From Defeat, Lessons in Victory

President Obama recently told Congressional leaders something many of them did not want to hear. It was time to “dispense with the straw man argument that this is about either doubling down or leaving Afghanistan,” he is said to have declared, frustrating those on both sides of the aisle who have sought to portray the choices in Afghanistan as just such a simplistic dichotomy.

While the president continues to analyze his military options with senior advisers, some parameters of his new strategy for Afghanistan have begun to emerge. It is likely that there will be no big reduction in troops, but there may not be a significant increase, either. The priority most likely will be to destroy Al Qaeda’s leadership and support systems in Pakistan; fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan would be of less importance.

Particularly notable, there appears to be uncertain White House support for the ambitions of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, who has asked for 40,000 to 60,000 more troops and passionately argued that the military objective be the expansive one of “shielding” the Afghan people “from all threats.”

The emerging picture is of a commander in chief trying to chart a middle way through one of the most complex challenges of his young presidency. If so, instructive lessons can be found in the contrasting ways two of his predecessors, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, navigated a perilous way ahead in Vietnam.

Kennedy’s Vietnam strategy was informed by a pair of harrowing foreign policy crises in 1961 that sobered him to his responsibilities as commander in chief. The botched Bay of Pigs invasion was a humiliation that Kennedy believed would have driven him from office if he had been a British prime minister. He vowed never again to be “overawed by professional military advice.”

That same year, Kennedy was shocked by the half-baked recommendation of his generals to use tactical nuclear weapons against the Communist Pathet Lao movement in Laos, a proposal he decisively dismissed.

In this context, Kennedy was deeply skeptical when his most senior advisers argued in the fall of 1961 that only substantial numbers of American forces could prevent the government of South Vietnam from collapsing. Kennedy nonetheless rejected the deployment of combat troops. But he also rejected the notion of abandoning Saigon. Instead, he chose to chart a middle course.

Kennedy favored a strategy of arming and reinforcing the South Vietnamese Army, and of teaching them new counterinsurgency tactics. He increased the number of military advisers assigned to Saigon but maintained a ceiling of about 16,000 men.

By October 1963, operations were deemed sufficiently successful for the White House to announce the withdrawal of 1,000 advisers and its expectation that the advisory mission would be concluded by the end of 1965. At the time of Kennedy’s assassination the following month, the Pentagon had recorded only 108 American military personnel killed.

Lyndon Johnson maintained Kennedy’s middle way until after his huge presidential victory in 1964, which gave him new latitude. He was also confronted in January 1965 with the most dire assessment yet of America’s prospects in Vietnam, delivered by two of his most influential counselors, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy. In what came to be known as the “fork in the road” memo, they insisted that the United States was on a “disastrous” losing course in Vietnam.

Combat forces soon poured in, approved and progressively enlarged with staggering speed. An initial deployment in March of 3,500 Marines grew to 33,500 and then to a force of 82,000, approved by late April. On June 7, the top American general in Vietnam, William Westmoreland, asked for an immediate increase of 41,000 combat troops, to be followed by 52,000 later. In all, he wanted a combined command of 175,000 soldiers, equivalent to 44 battalions “to give us a substantial and hard-hitting offensive capability on the ground to convince” the Vietnamese insurgent forces “they cannot win.”

What followed in July was a White House exercise in political stagecraft. Johnson wanted to appear deliberative but never seriously considered the “middle way” option proposed by William Bundy, an assistant secretary of state and the brother of the national security adviser, who called for a force of half the size recommended by Westmoreland.

Johnson, a consummate dealmaker, approached the problem as a political tactician rather than a strategist, seeking to approve the smallest troop increase possible that would maintain a consensus among his military commanders and civilian advisers. He concluded that the correct minimal number was precisely what General Westmoreland had proposed.

On July 17, Johnson communicated his approval of the 44-battalion force in a confidential cable to Saigon. Four days later he met with his war council in the cabinet to “debate” a decision that had been determined but not disclosed. Johnson and his advisers engaged in a deliberation over a number, not a rigorous evaluation of a strategy or its realistic prospects for success. It was another step on the way to disaster.

There are four lessons from these presidential decisions that remain relevant to Afghanistan today:

Counselors advise but presidents decide: Kennedy’s ability to execute a middle way in Vietnam led him to reject military strategies he did not find plausible or persuasive. It is the president as commander in chief who must rigorously evaluate and define strategy, not the commander in the field.

Politics is the enemy of strategy: In a polarized political environment, some constituencies will necessarily be left dissatisfied. Kennedy chose to antagonize the hawks in his administration. Johnson chose to antagonize the doves. Presidents should pick the loser in the debate on strategic grounds, disallowing politics from clouding military decisions.

Command the generals: A president does not benefit from public disagreements with the military, but his position may be worse if he backs down. Kennedy’s generals in 1961 tried, and failed, to box him in by publicly leaking their proposals to the press. Johnson, in contrast, was so fixated with avoiding a public rift with Westmoreland that he subverted the deliberative process. Dissent should be encouraged in debates about strategy but articulated privately.

Never deploy military means in pursuit of indeterminate ends: Westmoreland advocated a strategy of coercion in Vietnam in which American forces would inflict such disproportionate costs on the Communist insurgency that its leadership would eventually capitulate. That outcome never came close to occurring. Military force is the wrong instrument for achieving imprecise objectives based on unrealistic goals.

President Obama has already been challenged by the public release of General McChrystal’s recommendations, and his stated position on troop levels has angered those on the right who seek a major escalation and those on the left who advocate a rapid withdrawal.

If Mr. Obama seeks to engineer a middle way in Afghanistan, he can do so most effectively if he applies control and resolve mixed with realism and rigor — and if he absorbs the lessons, for better or worse, of his predecessors in Vietnam.

Gordon M. Goldstein, the author of Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam.