That’s a streetcar you hear approaching, similar to the one that President Lyndon Johnson hopped aboard a half-century ago when he plunged headlong into the Vietnam War.
Fifty years ago this week, Viet Cong guerrillas assaulted a US military compound at Pleiku in South Vietnam’s central highlands, killing eight Americans and wounding more than one hundred, while destroying several aircraft. Trivial in comparison to all that was to follow, the incident triggered a dramatic shift in US policy. Within hours, Johnson ordered retaliatory strikes against North Vietnam. Within weeks, raids gave way to a sustained bombing campaign, as US combat troops began deploying to South Vietnam to protect American air bases. Within months, those troops, arriving in ever-greater numbers, had commenced offensive operations aimed at defeating the Communist insurgency.
Rather than causal, Pleiku’s contribution to this sequence of events was catalytic. It converted predisposition into decision, inclination into action. “Pleikus are like streetcars,” remarked McGeorge Bundy, LBJ’s national security adviser. Wait awhile and one is sure to come along, carrying you to its predetermined destination.
Visiting Saigon at the time of the attack, Bundy had immediately flown up to Pleiku to survey the damage. In a memo to the president drafted the next day while returning to Washington, he described existing US efforts in Vietnam as “surrender on the installment plan.” Bundy urged a major escalation. The president needed little persuading.
Are we approaching another Pleiku moment? Last year, the Obama administration renewed the US military commitment to a faux country (like South Vietnam) that is fighting for its survival. In place of Communism, radical Islam poses today’s threat. In place of North Vietnam, ISIS is the immediate enemy. As was the case back in February 1965, the present American role in Iraq is “advisory.” It’s their fight, not ours, we are told. Yet political disarray and military incompetence evident in that country suggest a variant of “surrender on the installment plan.” Supporting Baghdad today hardly seems a better bet than supporting Saigon once did.
There are presently some 2,000 US troops in Iraq, with 1,000 more soon slated to arrive. As their numbers increase, so too does their vulnerability. There are already enough Americans scattered about Iraq to offer inviting targets, but not enough to turn back a determined attacker.
That US forces in Iraq could suffer a setback comparable to Pleiku is not only plausible but likely. Should such an event occur, what would be an appropriate response? Would it make sense to up the ante? Call it quits? Or absorb the losses and simply carry on?
By February 1965, the Johnson administration had already answered those questions to its own satisfaction. Pleiku provided the president with the occasion to let the American people in on his decision. Given the stakes, LBJ had concluded, a South Vietnamese defeat was simply intolerable. Informed of that judgment after the fact, many of his fellow citizens reached the opposite conclusion. The ensuing war divided the country, consumed the lives of 58,000 Americans, and ended in epic failure.
In Iraq today, the United States faces a similar circumstance. Half-heartedness seldom offers a recipe for victory, but that certainly describes the Obama administration’s campaign against ISIS — a modest bombing effort combined with yet another attempt to build a viable Iraqi army. At best, that campaign qualifies as a holding action. A question hangs in the air: “Where does this lead?”
In Washington, latter-day McGeorge Bundys are doubtless contemplating that question. Yet the question is not theirs alone, but also ours. And before a 2015 equivalent of Pleiku detonates on front pages and network news shows, it deserves a thorough airing.
Where is our own streetcar likely to take us? How much will the ride cost? In 1965, the Johnson administration, perhaps wary of what it might hear, chose not to consult the American people on these matters. This turned out to be a grievous error.
A ready-made opportunity to avoid repeating this error is readily at hand. Congress is considering a new Authorization to Use Military Force — a de facto declaration of war against ISIS. In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama himself called for its passage. “We need that authority,” he said.
Yet before granting any such request, Congress has a solemn duty to examine its implications, which extend well beyond whatever danger ISIS may pose. Here is the chance to take stock of the larger military enterprise in which the United States has been engaged since at least 9/11. Who or what is it that we are fighting? How much progress have we made? How much more can we expect to pay? And how will we know when we have won? Before granting Obama (and his successors) the authority to proceed further, each of these requires an answer, thereby providing an accounting of what has occurred thus far. Surely, this is a point on which Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, doves and hawks can all agree.
This important cause awaits those members of Congress able to rise above partisan and parochial concerns. Do such persons even exist in present-day Washington?