As the director of the Pentagon Papers project, and as one of the very few actually to have read all the roughly 7,000 pages, I'm fed up with the recent commentary about it, and how it compares to the WikiLeaks disclosures.
Let me get right to the particular irritant.
Sure the Pentagon Papers tell us a lot about the evolution of America's involvement in Vietnam, but they don't tell us the most important point about President Johnson's thinking on the war. In several taped phone calls now public, he confided this tragic bombshell: "I can't win, and I can't get out." He was trapped between his awareness that victory was impossible at any reasonable price, and his fear that losing would be catastrophic for the United States... and himself. LBJ was stuck, and so was the United States.
The 36 authors of the papers and I were not aware that Mr. Johnson said anything like this. We did not have access to White House documents, and we did no interviews anywhere in the government. We simply worked from secret documents (plus a few books and newspapers). I made that severe limitation of sources crystal clear in my letter of transmittal to the then-Defense Secretary Clark Clifford and to his predecessor Robert McNamara, who had launched the project. Commentators over the last 40 years have consistently ignored this significant limitation.
So, what was so profound about saying, "I can't win, and I can't get out"? Well, it summed up the trap President Johnson was caught in then—and pretty much captures President Obama's dilemma today. The truth of the matter was that neither LBJ nor his predecessors, nor his successor President Nixon, were actually trying to win. They all understood pretty well that the force they were applying would not be sufficient to overcome a highly motivated North Vietnam and their Viet Minh allies in South Vietnam. They had the force of nationalism on their side, and the South had the noose of corruption and inefficiency around its neck. Sound familiar? Not exact, to be sure, but familiar?
Thus, what the presidents were all seeking was not really to win, but to avoid losing. Why? Because they all believed that American security hung in the balance in Vietnam. They believed it was a war of necessity. Indeed, all presidents say when they commence wars that they are necessary. They never say they are doing so out of "mere choice." Almost all government officials, and almost all foreign-policy experts, believed that Vietnam represented the cockpit of competition between communism and the free world—between the Soviet Union and China on the one hand, and the U.S. on the other. They also believed in the domino theory, namely that if Vietnam fell to communism, so would most of Asia and perhaps areas beyond that.
By the end of Johnson's tenure, there were defectors from this consensus. But it's critical to realize that these defectors and other opposition came slowly—very slowly. And it is equally critical to realize that Obama and most American foreign-policy experts and politicians rejoiced when the United States attacked Afghanistan and throttled the Taliban government there that had given safe harbor to the very al Qaeda chieftains who had ordered the 9/11 massacre. It was seen as a war against international terrorism, a war that had to be won to prevent further massacres. Almost the whole American nation believed then, and many still believe now, that the fight against international terrorism has to be won—and won in Afghanistan.
Though President Obama himself and General Petraeus, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, still call for victory there, it is probably true that Obama and maybe even the general have come to LBJ's conclusion: "I can't win, and I can't get out."
Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were no fools. In time, at least, they came to know they could not win. They understood well the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. They knew that even if they escalated, the other side could find a way to respond effectively and create a new stalemate at a higher level of cost to all. They knew that when all was said and done, the North Vietnamese lived there. Obama and his top aides know the same thing. But like all their predecessors, they are determined not to lose.
President Nixon and Henry Kissinger found a way "not to lose" and to withdraw. They did it far too slowly and at great cost, but they did it. They gradually drew down U.S. forces from their high of 550,000 over four years. Democratic Congresses foolishly made this process more difficult by cutting off funds for the air war and later military aid for South Vietnam. The withdrawals continued and gave time for the South Vietnamese to ready themselves to fight on their own. Many in the South Vietnamese armed forces fought well, but not enough to overcome the basic deficiencies in their own government.
Equally vital in the Nixon-Kissinger strategy was that they drowned the expected costly effects of withdrawal and even possible defeat in Vietnam in a sea of brilliant diplomatic power: the opening to China, the staging of triangular diplomacy with China and the Soviet Union with the United States as the pivot, the great Middle East agreement that paved the way for peace between Israel and Egypt, and the push to reestablish American credibility throughout the rest of Asia. World leaders soon forgot the ill effects of Vietnam, and soon recognized, once again, the unique power and position of the United States.
President Obama can do as much. U.S. withdrawal should begin in July 2011, as promised—and go down to 15,000 or so over, say, two years. This would leave a residual force to train Afghan forces and provide them with logistical and intelligence support. Further firepower and commando capabilities should be readied to deal with international terrorist threats that will pop up. All this adds up to a powerful deterrent capability.
He should then underline America's continuing commitment to Afghans ready to fight terrorists by instituting a plan to provide economic and military aid. In particular, funds and arms should be directed to the tribal leaders and warlords willing to fight the terrorists—and support should be given to efforts to divide Taliban leadership and attract Taliban fighters away from their cause.
Then, he needs to build a containment policy against the Taliban with Afghan's neighbors. This includes Russia, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and yes, Iran (which helped us in the beginning of the war). All share strong interests in preventing the spread of Taliban influence and curtailing the drug trade.
Like President Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Obama and his team can drown the aftereffects of Afghanistan in powerful diplomacy and continued, focused commitment to Afghans. In these ways, he can both continue to protect against terrorism in Afghanistan and start strengthening efforts against the new homes for terrorists—in Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and in American cities.
This approach is not a cop out. It is a way to redefine victory. It was done in Vietnam. And people forget that the president of Vietnam visited George W. Bush in the White House during his last year in office. People hardly noticed that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just visited there. People hardly noticed that Vietnam now looks to the United States as a protector against China.
If President Obama is also creative in the use of America's power, we can mostly withdraw from Afghanistan—and not lose.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.