Editor’s note: A video excerpt of McGovern’s comments can be found below this article; the complete salon video, and a full transcript, can be found here.
George McGovern has some advice for President Barack Obama: Get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.
“I’m convinced that war is going to turn sour. I’m convinced we’re not going to prevail there,” McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, said Sunday at a Truthdig event in West Los Angeles.
The former U.S. senator from South Dakota noted that “some of the best reporters over there are telling us that the Taliban are getting stronger and we’re getting weaker in the minds of the people, and that you have a corrupt government involved in drugs, involved in just plain old-fashioned stealing and corruption. It’s a lousy government, and it’s very difficult, even for a great country like [the U.S.], to make them look good. So I think we have every reason to withdraw.”
McGovern’s comments came on the heels of a New York Times report that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, on the CIA payroll for nearly eight years, is suspected by many top American officials of being involved in that country’s lucrative and illicit opium trade. President Karzai himself drew criticism after the United Nations declared one-third of his votes in his Aug. 20 re-election to be fraudulent, forcing a runoff with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Karzai’s rival eventually withdrew, saying the runoff would not be any less rigged. The vote was canceled and Karzai was officially declared the winner Monday.
Against this backdrop, and with October the deadliest month yet for U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan with 55 killed, Obama has put off a decision on whether to send thousands more troops to that country as requested by the top U.S. commander there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
McGovern said Sunday he did not want to see Obama head down the path of Democrat Lyndon Johnson, for whom another quagmire, the Vietnam War, spelled the end to his presidency. McGovern, who won the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism during World War II, noted he was the first member to oppose the Vietnam War on the floor of the Senate.
A historian, McGovern said he would remind Obama that foreign powers have been trying unsuccessfully to prevail in Afghanistan “ever since Alexander the Great. Genghis Khan even made a shot at it. The British throughout the 19th century were in there several times trying to pacify the [country] and finally gave up. The Russians were there for 11 years, 1979 until 1990, they put in 100,000 crack soldiers, 25,000 of them killed ... in Afghanistan, another 25,000 crippled or injured. And the Russian treasury went broke, and some of our best Soviet experts believe that’s what really led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
Asked how he would get out of Afghanistan if he were president, McGovern said: “I would say to the Afghan people that ‘we’ve been here for eight years, and we’ve come to the conclusion we can’t resolve your problems. You’ve got the Taliban, you may have al-Qaida, but—our soldiers have fought, died bravely—but it’s my conclusion, as president of the United States, that we can’t resolve the problems here. We’ll do what we can to help you, but we can’t do it with our military forces. As a matter of fact, while we’ve been here, the Taliban have grown stronger, and we don’t know where al-Qaida is—we think they’re in Pakistan—but having our troops in Afghanistan is not going to help that. So it’s our judgment that the best thing for us, and maybe for you, is for you to take over the handling of your own problems.”
Despite his belief that Afghanistan can be “a danger” to Obama, McGovern, who was in Los Angeles to promote his new biography, “Abraham Lincoln,” believes the domestic issues of health care and the economy will be of greatest consequence to Obama’s future. Critical that Obama “started with a compromise proposal” that came out of Congress as a 2,000-page document, McGovern said, “I would have just had a one-sentence bill: ‘Congress hereby extends Medicare to all Americans.’ Period.” However, he acknowledged that “If he could somehow get through even a compromise national health insurance bill, I think that’s the kind of thing that gets presidents re-elected. We don’t know at this stage what’s going to happen on national health care, but every politician I talk with says that’s the key issue. ... It doesn’t seem to make much difference whether it’s a conservative state or a liberal state, there’s strong support for national health care. So I think it was wise for the president to begin with that on the domestic front.”
Regarding the economy, McGovern confessed “my ignorance on high finance” but praised Obama’s stimulus program and said he believed the economy would turn around “in the next two or three years. ... And that’s going to work favorably in terms of the re-election of the president. If people are doing reasonably well economically, it’s hard to defeat an incumbent president. So no matter what the fallout might be, good or bad, on Afghanistan, I don’t think that is going to be as important as these two matters I’ve just mentioned, in terms of him getting re-elected. I don’t see the move on Afghanistan as a way to get elected, but I see ... the course that I recommended as a way of avoiding defeat.”