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Presidential decision-making about Vietnam and Afghanistan: “You have 3 choices, sir”

5 October 2010

Summary:  More similarities between the Vietnam and Af-Pak Wars.  These wars are different in almost every way.  The only common element:  us.  We’re using the same flawed decision-making process — making similar mistakes.

Consequently, IASF requires more forces. … The greater resources will not be sufficient to achieve success, but will enable implementation of the new strategy. Conversely, inadequate resources will likely result in failure. However, without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced.
—  From page 2-20 of General McChrystal’s Initial Commander’s Assessment of the Af-Pak War, dated 30 August 2009

Woodward quotes Petraeus as saying, “You have to recognize also that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It’s a little bit like Iraq, actually. . . . Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”
— “Bob Woodward book details Obama battles with advisers over exit plan for Afghan war“, Washington Post, 21 September 2010

How do  civilian decision-makers approve escalation after escalation, until public suport for a war collapsed?  Below are two explanations.  One from one of our top historical analysts.  The second from The Simpsons Movie.

(1)  Modern American history consists of repeated mistakes

Daniel Ellsberg explains how this happens in The Quagmire Myth and the Stalemate Machine (an excerpt from How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan?):

In the light of the internal documentation in the Pentagon Papers, it appears that the pattern of Presidential choice described above for 1961 applies virtually across-the-board to major presidential initiatives on Vietnam over the last 2 decades … No more than in 1961 were any of the measures of increased involvement that a President actually adopted described to him by officials as being adequate “last steps”, or indeed, as anything but holding actions, adequate to avoid defeat in the short run but long shots so far as ultimate success was concerned.

… Even in the Phase A {of crisis and deception} years of decision, analyses were not devoid of optimism; on the contrary, it was typical that certain approaches were presented by their proponents as winning strategies; but these were never the options chosen.

… But it was not only the military who told each President that what he had chosen would, at best, restore a violent stalemate. that was, regularly, also the gist of the National Intelligence Estimates (which also said much the same for the more violent or costly measures that the military proposed as well … and it was also the view of those, mainly in State, who believed that a different political strategy was essential.

To summarize Ellsberg’s subtle analysis (of which this is just a fragment), Presidents receive 3 proposals.  Generals say the first will produce victory, but the costs will be great and selling it to the public too difficult.  The third risks defeat — even worse, defeat before the next election.  So the middle course, a compromise, gets chosen.  Ellsberg continues:

… successful politicians are likely to exhibit these same traits for temperamental reasons as well. A strong focus on the short run, a hopeful attitude toward the future, a tendency to put off painful decisions in the hope, and with some confidence, that something will turn up to make the decision either unnecessary or easier…

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. memorably described this dynamic in “Eyeless in Indochina“, New York Review of Books, 21 October 1971:

Immersion in the Pentagon Papers had persuaded me that I was mistaken in the suggestion that the escalatory steps actually taken by Presidents were accompanied by promises that these particular steps would bring victory or would be the last steps necessary. No President ever escalated enough to satisfy the military, who always complained about civilian restrictions on military action and kept insisting that they be allowed to bomb, shoot, and drown more and more Vietnamese.

Other sources of information about this aspect of the Vietnam War:

(2)  The Simpsons Movie

This is an update, suggested by a reader.  From The Simpsons Movie.

Secretary Cargill:  Don’t worry sir, I have a solution for you. In fact, I have five solutions. [lays out 5 files again] You don’t even have to read them! You’ll have deniability. I’ll take care of everything, you know nothing!
[Pause]
President Schwarzenegger:  No! I need to know what I’m approving! [reaches for Number 3]
Cargill:  True, sir. But then again, knowing things is overrated. Anyone can pick something when they know what it is. It takes real leadership to pick something you’re clueless about!
President Schwarzenegger:  Okay, I pick three.
Cargill:  Try again.
President Schwarzenegger:  One?
Cargill:  Go higher.
President Schwarzenegger:  Five?
Cargill:  Too high.
President Schwarzenegger:  Three?
Cargill:  You already said three.
President Schwarzenegger:  Six?
Cargill:  There is no six.
President Schwarzenegger:  Two?
Cargill:  Double it.
President Schwarzenegger:  Four!
Cargill:  As you wish, sir.

Other posts about the Af-Pak War

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