Vietnam, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq

A no-fly zone in Libya seems right to me though we already know that some will use it for renewed anti-American rhetoric. To maximize the good will and minimize the risks, we will need to get out quickly.

Responding to 9/11 against the Taliban seemed necessary. But we don’t seem to know how to get out. Getting into Iraq was clearly a mistake, but there too we seem pinned down, hardly able to disengage.

Part of our problem is the lingering dispute over Vietnam. I presume lots of you were hawks at the time and lots were doves. I don’t know what would have happened if we’d poured more resources into that war. But some issues are clearer.

We were afraid that free states in southeast Asia would fall like dominoes if Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese. Of course that didn’t happen. We were afraid the North Vietnamese would destabilize the region. Instead they helped stop the killing fields in Cambodia. And Vietnam is now an active U.S. trading partner. They spent some thirty years after World War II fighting for their independence. Now they have a seat at the international table. And it’s OK.

So despite the costs of war, which are enormous, the stakes of war are sometimes very small.

Afghanistan and Iraq are not Vietnam. We can’t know whether they will look for a constructive relationship like Vietnam, or continue fighting like Hezbollah and Hamas. But the news is grim in Afghanistan. The Pakistani Army had treated the Taliban as a client. Now the client is biting back. Democratically elected leaders in Pakistan are being murdered. The fighting threatens to tear Pakistan apart from the inside.

We’ve already invested a decade of American treasure – our soldiers, men and women killed, blown to bits, condemned to live with nightmares, flashbacks and anguish or had their families come apart because of the stress. Back home we fight each other over the crumbs left under the table by the enormous financial cost of the Afghan and Iraq wars.

We’ve inflicted a lot of damage for the grief they caused us on 9/11. But our continued fighting is not sending a message about how powerful we are; it’s not sending a message about how much we benefit them; it’s not sending a warning to the Taliban or al Qaeda.

Sometimes total victory even if it is attainable is not nearly worth the cost.

In World War II, virtually our entire country mobilized to fight. Quite properly neither Bush nor Obama has demanded that toward Iraq and Afghanistan. But we are pinned down, hindered in dealing with crises emerging while the great U.S. power looks the other way.

Americans have to stop assuming that no task is too big. That’s nonsense no matter how powerful one is. We have other chores to do, other fences to mend and dykes to build – tasks now too big because we’re investing everything in two wars that won’t be won. Even if we pacify those countries, the damage to the regions will also be at our expense.

It’s time to get out. Time to stop the killing. Time to stop eating each other with recriminations over budgets that were driven by those wars. Time to show the strength and the maturity to gauge realistically what we can do and stop trying to act as if we alone of human societies don’t understand limits.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 21, 2011.

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