IT WAS NICE of Stu Bykofsky to invite me to his home to watch President Obama's Afghan speech. I'm glad I could help Stu figure out how he felt about escalating the 8-year-old war. He was a gracious host, and we had a fine time exchanging views.
Unfortunately, I feel he used me a bit like a punching bag in his Dec. 3 column. I've been in and out of the journalism business in Philadelphia for 34 years, and I went to Stu's home fully aware of the risks. So I'm not complaining - in fact, I think Stu is a great guy.
But living in such a dangerous world, it's easy to lose focus on exactly what Obama's West Point speech was about. As Stu pointed out, I'm a bit of a "provocateur," so let me be provocative and suggest that the speech was not about Afghanistan at all or about really solving the threats to America's security. It was, instead, about reinforcing his political power as a Democratic president by not jeopardizing the prestige of the U.S. government in time of war and, especially, the prestige of a post-Vietnam generation of generals led by David Petraeus.
This idea about "prestige" isn't mine. It's from Stanley Karnow's highly respected book "Vietnam: A History." He writes about John Kennedy's reluctance to escalate in Vietnam and how Kennedy said escalation was "like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another."
Karnow writes how, despite his reluctance, JFK could not hold out against the militarist tide pushing for escalation, and even his own rhetoric about stopping communism in Southeast Asia. Karnow writes that Kennedy "could not backtrack without jeopardizing the American government's prestige - and in time that consideration would become the main motive for the U.S, commitment in Vietnam."
I submit that Obama finds himself in the very same bind Kennedy did - maybe even worse - unable to do what people like me would have liked him to, which is to summon the courage to fashion a policy and speech that faces up to this tragic cycle. Instead, like JFK and LBJ, Obama chose to reinforce the government's prestige and that of its military leadership by throwing more young men and women into a war that was doomed from the moment the Bush/Cheney administration set it in motion.
Maybe Stu is right when he says I'm both "radical" and a "realist." But what I am not about - what Stu labeled "Grant's plan" - is maintaining the status quo in Afghanistan. The fact is I've written and taken to the streets against the status quo of that war and the one in Iraq before they were even launched.
I enjoyed my exchange with Stu and would be glad to engage in more in the future on Afghanistan and the War on Terror. Truth does not come in a single voice - it's reached in an open and honest dialogue.