Arthur Schlesinger: Are we trapped in another Vietnam?

'Our leaders gambled that the unpopularity of the regime would enable bombing to bring about the Taliban's rapid collapse'

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The national mood in the United States today is one of apprehension – apprehension over the military stalemate in Afghanistan; apprehension over the anthrax eruption in America; apprehension, as yet incipient but nevertheless visible, over the competence of our national leadership. As Senator Robert Graham of Florida, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, put it this week: "The American people are already at a high state of anxiety.''

I would emphasise apprehension and anxiety; not panic or hysteria or despair, and certainly not disunity over the administration's objectives -- the punishment of Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida and the campaign to stop international terrorism. On this, nearly all Americans are agreed. Apprehension and anxiety spring rather from the fact that the 11 September outrages have created a sense of personal vulnerability previously unknown to most Americans.

Even Pearl Harbor, though far more consequential in most ways than the attack on the World Trade Centre, did not produce comparable feelings of personal vulnerability. After all, we knew on 7 December 1941 who the enemy was; the attack took place on a remote island in the mid-Pacific; the target was American naval power, not civilians going about their daily business. Today the enemy is in the shadows; he strikes in cities well known to every American; and he turns the most familiar conveniences, the airplane and the letter, into vicious weapons – and ordinary people are the target.

As Vice-President Dick Cheney has observed, this may be the only foreign war in US history in which more Americans will be killed at home than abroad. Already almost a tenth of the Americans killed in 10 years in Vietnam were killed in New York on a single day.

Meanwhile the popular expectation of a knockout blow against the Taliban has been cruelly disappointed. Remember the optimistic remarks a couple of weeks back about the way American bombs were eviscerating the enemy? This has given way to sombre comment about the Taliban's dogged resistance. Evidently our leaders gambled on the supposition that the unpopularity of the regime would mean the bombing would bring about the Taliban's rapid collapse. And they also seem to have assumed that it would not be too difficult to put together a post-Taliban government.

This was a series of misjudgements. The Joint Chiefs may have been misled by the apparent success – now that Milosevic has been defeated – of the bombing campaign in Kosovo. Perhaps they should have reflected on Vietnam. We dropped more tons of explosives on that hapless country than we dropped on all fronts during the Second World War, and still we could not stop the Vietcong. Vietnam should have reminded our generals that bombing has only a limited impact on decentralised, undeveloped, rural societies.

Bombing has potent appeal to any American administration because it minimises American casualties. But bombs also kill enemy civilians. Civilian deaths are mobilising pro-bin Laden volunteers throughout the Moslem world. The trick we have not yet learned is how to fight terrorism without creating new terrorists.

So now, with air power failing to achieve the expected result, we gloomily contemplate turning loose the Northern Alliance, a dubious collection of tribesmen, opportunists and mercenaries, backed by the Russians and detested by the Pushtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, and by Pakistan, a crucial ally.

If the Northern Alliance fails to overthrow the Taliban, we may have to send in our own ground forces. Do we do that next month in face of the grim Afghan winter, Moslem religious holidays and unexploded land mines? Or do we wait for spring? In any event, a quagmire looms ahead. As for the post-Taliban regime, this has vanished into a gruesome tangle of tribal feuds and rivalries.

The American military's conflicting accounts of Afghanistan have inflicted "collateral damage'' by losing the Joint Chiefs a lot of credibility. Contradictory accounts of perils on the home front have wrought the same collateral damage. Nearly every day newspapers carry stories about new and mysterious instances of anthrax poisoning. Behind anthrax looms the spectre of smallpox, which, unlike anthrax poisoning, is contagious. Since smallpox was supposedly beaten a quarter of a century ago, very few people today have active vaccinations, and smallpox vaccine is in very short supply. If terrorists can find ways of unleashing a smallpox plague, it might be like the Black Death, which ravaged Europe in the 14th century.

One can hardly blame the administration for not foreseeing such problems. Few among us foresaw them. But official reactions have been discordant and confusing. Did the poisoned letter sent to Senator Tom Daschle, the Senate's majority leader, contain low-grade or high-grade anthrax? We were told one thing one day; another thing, another day. The impression given is of a group of public servants who are rattled and out of their depth, and of an administration in disarray. Official exhortations to behave normally, and at at the same time to report every suspicious circumstance to the authorities at once, confuse people. The Attorney General's warnings that a new terrorist outrage is just around the corner have the air of CYA (cover your ass) documents. The Attorney General also runs the risk that was sadly discovered by the boy who cried wolf.

All of this raises questions about the competence of our national leadership. At the start, the Bush administration responded effectively and well to the terrorist attack. Seven weeks later, miscalculations abound on both the foreign and domestic front, and the flow of information to press and people is jagged and inadequate. The President calls for sacrifice, but, when queried, only gives the example of the increased waiting time in airport lines – an inconvenience, but hardly a sacrifice.

The Bush pre-crisis domestic agenda claims new sanctions in the war against terrorism. The other day, the House of Representatives passed, by a two-vote margin, by a two-vote margin a tax bill that primarily benefits the wealthiest one per cent of taxpayers. As Time magazine, hardly a left-wing organ, puts it: "Nearly three-quarters of the $100bn tab would go toward corporate tax breaks." Some sacrifice! Corporate giveaways will enable the rich to equip themselves, as many have already done, with gasmasks, Cipro and protective clothing. Meanwhile unemployment increases, and sacrifice is apparently to be made by those least capable of bearing it.

But those least able to bear it continue to show great pluck, fortitude and resolve – the firemen and policemen of 11 September, the postal workers and office envelope-openers of the age of anthrax, the young men and women in service in the Middle East or volunteering for the armed forces.

The great debate within the Bush administration is between those who want to confine military action to Afghanistan and those who seek a wider war, especially against Iraq. The struggle for the presidential soul is between Tony Blair, Colin Powell and, perhaps, President Bush the elder, versus a gang of armchair hawks led by Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defence, and Richard Perle of the White House. The eventual decision is up to Bush the younger.

President Bush has had his share of bloopers, but so did President Kennedy when he stumbled into the Bay of Pigs. The question is whether one can learn from mistakes. Kennedy learned from the Bay of Pigs, and, after the Cuban missile crisis, Robert A Lovett, Truman's secretary of defence and one of the American wise men in the early postwar years, said to Robert Kennedy, "Good judgement is usually the result of experience. And experience is frequently the result of bad judgement.''

The writer is a Pulitzer prize-winning US political historian

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