Posted by John Grant
The column, below, by Stu Bykofski, ran in the Philadelphia Daily News recently. Aware of my views on the war, he had called and asked would I watch the Presidents speech with him at his home and, then, he would write about our exchange of views. I fully enjoyed the time with Bykofsky and consider him a valued new acquaintance. He even stopped by our little anti-war demonstration at City Hall the other day to say a quick hello. Bykofsky first went to work for the Daily News in 1972, and he is now one of its most respected columnists. So he fully understands the rough-and-tumble of ideas. Here is his column and a letter-to-the-editor response to the column I expect will run in the Daily News soon.
Af-Pak speech: Both sides now
By Stu Bykofski
Daily News Columnist, December 3, 2009
PLYMOUTH MEETING’s John Grant supported and voted for Barack Obama, but it was “no sale” Tuesday night after the president outlined his plans for expanding the war and our chances for success in Afghanistan – which Grant sees as entering a fruitless, budget-busting quagmire.
Some of you may know Grant from his frequent Op-ed pieces that take issue with various American policies. A member of Veterans for Peace, the 62-year-old Vietnam vet is a self-described dope-smoking socialist, although he admits that he enjoys being a provocateur.
I invited Grant to watch the president’s speech with me because I knew how he felt – he was against entering Afghanistan in the first place – but I didn’t know precisely how I felt.
At the end, Grant disagreed with sending more troops, while I favored it, but it was not because of Obama’s persuasiveness.
His arguments had the flavor of leftovers, a meal we had eaten before. His speech came more from the head than the heart and lacked passion.
With that said, we now have an American president from the left after an American president from the right reaching the same conclusion: America’s safety and security are threatened by the swamp that is Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Are they both wrong? Are they both stupid? Are they both evil? Is it possible that both presidents saw things in the daily threat assessment that they cannot share?
Obama may be wrong, but when he says that our safety and security are entwined with Af-Pak, do I dismiss that?
Grant would say yes, because “the military-industrial complex has this guy by the balls.” Grant even grumped over Obama’s selection of West Point as the launchpad for his policy.
Several times during our conversation Grant described himself as a “radical” and, after the speech, when I asked him what the U.S. should do now, he returned to mistakes made after 9/11 because radicals are interested in root causes, he said.
When I pressed him to support a “radical” solution – pull all our troops out now, immediately, at once – he demurred, saying that he was a realist and that it would result in chaos. He would garrison our current troops behind the safety of walls.
For how long? When would we withdraw? How quickly? Grant said he didn’t have those answers and felt that I was trying to corner him.
In his speech, Obama said that maintaining the status quo – Grant’s plan – would lead to deterioration of the effort.
Grant said that if we escalate the war, al Qaeda and the Taliban might do the same. Fair point, they might. They also might retreat into the mountains, go quiet for 18 months and re-emerge as U.S. troops begin to leave, now that we’ve provided their military planners with our timetable.
We have no good options in Af-Pak.
Anyone who is certain that a strategy will succeed is a polemicist or a propagandist. There is no sure path. Oddly, what happens if we stay in is more certain than what happens if we quickly depart. If we stay in, more American deaths. If we exit, will the Taliban be satisfied to “own” Afghanistan again or will it offer a platform from which al Qaeda and radical Islam can attack Pakistan and other countries?
As an example of how complicated the situation is, one of Obama’s goals is to support the fragile democracy that is Pakistan.
That government is allied with us, but the majority of conspiracy-prone Pakistanis, according to polls, think that the U.S. is the greatest threat to world peace, and that bombs going off in Pakistani cities are planted by the CIA, Blackwater or Israel’s Mossad. With friends like these . . .
Obama didn’t mention “victory,” or the brutality and viciousness of the Taliban toward women. He avoided emotional appeals, yet it’s the same old “fear, fear, fear, the bogeyman, just like George Bush,” said Grant.
“I do not trust my government,” said Grant, even with Obama and the Democrats in control.
I won’t go that far, but I will trust Obama, now that he is an unwilling “war president,” to make the least bad of the miserable choices in front of him.
He could be wrong and so could I.
A response: Obama defends the government’s prestige
It was nice of Stu Bykofsky to invite me to his home to watch the speech by President Obama. I’m glad I was helpful to Stu for him to figure out how he “felt” about escalating the eight-year-old war in Afghanistan. He was a gracious host, and we had a fine time exchanging views. Unfortunately, he then used me a bit like a punching bag in his Thursday, December 3 column.
I’ve been in and out of the journalism business in Philadelphia for 34 years, and I went to Stu’s home fully aware of the risks. So I’m not complaining; in fact, I think Stu is a great guy.
Living in such a dangerous world, it’s easy to lose focus on exactly what the Obama West Point speech was about. As Stu pointed out, I’m a bit of a “provocateur,” so let me be provocative and suggest that Obama’s speech was not about Afghanistan at all or about really solving the threats to America’s security concerns. Obama’s speech was, instead, about reinforcing his political power as a Democratic President by not jeopardizing the prestige of the US government in time of war and, especially, the prestige of a post-Vietnam generation of generals led by General David Petraeus. Petraeus and others supporting his new counter-insurgency doctrine actually argue these days that we could have won the Vietnam War — if only we had been smarter. Obama’s speech established that he was fully invested in this new doctrine and, thus, as a “liberal” was not opposing the vast and entrenched power of the military-industrial complex, the institution General Eisenhower so eloquently warned the nation about in 1961 as he left the Presidency.
This idea about “prestige” is not mine. It is from Stanley Karnow’s highly respected book, Vietnam: A History. He writes about John Kennedy’s reluctance to escalate in Vietnam and how Kennedy said escalation was “like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another.” Karnow writes how, despite his reluctance, Kennedy could not in the end hold out against the strong militarist tide pushing for escalation and, even, his own rhetoric about stopping communism in Southeast Asia. Karnow writes that Kennedy “could not backtrack without jeopardizing the American government’s prestige — and in time that consideration would become the main motive for the US commitment in Vietnam.”
I submit that 48-years-later President Obama finds himself in the very same bind Kennedy did — maybe even worse — unable to do what people like me would have liked him to do, which is to summon the courage to fashion a policy and speech that faced up to this tragic cycle. Instead, like Kennedy and Johnson, Obama chose to reinforce the American government’s prestige and that of its military leadership by throwing more young men and women into a war policy that was doomed from the moment the Bush/Cheney administration set it in motion from their White House inner sanctums. The Profile In Courage I would have liked to see from President Obama was one in which he recognized that the nation needed to take a hit on its prestige, that defending this kind of prestige is in fact against the best interests of the American people, especially now when our economy is on the ropes and we have so many un-addressed domestic problems. Such a policy and speech would have entailed a calculated and gradual extraction of our military forces from Afghanistan.
Obama’s Special Ambassador to Southwest Asia Richard Holbrook recently spoke by phone with Stanley Karnow. He handed the phone to General Stanley McChrystal, who asked the Vietnam historian what wisdom he had concerning the war in Afghanistan. Karnow reportedly said: “We should not be there in the first place.”
Maybe Stu is right when he says, on one hand, I’m a “radical” while on the other I’m a “realist.” But what I clearly am not about — what Stu oddly labeled as “Grant’s plan” — is “maintaining the status quo” in Afghanistan. The fact is I’ve written against, and taken to the streets against, the status quo of that war and the one in Iraq before they were even launched.
All this is in the spirit of dialogue. Again, I enjoyed my exchange of views with Stu Bykofsky and would be glad to engage in more of it in the future on the topic of Afghanistan and the War On Terror. Truth does not come in a single voice; it is reached in an open and honest dialogic process.