A Curtain Call for the Domino Theory?

News Abroad

Mr. Weisbrode is a historian at the European University Institute and the author of "Central Eurasia: Prize or Quicksand?" He is a writer for the History News Service. Attribution to the History News Service and the author is required for reprinting and redistribution of this article.

News leaked recently that President Obama had called a group of historians to the White House a few months ago to educate him on the thinking of President Lyndon Johnson in late 1964 as Johnson weighed the possibility of ordering a major military escalation in Vietnam.

As we know, that fateful escalation came in 1965. Are we to conclude that Obama has Vietnam in mind as he considers sending more troops to Afghanistan? Most likely.

Experts will argue forever about whether the Vietnam War was a lost cause. But there was little doubt at the time that Johnson and his advisers would opt for escalation. Less clear cut was the question of his ability to keep the public on board.

Johnson failed to do this and was demonized for that failure. Obama surely must keep the public message front and center. Unfortunately, Johnson's legacy provides him with mixed guidance.

The central rationale for the Vietnam War was the so-called domino theory, which Johnson inherited from Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. If Vietnam fell to the Communists, they argued, so too would the rest of Asia. Today's historical consensus is that the domino theory was oversold, at least with regard to Vietnam. But there seemed to be no clear alternative to it at the time.

So even if LBJ had opposed what most of his advisers were telling him to do, he had no substitute course of action -- or rationale -- that he could sell to the American people. When he told the undersecretary of state, George Ball -- the token dove in his administration -- to draft the hypothetical presidential speech in favor of withdrawal, Ball had to admit that even he couldn't do it.

Obama's guests surely must have told him what came next. The mood of the public made a 180 degree turn against the war in less than two years. Johnson had lost the public's trust. But Johnson also realized that the withdrawal many more people demanded would betray the central rationale for the war.

It is not surprising therefore that hardly anyone pressing for a military escalation in Afghanistan has resorted to the domino theory -- with the partial exception of application to Pakistan, where Obama has rightly pointed out that country's vulnerability to the Taliban insurgency both at home and across its borders. Instead, they stress the importance of cleansing Afghanistan of anti-American insurgents.

Polls show that the American people are growing skeptical of this rationale. That could change, of course, with another strike on the United States, whether or not it derives from Afghanistan. But for now, the vague counterinsurgency mission is proving a harder sell.

Ironically, a version of the domino theory is precisely what is at play in Afghanistan. The country blends ethnically, culturally, politically and economically with the territories of every one of its neighbors, none of which is inherently stable.

If the recent history of Afghanistan suggests anything, it is that the country threatens the regional peace so long as it remains fractured internally. It both invites and channels the rivalries of outsiders. This raises the possibility of a wider conflict, one that would pose big challenges to the United States and to nearly every major power whose interests matter to Americans, including not only Pakistan but also Iran, China, India and Russia. Afghanistan therefore demands a heavy American commitment, although the degree to which that commitment should be military is open to debate.

President Obama, however, is unlikely to appear on television with map and laser pointer to advertise a 21st-century rendition of the domino theory. But what alternative does he have? And how will he sell it?

If Obama heeds Johnson's example, he will do all he can to avoid getting trapped by a fixed idea. He must continue to appear flexible. But this is a catch-22. Because he needs a good rationale more than anything else, even more than all those troops.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/21/2009

Obama did not summon historians "to educate him" about Vietnam. He doesn't listen to anybody about things like Vietnam. He knows it all. He and Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright seldom talked about anything else when he was growing up. It's really comical to suggest he doesn't already know and fully subscribe to the communist line in those matters. He just wanted to give some "useful idiots" a photo-op, to gin-up their devotion. The whole audience probably lasted less than 20 minutes.

Arnold Shcherban - 10/20/2009

The elected or appointed by them officials in all times, everywhere, and in all capacities are directly and indirectly responsible for the respective occupational lapses, especially, if those lapses resulted in the loss of thousands of lives.
The 9/11 case in this regard is undoubtedly the case of 'criminal negligence' on the part of those folks, as it's defined by the US and international law.
Noone (at least not me) demands, however, the criminal prosecution or, at the least administrative punishment be EXLUSIVELY applied to Bush team and appointed by them national security and intelligence services officials; Clinton administration and appointed by them
officials had to face the same accusations and punishment, respectively.

