There was much disappointment on Tuesday night about Barack Obama’s decision to widen the war in Afghanistan, but there can have been no real surprise. This was not a detached decision on foreign or military policy. It was a matter of domestic politics.

Mr. Obama was elected to the presidency after making a promise that he would fight the “right war” in Afghanistan while shutting down the “wrong war” in Iraq. Once elected, he could scarcely say that he had made a mistake and discovered that they were both the wrong wars, and he was shutting them both down. There is in any case no reason to think that he had reached such a conclusion.

No doubt it was on the recommendations of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Central Command Commander Gen. David Petraeus that he named Gen. Stanley McChrystal to the Afghanistan command and sent him to Kabul to assess the situation. Immediately upon the general’s return, his report was leaked, quoting him as saying that he required another 40,000 troops — or else he could not guarantee victory. (He said the day after Mr. Obama’s speech on Dec. 1 that the promised reinforcement would be “sufficient.”)

The newly elected president, wholly lacking military experience, preoccupied by the world economic crisis and his plans for health reform, found himself exactly where the dominant faction in the Pentagon, which enjoys the support of a neo-conservatism risen from its tomb, had wanted to place him.

For them, Afghanistan is not only the war at hand but offers an opportunity for retroactive vindication with respect to the Vietnam War. Many in the military and among civilian commentators believe that the Vietnam defeat resulted from a “stab in the back” by the press and television of the 1960s-1970s, a frightened Congress, and by the Nixon administration, which negotiated a cease-fire agreement with Hanoi at the moment when, in these critics’ view, an American victory had become possible. Their formula, scarcely a novelty, was (and is) to shock the enemy with a “surge” of new forces, and then to clear the region of guerrillas, and hold it with local forces against the insurgents’ return.

Today, the principal proponents of this view, Gens. Petraeus and McChrystal, and the Australian Pentagon theorist, David Kilcullen, are the military men of the hour. Buoyed by the thus-far successful surge in Iraq, and the apparent gain for America of a permanent strategic base in that country, they are now ready to deliver a military victory that would create a pacified and reconstructed Afghanistan, and — why not? — a reformed Pakistan.

That they can do so is, in this writer’s view, open to doubt. But they now have been given their chance.

What they perhaps do not fully appreciate is that by giving them all that they have asked for, the president has caused them in turn to deliver themselves into his hands. They have to succeed.

But suppose the military campaign does not go well? Suppose that U.S. troops do not begin coming home from Afghanistan in 2011?

Suppose that Gen. McChrystal finds it necessary in 2010 or 2011 to ask for reinforcements?

Suppose — and this is the most ominous possibility — the war has caused crisis or political collapse in Pakistan? Suppose that India has become involved, as quite possibly could happen, bringing a regional crisis?

During the last 10 months, Barack Obama has been in roughly the position Lyndon Johnson found himself in following the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963. Johnson had a huge agenda of social reforms, including his civil-rights legislation, with which he intended to assure himself a place in history alongside that of Franklin Roosevelt.

He feared that if he refused combat intervention in Vietnam, as a country politician from Texas, vulgar and populist in instincts, he would be savaged for his foreign-policy “cowardice” and lack of sophistication by the “Harvard crowd” who dominated the foreign-policy establishment. This fear was justified. He was told that he had to save the nation’s honor. The staff he had inherited from Kennedy finally convinced him that he had to send new troops to Vietnam and escalate the war. The outcome is known.

Johnson, disheartened, in 1968 declined to run for reelection. He died of a heart attack in 1973. Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, and further escalated the war, invading Cambodia. The outcome of that is well known too.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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