Oct 04, 2010
Critics of President Obama's Afghanistan policy often make the
Vietnam War analogy -- including one who plays a prominent role in
how history views that divisive conflict.
It's been nearly 40 years since Daniel Ellsberg supplied The New York
Times and other news organizations with the Pentagon Papers,
thousands of internal Defense Department documents that detailed how
the U.S. became enmeshed in Vietnam.
Today, Ellsberg sees Vietnam parallels in Obama's approach to
Afghanistan, bolstered by his reading of Bob Woodward's new book, Obama's Wars.
"Change the names and the place names and you've got the Pentagon
Papers of Afghanistan," Ellsberg said of Woodward's book. "It's
"We're hopelessly stalemated, and will remain so."
(Indeed, Woodward reported that Vice President Biden warned Obama not
to get "locked into Vietnam.")
Vietnam still resonates, and do does Ellsberg's story. Filmmakers
Rick Goldsmith and Judith Ehrlich won on an Oscar nomination for
their documentary on Ellsberg, named after the description Henry
Kissinger applied to the former Pentagon analyst: The Most Dangerous
Man In America.
The film's television debut is Tuesday night on the PBS program POV
(Point of View).
The Pentagon Papers detail how the government got sucked into Vietnam
during the presidencies of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
Ellsberg sees something similar happening with Obama and Afghanistan.
Obama, however, has pledged to start withdrawing troops from
Afghanistan starting in July.
The president has also ended combat operations in Iraq, and plans to
withdraw all U.S. troops from there by December 2011.
Ellsberg is dubious, saying, "I don't think he intends to be without
bases in Iraq or Afghanistan."
In a Rolling Stone interview, Obama said his Afghanistan strategy is
designed to turn over responsibility to the Afghans themselves:
Nobody wants more than me to be able to bring that war to a close in
a way that makes sure that region is not used as a base for terrorist
attacks against the United States. But what we have to do is see this
process through. Starting July of 2011, we will begin a transition
process, and if the strategy we're engaged in isn't working, we're
going to keep on re-examining it until we make sure that we've got a
strategy that does work.
The Pentagon Papers did more than just change opinions of the Kennedy
and Johnson administrations. They also helped lead to the downfall of
President Richard Nixon.
Incensed at the disclosure of classified documents, Nixon sanctioned
a new White House unit designed to stop news leaks -- The Plumbers.
So began the road to the break-in at the Watergate building.
The Nixon Justice Department also sought to prosecute Ellsberg for
espionage. But a federal judge threw out the case after learning that
Nixon administration men had broken into the office of Ellsberg's
psychiatrist, another major milestone in the Watergate saga.
Ellsberg doesn't think public disclosure of war policy has gotten any
better. He notes that the Obama administration is involved in three
prosecutions of whistle blowers, including a former National Security
Agency official and a former contract linguist for the FBI.
The third case involves Bradley Manning, a Pentagon private accused
of providing classified Afghanistan documents to the controversial
White House and Pentagon officials said the Wikileaks disclosures put
lives at rise. Ellsberg defended Wikileaks, saying the traditional
media has not been as aggressive as it was during the Vietnam era.
"They're essential in an era when you can't count on the media," he said.
Ellsberg wondered if Obama and top aides really believe in their own
policy, or just caved in to the military. They "didn't want to get
called names," Ellsberg said, "and a lot of people are going to die
as a result."
Ellsberg said he hopes Obama and aides see the documentary about his
involvement in Vietnam, and begin to change strategy. Such a move
would "risky" and "difficult," but he also called it essential.
"He has gotten himself into a war that's almost equivalent to the
Vietnam War," Ellsberg said. "I would hope he would consider paying a
personal price and changing course."