Rachel Maddow’s televised roadshow in Afghanistan ended last week with a one-hour personal interview with Richard Holbrooke, an "honor," she said. Maddow is very bright, witty, great in conversation, a pivotal person in the progressive community and among Democrats. But there was a potential Walter Cronkite moment in her interview, and Maddow passed on it.
Cronkite went to Vietnam in April 1968 to survey the state of that war, just as Maddow spent time in Afghanistan investigating the current reality. When Cronkite pronounced Vietnam as "mired in stalemate," it is said that Lyndon Johnson went berserk. A few weeks later, Johnson relinquished his presidency. There were several factors in Johnson’s decision which seem all too parallel today. First, rank-and-file Democrats and their congressional representatives were turning dovish. Key advisors from the foreign policy establishment–known to LBJ as the "Wise Men"–were pronouncing the war unwinnable and too costly. In these circumstances, the Cronkite interview was a blow to Johnson, and his words then are worth underlining:
"To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."
Isn’t this precisely the situation in Afghanistan today, or worse? The war itself is not going well. A Rolling Stone expose has forced the dumping of Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his replacement by David Petraeus. A majority of House Democrats including Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently voted for an Afghanistan exit plan with a timetable for withdrawal.
Maddow is hardly gung-ho for war, but neither did she voice the sensibility of the 73 percent of Democrats who oppose the Obama war policy and favor a withdrawal timetable. What came across from Maddow is doubt about the effectiveness of the Afghanistan war, not opposition to it. It is the same doubt that Holbrooke, Petraeus and President Obama are seeking public platforms to reverse. Holbrooke thus was given a golden opportunity to shore up public opinion on the Democratic side of the spectrum.
Maddow never questioned Holbrooke’s repeated contention that Afghanistan is not Vietnam, where the youthful Holbrooke himself was involved in a failed counterinsurgency almost 40 years ago. That disaster–which became known as the Phoenix Program–has been resurrected in today’s official Army/Marine warfighting manual as an experiment that might have succeeded if public opinion had remained faithful back home. The difference Holbrooke insists upon now is that Afghanistan is more important than Vietnam ever was because the American homeland has been attacked and, if we ever withdraw, will be attacked again.