"The Taliban rule", in general, and "accommodation"
for Bin Laden and his "team", in particular, was strategically, politically, and ideologically sponsored and later allowed by the US and its NATO allies, essentially, as a reward for their crucial role in anti-communist and anti-Soviet struggle (read: the same terrorist activity they engage now against their former sponsors and employers.)
It is exactly the reason why both Clinton and Bush administrations
maintained good relations with Taliban regime never making strong demands for either extradition of Osama and his closest lieutenants and or elimination of their camp(s) in Afghanistan, despite US administrations' accusations of Osama's team planning and execution of the bombings of the US embassies, right up to 9/11 tragedy. On the same exact reason they would never condemn
Taliban regime for their repressive, practically medieval social and cultural policies, starting huge PR anti-Taliban campaign regarding these issues only in the prewar period to somehow justify their upcoming aggression against Afghanistan and to get more domestic and international public support for it.

The solution for the so-called Afghanistan problem, as well as Iraq problem that is far from resolution (which were created mostly by the US and its NATO allies aggressions) is to apologize for all the killing and destruction they perpetrated in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Iraq, withdrawal of all their troops out of those countries, with no military bases left behind. The strong international (under the UN guidance) limitations have to be put on the victimized countries, as well, such as no terrorist training camps on their territory, in Pakistani case - nuclear disarmament, etc.

Existential threat to the entire Western civilization or even one such world superpower as the US coming from small, though numerous, groups of terrorists is totally illusionist, the same way communism was an illusion, just 'cause neither can be realized in practice.
And that's the basic meaning of an 'illusion', isn't it?
Somehow all other even much smaller countries deal with the occasional terror threats through their domestic security apparatus, without using their Army, Air Force, and Navy
to invade other countries, plus, situated thousands of miles away?
If not for the US imperialist Empire, even NATO states would not perpetrated these war crimes.

J R Willis - 10/19/2009

-The infiltration of the 9/11 men did not occur during the Bush presidency, can you expand on why they should have been prosectuted for this "lapse"?

-Are you stating that the Taliban rule and accomodation was NOT a greenhouse for the growth of Al Qaeda operations?

-Would you be willing to explain the risk that Japanese Cultists pose to the U.S.?

-Biden's advice is sound? Scale back? And then...what? You identify problems very well, but you provide no real-world solutions.

-“Existential threat” is not an illusion when there are real enemies, in place, and on-going, who are interested in killing you and have proven their ability to do so.


Arnold Shcherban - 10/19/2009

Very well taken points.
The rationale behind Washington's foreign policies has always been the same: hegemony and control, never - freedoms and real democracy.
In Afghan case, in particular, it's shocking to me that virtually noone mentions the well-established by the US (and foreign) intelligence services fact that neither Osama and his closest lieutenants, nor Taliban authorities have been the planners and organizers of 9/11 terror!
Bin Laden had been informed by the real planners and organizers (which are now facing charges in the US military tribunal) about the upcoming acts and OK'ed them as jihad's spiritual leader, but neither he nor his lieutenants were never
implicated as the planners or perpetrators. It is exactly the reason behind the US rejection of the Taliban's leaders request for the evidence proving Osama's and Co.'s guilt (The same can be said about their alleged bombing of the US embassies years before 9/11.)
In fact, the US maintaned if not completely friendly, then quite good relations with Taliban regime (which at the time has not pictured in the US as "terrible", or terrorist) right until 9/11.
Al-Qaeda, on the other, is a mythical organization (at the best - just IDEOLOGICALLY linked terrorist groups around the Muslim world) with no operational leadership, whose so-called "threat" not only to the entire "Western civilization", but to just one middle-sized European country is miniscule, indeed.
After the demise of the Soviet Union and "socialist camp", the Western and, especially, American imperialistically-minded policy-makers had to come up with some, minimally legit replacement for the "monstrous" and omnipotent "enemies" the former had been constantly presented to the Western public. Al-Qaeda myth has become such a replacement. Since quantitatively terrorists clearly cannot pose an existential threat to the US or its allies, every left or/and anti-US/UK mass struggle (peaceful or military) around the world (in Indonesia, Philippines, Venezuela, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) is artificially linked to that mythical Al-Qaeda and thus must be brutally squashed in the manner of the Cold War period.
The most terrorist country in the world now is clearly Pakistan... but it has been such for quite a while (for its neighbors and the rest of the world). Pakistani terrorists with the full knowledge and sometimes operational help from the Pakistani governments, which in its turn being fully and militarily supported by the US, have killed immesurably more people domestically and abroad than the mythical Al-Qaeda in the course of the last twenty years.
Moreover, the US/CIA and its Pakistani ally basically created the very same jihad terrorist and Taliban movement when they financiually sponsored, trained, and armed the same terrorists they fight there now. Only then (when they killed Afghan civilians and Soviet soldiers) they were called "freedom fighters".
What a hypocricy and disgrace!
But for the US/UK imperialist tandem that never constituted an "existential threat" or even the threat that had to be dealt with... since they killed "them" not "us".
Our S.O.B. must not be treated even remotely as harsh as their S.O.B, which must be physically eliminated.
The most "we" can do is to point him out his "mistakes", and noone is free
of those.
Therefore, Iran which has not attacked any country for about 200 years has to be on the list of terrorist nations, not Pakistan that
aggressed against India several times and against Afghan both communist and anti-communist (Karzai) governments, as an US extended hand.
North Korea for decades was making just one request, as the condition for stopping its nuclear weaponization
program: the US written promise to abandon its policy of the first strike at the former on the US own discretion. It would never get it, while being continiously coerced to
ban its nuclear program, making the country virtually defenseless in case of the US first strike.
Similar vicious double standards are
traditionally apllied in creating "rationale" to punish every non-friendly state in the world.

