Who Lost Vietnam?

New Yorker writer Steve Coll’s been making the rounds (including The Daily Show) promoting his newest book on the bin Laden family, but I’ve been reading his previous book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, and noted one item from its early pages a while back that I wanted to circle around to.

Coll doesn’t place much faith in former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s 1998 claim that he forsaw bringing down the Soviet Union by ensnaring them in “the Afghan Trap.” But he does reproduce portions of the memos Brzezinski sent to President Jimmy Carterat the time, including one from the day the Soviets sent combat troops into Afghanistan, 26 December 1979.

Brzezinski has been credited a lot by Democrats following foreign policy, apparently because he wasn’t gung-ho on the Iraq war and because he’s backing Barack Obama.

What caught my eye about this particular memo wasn’t anything to do with Afghanistan, the Soviet Union, or anything directly related to the situation he addressed, however. It was how he compared the situation of the mujahedeen vs. the Soviet military to a previous war.

D. The Soviets are likely to act decisively, unlike the U.S., which pursued in Vietnam a policy of inoculating the enemy. As a consequence, the Soviets might be able to assert themselves effectively, and [in] world politics nothing succeeds like success, whatever the moral aspects.

If, by “inoculating the enemy” you mean dropping more tonnage of bombs on North Vietnam than were used throughout World War II, that it. What’s appalling — but not surprising — to me is that Brzezinski still thought the Vietnam war could have been “won” in 1979, as his time as National Security Advisor was coming to an end. Here was a guy with access to as much military and intelligence information as anyone — supposedly an expert in his field — and his view after more than a decade, with as many as 600,000 troops deployed, nearly 60,000 dead Americans and a couple of million dead Vietnamese (not to mention Laotians and Cambodians) was that we just hadn’t worked hard enough or been “decisive.”

Like I told people at the time of his endorsement, I suppose Obama needs the foreign policy cred, but I hope he takes any advice from the man with a big grain of salt.