“We’re frustrated,” conceded President Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, on Monday. The U.S. relationship with Afghan president Hamid Karzai is currently strained, to say the least. Offering some historical perspective on the situation, we welcome a guest post today from Michael H. Hunt, whose most recent book, A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives, was published in February.  –ellen

Sometimes history really does repeat itself. Consider this scenario: The U.S. government throws its support behind a leader in an important front in a global conflict. But after eight years of military and economic largesse and diplomatic backing, the Americans begin to complain about the poor return on their investment. Their client has failed to breathe life into his government. Its writ is limited to the major cities. Administration efficiency and military effectiveness are low. Family members and political cronies stand accused of getting in the way. Rising American pressure for reform — applied publicly as well as privately — makes the client testy. He not only balks but also starts openly criticizing the U.S. patron and flirting with U.S. foes.

Anyone versed in the deepening U.S. involvement in South Vietnam in the early 1960s will recognize in this description the fall of President Ngo Dinh Diem from grace and see the uncanny resemblance to the current drama surrounding Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai.

Dissatisfaction with Diem moved U.S. Vietnam policy to a crossroads. The administration of John F. Kennedy demanded reform. But Diem proved recalcitrant and, to make matters worse, looked like a liability in the face of anti-government demonstrations in the cities and Communist gains in the countryside. Kennedy vacillated over the best response. He said publicly that success in Vietnam depended on the efforts of Vietnamese, but he also told Americans that he would not retreat. Finally, in August 1963 he signaled Diem’s general that they could be certain of U.S. support if they conducted a coup. Kennedy got that coup in November. But the generals proved, if anything, less effective. Under the new clients, Saigon politics degenerated into a game of musical chairs. This instability in turn undermined the battle against Communist-led forces.

Kennedy’s successor thus found himself facing the same choice: up the ante or get out. A frustrated Lyndon Johnson considered using political instability in Saigon as an excuse for ending the U.S. commitment. But he discarded that option above all because abandonment of South Vietnam would seemingly deal a severe blow to U.S. reputation. The upshot was the dispatch of U.S. forces five times larger than those in Afghanistan now, the perpetuation of a conflict that would leave an already damaged Vietnam devastated, and an America with deep and enduring divisions.

The choices U.S. leaders made in Vietnam and the consequences that flowed from them serve as a caution to Barack Obama. His client is not meeting minimal requirements. Pressure to reform has fed resentment over foreign meddling and soured an already stained relationship. What to do? Consider calling it quits, switch to a more amenable client, or muddle along with Karzai? Doubtless U.S. agents on the scene are thumbing through their dossiers looking for promising replacements, while applicants for his job are discretely knocking on their doors. If the Vietnam parallel holds, then Obama will reject retreat, invoking vague and misty notions about prestige and face and “finishing the job.”

If Obama does push ahead, the United States will find itself deeper in yet another in a long series of misbegotten and damaging interventions. This was not the future Obama promised. But neither was the Vietnam War Kennedy’s nor Johnson’s pet project. A lot rides for his presidency and for the country on what Obama decides now.

Michael H. Hunt
Emeritus Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill