---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 04 Nov 2001 13:26:02 -0800
From: radtimes <email@example.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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