After eleven days in office, Newsweek puts Obama in Vietnam
John Byrne
Published: Saturday January 31, 2009

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Coming to newsstands Monday: 1965.

That's the year then-President Lyndon Johnson officially expanded America's involvement in Vietnam, expanding the number of US troops from 3,500 in March to 200,000 by December.

Newsweek invites the comparison with a bold cover, titled, "OBAMA'S VIETNAM," going to press less than two weeks after Obama takes office. Johnson, like Obama, inherited a troubled US conflict from his predecessor.

"A wave of reports, official and unofficial, from American and foreign (including Afghan) diplomats and soldiers, present and former, all seem to agree: the situation in Afghanistan is bad and getting worse," the magazine's Evan Thomas and John Barry write, in a news story that accompanies an opinion piece by Fahreed Zakaria. "Some four decades ago, American presidents became accustomed to hearing gloomy reports like that from Vietnam, although the public pronouncements were usually rosier. John F. Kennedy worried to his dying day about getting stuck in a land war in Asia; LBJ was haunted by nightmares about "Uncle Ho." In the military, now as then, there are a growing number of doubters. But the default switch for senior officers in the U.S. military is "can do, sir!" and that seems to be the light blinking now. In Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, when in doubt, escalate. There are now about 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration appear to agree that the number should be twice that a year or so from now."

Johnson escalated the Vietnam conflict after a purported attack on the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964. A declassified NSA intercept, however, revealed that there was no attack at all. In the following year, America's involvement soared.

Newsweek's authors disparage liberals, to whom "all American interventions after Vietnam have been potential 'quagmires,'" and after saying "Vietnam analogies can be tiresome," go on to compare Afghanistan to Vietnam -- in detail.

"Vietnam analogies can be tiresome," they write. "To critics, especially those on the left, all American interventions after Vietnam have been potential "quagmires." But sometimes clichés come true, and, especially lately, it seems that the war in Afghanistan is shaping up in all-too-familiar ways."

And yet, the authors are also careful to draw the disconnects between Vietnam and the now-poppy state of Afghanistan (though not nearly as careful as the magazine's editors, who don't even place a question mark after their headline).

"Even 60,000 troops is a long way from the half million American soldiers sent to Vietnam at the war's peak; the 642 U.S. deaths sustained so far pale in comparison to the 58,000 lost in Vietnam," Thomas and Barry add.
"Still, consider this: that's a higher death toll than after the first nine years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. And what is troubling is that no one in the outgoing or incoming administration has been able to say what the additional troops are for, except as a kind of tourniquet to staunch the bleeding while someone comes up with a strategy that has a chance of working. The most uncomfortable question is whether any strategy will work at this point."

If anything is for certain, it's that Obama's media honeymoon is over.