Shadow Of Vietnam May Impact Tactic In Afghanistan

President Obama announced Wednesday plans for reductions of American troops in Afghanistan. It's seen as a major first step in reducing U.S. involvement in that war. For Americans of a certain generation, it brings to mind another long and frustrating foreign conflict that ended over three decades ago: the Vietnam War. Robert Siegel talks with journalist and author Marvin Kalb about how the shadow of Vietnam affected Obama's approach to Afghanistan. Kalb co-authored the book, Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

For Americans of a certain age, President Obama talking last night about troop levels for a long and frustrating foreign war inevitably sets off memories of a conflict that ended more than 35 years ago: the war in Vietnam.

In a new book about the influence of the war on subsequent presidents, Marvin and Deborah Kalb write this about President Barack Obama and Afghanistan: He fancied himself post-Vietnam, but the war that was lost so many years before he assumed office still hovered over his presidency like Banquo's ghost -unwelcome but unwilling to release its grip.

Marvin Kalb, longtime correspondent for CBS and NBC News, joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. MARVIN KALB (Co-Author, "Haunting Legacy"): Thank you, sir.

SIEGEL: And first the notion that Barack Obama is post-Vietnam is not just an observation about his age, it's something he said about himself?

Mr. KALB: Absolutely. And he has always considered himself on a rhetorical level to be post-Vietnam, but the ghost of Vietnam continues to hover over him. And one of the ways of understanding that, I think, is to take a look at his speech and to analyze it from the point of view: What are the major points the man wanted to make?

The U.S. now has an exit strategy...

SIEGEL: We didn't in Vietnam.

Mr. KALB: And we did not in Vietnam. But he's trying to say I'm not going down that path again. We have a clear mission, he said. By implication we didn't have that in Vietnam.

If you talk to people at the White House, who talk to him, they are the ones who told us that Vietnam walked the corridors of the White House - that was the phrase that was used. Time and time again, the president - angry at the idea that that ghost was there - would say to people like the late Richard Holbrook: I don't want to hear about Vietnam anymore, let's move on. And at one point, he was even thinking of firing Holbrook, because Holbrook kept on saying we can't go down that path again.

SIEGEL: You quote General David Petraeus in the book, as saying that he doesn't believe in history by analogy.

Mr. KALB: Right.

SIEGEL: Are there telling analogies between Vietnam and Afghanistan?

Mr. KALB: Oh, absolutely. Vietnam is the only war in its entire history that the United States lost. And so one of the dangers that I see in the president's speech is that he is setting himself up for a time, in the fall of 2012, when a presidential election will be only weeks away, when the possibility of a setback is real in Afghanistan.

SIEGEL: Is it possible though that the grip of Vietnam is actually loosening, when you hear, say, a fair amount of criticism from the Republican side of the aisle, saying we should be withdrawing troops a lot faster? That is so utterly different from what the debates of the 1960s and '70s were.

Mr. KALB: Absolutely. Well, in those debates too, we have to remember that there were Republicans who wanted us out, and Democrats as well. The question at this point is can the United States put itself in a position where it may once again lose a war that it's been involved in for so many years? And the lessons of Vietnam are things that Barack Obama wanted to learn about.

During the campaign for office, in the summer of '08, he went on a trip to Afghanistan and Iraq with two senators. And they both told me that the only thing the man wanted to talk about on those 14 hour flights was Vietnam, what are the lessons there.

SIEGEL: And these were Republican and a Democrat

Mr. KALB: And a Democrat.

SIEGEL: Senator Reed of Rhode Island and Hagel of Nebraska.

Mr. KALB: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: And clearly it was on the candidate's mind.

Mr. KALB: I asked them: Why would he be talking about Vietnam? What was in his mind then and now is that we cannot make the same mistakes again, and run serious risks of losing another war. That would be - well, to use the big Washington word now - unsustainable, as a political idea.

SIEGEL: One other echo of Vietnam these days in Washington confronting President Obama, is the intervention in Libya and whether it conforms to the War Powers Act, which the War Powers Act was a corrective for Vietnam.

Mr. KALB: Absolutely. And the answer is yes in spades. The president said, as we went into Libya, this is a matter of days not weeks. Why? He didn't want at all for the American people to believe we're being sucked into yet another conflict similar to Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.

SIEGEL: Marvin Kalb, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. KALB: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Marvin Kalb is the author, along with Deborah Kalb, of the book "Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama."

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