As America struggles with a poorly-understood continuing decline of its economy and tries to find a path for an affordable health care system that serves all, it is ironic that we find ourselves with a self-confident, well-educated Democratic President who chooses to follow a losing economic and defense strategy begun by his predecessor, a self-confident, well-educated Republican President.
This strategy was demonstrated to be a loser by another Democratic President, Lyndon Johnson, who was surrounded by well-meaning, well-educated advisers left over from a self-confident, well-educated predecessor. The Johnson Administration's Vietnam policies proved that "guns and butter" cannot work when America commits to a protracted "limited" war with unclear goals in a distant location such as the one in Afghanistan.
To begin with, it is clearly asking too much of the troops on the ground to accept a commitment that says "we'll give you what you need within the context of making economic choices between domestic and war goals." In Afghanistan we now pursue a "limited" war with eerie parallels to Vietnam:
- American soldiers seek to engage an elusive enemy in difficult terrain.
- The enemy hides in plain sight in the villages.
- The enemy has sanctuary across an international border.
- The population has successfully challenged an occupying army in the recent past and has a long history of defeating foreign armies.
- Casualties among the civilian population fuels resentment creating more enemies.
- Corruption pervades the national government America backs in a country that has no experience in complex democracy and in which the population adheres to a strong ideology.
While we put our troops in harms way, we seem to think we can maintain an unrestricted consumer economy supported by debt, both government and private. When will we learn that war doesn't work that way? When will America learn?
If American troops are going to war for more than 30 days, a declaration of war from Congress is the necessary and only appropriate legal step. When such a declaration is made, we agree to the obligation that every citizen to sacrifice. We are saying "draft everyone's kids and send them off to kill and be killed." We are saying "do whatever needs to be done to win at whatever risk to our well-being is involved." We are saying "we'll quite buying iPhones and new clothes and new cars" as we have to put all our economic resources into supporting the war effort. We are saying all this because we believe a war necessary to defend our nation from danger.
Instead, we have repeatedly engaged in "limited" wars. This means that we don't debate whether what we are doing is necessary to defend our nation. This means we don't do what we need to do to win and leave, setting up restrictive engagement rules that get our troops killed. This means that we send someone else's kids to war while we continue to consume the expensive butter that does only make us fat.
Did we have a military goal in Afghanistan? Capturing or killing Osama bin Laden is not a proper military goal, its childish vengeance. Wars are between nations. Disrupting al-Qaeda through military action taken against the Afghan government was a proper military goal. We did that in the first few months. Turning Afghanistan into a Western democracy also is not a proper military goal.
We've been at this in Afghanistan now for eight years, long after we deposed the Taliban government and disrupted al-Qaeda there. All we've done by staying is to make Pakistan more dangerous. All we needed to do was make a statement that warned all other nations that harboring terrorists came with high risks.
Pundits and bloggers on the right and the left are starting to create a noticeable noise about this war. They're correct to do so. Let's take a major step in solving our deficit problem by declaring victory in Afghanistan and systematically removing our troops from harms way there. And let's don't wait until we have years of "peace now" demonstrations in our streets and accumulate much more debt to fight this war to attempt to achieve losing goals.
Finally, let's stop getting ourselves into protracted "limited wars" thinking we can maintain a "guns and butter" economy at home. If in the future we think a war is necessary, let's send the entire nation to war, achieve a defined military objective, and return to peacetime.