In 1966 Senator George Aiken (R Vt) said that America should declare victory and leave Vietnam.
What he actually said was more nuanced, but the press simplified it in a way that did not distort his message.
Between 1966 and the final US pullout marked by the panicked flight of personnel via helicopters from rooftops, there occurred 49,000 out of the total 58,000 American military deaths.
Now it looks like President Obama has adopted the Aiken strategy for Afghanistan. The President said that the United States has largely achieved its goals, and that the country that served as a base for 9-11 no longer represented a threat to the United States. He announced the onset of a phased withdrawal from the 100,000 troops currently deployed, aimed at handing over security to Afghan personnel in 2014.
An important--perhaps major--part of the President''s decision has to do with the allocation of resources. The domestic economy--and his political standing--require serious attention. At the same time that he announced the troop withdrawal, he said "it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.”
The withdrawal does not signify an end to the war against terror. The President indicated his support for intelligence-driven, closely targeted operations like those seen recently in Pakistan and Yemen, rather than the use of large armies meant to slug it out on the ground.
The President went against recommendations received from military advisors, and against the epigram that you cannot win a war with airpower. That expression began as a criticism of excessive reliance on strategic bombing, but may also apply to targeted killings with unmanned aircraft.
The President''s announcement suggests that winning wars is not the point, as much as convincing terrorist organizations not to target the United States.
Total victory was appropriate in World War II, but not in the vast majority of earlier or later conflicts.
Large scale troop deployments in Third World countries are not only expensive in money and personnel, but have involved close association with corrupt and unreliable local authorities. The picture has repeated itself from Vietnam onward to Afghanistan. Pulling out from alliances with the likes of Nguyễn Văn Thiệu or Hamid Karzai is another retrospective victory for George Aiken and those who adopted his view of leaving a losing cause before it became even more intolerable.
Barack Obama did not cite George Aiken or the Israelis for the inspiration of his decision to withdraw.
It learned the painful lesson of prolonged and massive troop deployments during the 18 years it tried to conquer or pacify Lebanon from 1982 to 2000. Prior to the war, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon thought that he had arranged an alliance with the Christian leadership of Lebanon. At first, IDF troops found themselves showered with rice and sweets by people who saw the Israelis as liberating them from the Palestinians. Later those same people were planting roadside bombs and sniping at Israeli troops. Christian militias did not help Israel, but tarnished it with their massacre of Palestinian civilians in Sabra and Shatila.
Israeli operations in Lebanon 2006 and Gaza 2009 may be part of the inspiration for President Obama''s latest move. Lebanon 2006 lasted 34 days and resulted in at least 10 times the number of Lebanese as Israeli casualties. Gaza 2009 was even shorter, and may have produced 100 times the incidence of Palestinian as Israeli casualties.
Those operations may be compared to the initial American attacks against Afghanistan after 9-11. The American error, by this kind of thinking, began with the commitment to large scale and prolonged investments with ground troops, and the aspiration to remake and modernize a place that was a state in name only.
Israel''s antagonists bleat about disproportionate responses, but short encounters that are costly for the enemy may be what it takes to limit the problem of terror. Neither Lebanon war nor any Gaza operation has ended the problem of terror for Israel. That may be impossible, or so costly as to be impractical. Keeping evil at bay is a moral goal. It should be no surprise that the chronic threat against Israel has produced a calculation that adversaries who direct or support terror should pay the higher price. The goal is not to defeat terror, but to increase the losses in the supportive population enough to minimize their efforts.
Israel''s response to the Palestinian intifada that began in 2000 will not bring peace. Neither, apparently, will negotiations. However, a forceful response to the past intifada may lengthen the time until the next one.
There are several ways to deal with terrorists beside the occasional large scale but short lived operation. Another is the surgical strike at key personnel. Targeted killings when done by Israel bring shouts of murder. The Seal''s killing of Osama bin Laden brought the same calls from various quarters, but also produced a presidential announcement and considerable applause.
If the American government now sees that victory against terror is impossible, but one or another kind of defense is tenable, Israelis can welcome the news without expecting credit.