is jagged and inadequate. The President calls for sacrifice,
    but, when queried, only gives the example of the increased waiting time in
    airport lines - an inconvenience, but hardly a sacrifice.

    The Bush pre-crisis domestic agenda claims new sanctions in the war against
    terrorism. The other day, the House of Representatives passed, by a
    two-vote margin, by a two-vote margin a tax bill that primarily benefits
    the wealthiest one per cent of taxpayers. As Time magazine, hardly a
    left-wing organ, puts it: "Nearly three-quarters of the $100bn tab would go
    toward corporate tax breaks." Some sacrifice! Corporate giveaways will
    enable the rich to equip themselves, as many have already done, with
    gasmasks, Cipro and protective clothing. Meanwhile unemployment increases,
    and sacrifice is apparently to be made by those least capable of bearing it.

    But those least able to bear it continue to show great pluck, fortitude and
    resolve - the firemen and policemen of 11 September, the postal workers and
    office envelope-openers of the age of anthrax, the young men and women in
    service in the Middle East or volunteering for the armed forces.

    The great debate within the Bush administration is between those who want
    to confine military action to Afghanistan and those who seek a wider war,
    especially against Iraq. The struggle for the presidential soul is between
    Tony Blair, Colin Powell and, perhaps, President Bush the elder, versus a
    gang of armchair hawks led by Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of
    Defence, and Richard Perle of the White House. The eventual decision is up
    to Bush the younger.

    President Bush has had his share of bloopers, but so did President Kennedy
    when he stumbled into the Bay of Pigs. The question is whether one can
    learn from mistakes. Kennedy learned from the Bay of Pigs, and, after the
    Cuban missile crisis, Robert A Lovett, Truman's secretary of defence and
    one of the American wise men in the early postwar years, said to Robert
    Kennedy, "Good judgement is usually the result of experience. And
    experience is frequently the result of bad judgement.''
    The writer is a Pulitzer prize-winning US political historian

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