Friday, August 7, 2009

General McChrystal Consults Historian about Vietnam War

The AP reports that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who's commanding US military operations in Afghanistan, recently called Stanley Karnow to consult with him about the Vietnam War and possible parallels with the current situation in Afghanistan. Seems that it was Richard Holbrooke (who knew Karnow in the Vietnam days when Holbrooke was a junior diplomat and Karnow was a reporter) put them in touch (actually, made the call and then handed the phone to the general). Karnow is a recipient of the Pultizer Prize, and his book on the history of the Vietnam War is highly regarded.

Especially heartening though is that Karnow feels strongly that both wars were big mistakes:

Holbrooke confirmed to The Associated Press that the three men discussed similarities between the two wars. "We discussed the two situations and what to do," he said during a visit last week to NATO headquarters in Brussels.

In an interview Thursday with the AP, Karnow said it was the first time he had ever been consulted by U.S. commanders to discuss the war. He did not elaborate on the specifics of the conversation.

When asked what could be drawn from the Vietnam experience, Karnow replied: "What did we learn from Vietnam? We learned that we shouldn't have been there in the first place. Obama and everybody else seem to want to be in Afghanistan, but not I."

"It now seems unthinkable that the U.S. could lose (in Afghanistan), but that's what experts ... thought in Vietnam in 1967," he said at his Maryland home. "It could be that there will be no real conclusion and that it will go on for a long time until the American public grows tired of it."

Karnow's views on all this were likely well known to Holbrooke before he made the call. This stands, of course, in very sharp contrast to the Bush administration's approach to the impending invasion of Iraq, when they cherry-picked historians like Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami - both of them believers in the irredeemable backwardness of the Arab world and the responsibility of Western powers to go in and "fix" things - to lend some intellectual heft to their maneuvering. And again in sharp contrast, the Obama administration in general has shown great willingness to consult with historians like Samantha Power and Robert Malley (even if the pro-Israel lobby has forced them to do so unobtrusively), who have a deep knowledge of the complexities of Middle Eastern history and culture and an ability to craft policy recommendations without the presumption of Western triumphalism or US exceptionalism.

If Bush and his gang had had the wisdom to consult such people 8 years ago, in the wake of 9-11, and to have acted on their recommendations . . . I can only imagine how different things might have been since then.

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