Steven F. Sage - 10/19/2009

The stated rationale for intervening in Afghanistan in autumn 2001 was to wipe out the Al Qaeda headquarters and basic training camps there. It seemed to make at least partial sense at the time, although the operational base for the 9/11 attacks had actually been located within the United States. That much remained plainly undeniable.

So a distraction was desired, big time, to divert U.S. public attention away from those egregious U.S. government security lapses which facilitated 9/11. E.g., some of the 9/11 hijackers had been named on the State Department’s terrorist watch list. Nevertheless they received visas and were legally admitted to the United States by the INS. Without much if any surveillance they then trained at flight academies to become pilots; then they purchased airline tickets under their own names, which entered their names into more computer data bases. Who cross-checked? They ultimately boarded their flights without any extra security intervention. 9/11 happened.

Given the bizarre American system of non-accountability, no elected or career officials incurred any serious punishment or blame. From Cheney to Bush to Condoleezza on down, all escaped censure and retained their jobs. Meanwhile a campaign conducted in remote Central Asian mountains served to maintain a wartime circular rationale along the lines of, “If we’re fighting them there, they must still be a threat”.
When Osama bin Laden escaped his pursuers, the American presence in Afghanistan protracted further. Why-We-Fight morphed into “nation building”, a classic case of We’re Here Because We’re Here mission creep. The Taliban, hitherto of little security concern to WashDC policy makers, replaced Al Qaeda as the enemy in Afghanistan. Whatever harm the Taliban had done to Afghanistan’s women, intellectuals, and national art treasures, they themselves could pose little danger to the United States. Still, an enlarged American effort against the Taliban provided further distraction until the Iraq war was launched in March 2003.

The original rationale for full-scale intervention has long since frayed. There are plenty of well-armed people the world over who detest both the United States and Western Civilization, and who remain at large. Apart from rogue states like Pyongyang, these include Indian Ocean pirates, South American druglords, European neo-Nazis, Japanese cultists, plus assorted mobsters, cranks, and sects. They are nuisances to be minimized but they can’t all be extirpated, so why try? It’s about the proper allocation of limited resources. If officials of the State Dept., CIA, FBI, and NSA, and Homeland Security do their jobs to safeguard the country (instead of playing careerist politics), what makes a gang of religion-inspired thugs in Waziristan any different from the other villains? What can they do substantively, from Waziristan, to harm the United States, if its borders are secure? “Existential threat” has become yet another WashDC buzz-phrase, too loosely uttered without regard to literal meaning.
The careerists who hype an “existential threat” are pursuing a career agenda. A military deployed for nation building, even in a non-nation like Afghanistan, will articulate a rationale in the vocabulary in the appropriate bureaucrat-speak. They will ignore or minimize the essential tribal feud aspects that underpin the Afghanistan conflict, pitting Muslim-fundamentalist Pashtun clans against royalist Pashtuns, Tadjiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara. Existential threat? Tunnel vision in Afghanistan may just bring on an existential threat -- from some other quarter entirely.

Joe Biden’s (reputed) proposal calls the careerists' bluff: Scale back. Continue operating appropriately with small forces against the original threat, i.e., if any still exists.

Cheney, Bush, and Condoleezza are gone. Could it be time, at last, to drop the big distraction charade?