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A Curtain Call for the Domino Theory?

by Kenneth Weisbrode on Aug 27, 2009

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 his 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 all those troops.

Kenneth Weisbrode is a historian at the European University Institute and the author of The Atlantic Century (2009) and is a writer for the History News Service.