If you haven't noticed, election-year politics are moving the United States, day by day, toward new armed interventions that would be unwise.
We are, in fact, still not free of old ones from which the American people already are fatigued. This was highlighted anew this past weekend when a GI in Afghanistan lost it and gunned down 16 Afghans, including several women and children.
First, Afghanistan. President Barack Obama faces a dilemma there resembling that which President Lyndon Johnson faced in the late-1960s as he looked for an honorable escape route from Vietnam.
Johnson invited his old pal, former Oklahoma Sen. Mike Monroney, into the White House for late-afternoon bourbon-and-branch-water and candid discussion. According to Monroney, the discussion went as follows:
Johnson: "Mike, I've got to get out of this Vietnam mess without hurting our interests or appearing to cut and run. How do I do it?"
Monroney: "That depends on available transportation systems."
Johnson: "What do you mean, available transportation systems?"
Monroney: "Where you have trucks, you load up the troops and put them in the trucks. Where there are no trucks, you march them out. When they get to where there are airports or harbors, you fly them out or put them on ships. You arrange with the North Vietnamese to leave them alone until they clear out. Then you give a speech to the American people and declare victory. Our job was done and we left with honor."
Johnson: "Not quite that simple, Mike."
Monroney: "Oh yeah? If we continue the present 'stay the course' strategy, I bet the idea will look good to you a few months from now."
And so it would have. It would be 1975, following Johnson's successor President Richard Nixon's resignation from office, before American troops finally left Vietnam — many billions of dollars and thousands of lives later — pretty much as Monroney had suggested to LBJ, but in a less-ordered way.
The most recent incident in Afghanistan should remind us anew that, long term, there is no long term for us in Afghanistan.
Under pressure from Republican presidential candidates, and his own senior military officers, Obama is trying to pursue policies leading to an ordered withdrawal in the year ahead. During the interim period, Afghan military forces and police are supposed to be trained up to take greater responsiblity for internal security. Quiet negotiations are taking place with the present Afghan government and the Taliban to arrive at some kind of modus vivendi after a departure of NATO troops. In meantime, violent backlashes take place in-country in response to such actions as the recent unintended Koran burning by U.S. troops and last weekend's shootings.
One fact is clear: The United States has no more vital interests at stake in Afghanistan than it did in Vietnam. This fractious, tribal-dominated country has an economy largely dependent on narcotics harvesting and trafficking. It was important to us when its Taliban regime harbored Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda training bases. But Osama is dead and Al Qaeda's main operating centers are now in Pakistan and in various parts of the Middle East. Nuclear-armed Pakistan, a nuclear-arming Iran, and other places are important to us. But not Afghanistan. Time to leave according to the Monroney Formula.
The greatest obstacle to an immediate clearout is Obama's fear that he will draw fire domestically for such an action and that he will be judged less than credible by Israeli and other allies who depend on our security guarantees. But the way to calm the Israelis, of course, is to provide updated military systems they seek rather than spending U.S. lives and money on operations in irrelevant Afghanistan.
Republican presidential candidates and, notably, Sen. John McCain are all presenting themselves as stronger on national defense than Obama, as better friends of Israel, and as opponents of the reduced defense budget he has proposed to the Congress. They have all but endorsed a near-term Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilties and branded Obama's sanctions policy toward Iran as dangerously weak.
They also are pushing toward more robust help for Syrian rebels opposing the present tyrannical and Iranian-backed regime. Thus far Obama has responded by a) faulting the GOP leaders for their eagerness to go to war; and b) making ever more hawkish statements of his own to protect himself on that flank.
As a result, bit by bit, we are drifting closer to armed interventions in questionable places. The administration's high-visibility support for the so-called "Arab Spring" has not necessarily helped. The democratic revolution in Tunisia was generated internally. We lent non-military support to rebels in Egypt who deposed President Mubarak, leaving behind a tense contest between a military caretaker government and the Muslim Brotherhood and more militant Islamic elements who now dominate civilian politics there.
We and NATO partners went to war against Libya's Qaddafi, subsequently killed by rebels who have not yet formed a successor government whose composition is clear. Now we find ourselves having to answer why we have not come to the assistance of Syrian rebels opposing a regime more brutal and sinister than those toppled in Libya and Egypt. Both Obama and his Republican challengers are making "red-line" warnings to Iran, regarding its nuclear-weapons development, which could lead us to war there. We would be better served to deploy strength in the area but make our warnings private.
Both Obama and GOP presidential aspirants keep talking about extensions of American power in the Pacific to counter the Chinese military buildup. There, too, it would be better to project the power — easy to see by the Chinese — without talking so much about it.
Obama has taken a big risk by offering North Korea food aid in return for "discussions" about its nuclear-weapons program. But, in the past, such talks have gone nowhere. North Korea has gotten concessions; it has talked about its nuclear program but expanded it and continued to export nuclear materials and technology. If this proves to be the case again, Obama will feel obliged to show himself tough on other offshore fronts.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the most responsible and sober of the Republican presidential candidates — and his party's likely nominee. But even he, in his policy formulations, has pretty much parroted a get-tough line on foreign policy, which shows no appreciation of the virtues of subtlety and ambiguity in foreign policy. His advisors obviously have told him he must keep at least several steps rightward of wherever Obama stands on foreign policy at a given time.
Obama, left to his own devices, has shown himself to be a sometimes imprudent talker but, overall, a cautious operator on war-peace issues. He would no doubt tell you privately that, if it were up to him, he'd do an Afghan withdrawal tomorrow and pull back from his escalating public challenges toward Iran and its arms and technology suppliers in Russia and China. But the GOP devils, he would tell you, are forcing him to keep talking and acting as he is.
After the two national party conventions, nationally televised debates will take place between Obama and (presumably) Romney. The foreign-policy statements each makes in those debates will become the basis for U.S. national policy in 2013, if not before. Both should be careful their words do not take the country beyond where it should prudently go.
Let us hope that events before then do not provide their own momentum and produce consequences both Obama and Romney should want to avoid.
Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. John F. Kennedy, in their 1960 nationally televised debates, played Can You Top This? in proposing hawkish foreign policies. After the election, JFK found his words drawing him into a dubious Vietnam intervention and the Bay of Pigs, among other things.
In 1968 and 1972, Nixon won presidential elections over Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Sen. George McGovern in part because he also took a stronger national-security line. He prolonged the Vietnam War by seven years. We've seen the movie before and don't need to see it again in 2012.