Watch Live: The Washington Ideas Forum 2014

Well, I hope he's right

I don't pretend to know enough about Afghanistan to have a confident view of what to do about it. Fred Kaplan, who knows a lot more than I do, says that he too is torn. But I have been very skeptical of increasing U.S. commitment there, for the reason that Barack Obama tonight identified as one of the sources of possible objection to his policy:

"First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam.  They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we're better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing.  I believe this argument depends on a false reading of history.  Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action.  Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency.  And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border."

"Another Vietnam"... well, not exactly. There are far more differences than similarities between the situations. (History of colonialism; effects of partition; charismatic nationalist leader; topography; scale; nature of combat; larger Cold War dynamic and spillover; and I could go on.) And even to say "another Vietnam" discredits opposition in suggesting that it's a reflexive and undiscriminating reaction to the traumas of another age.

The real question is whether another 30,000 troops and another year or two can make a difference -- whether this new commitment will meet the test that Obama announced a few minutes later in the speech: "As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests." I have resisted this additional commitment, because I have felt that it went beyond our responsibility, our means, and our interests. Since this is the course we're now set on, I hope his assessment -- that this can make a difference -- turns out to be right.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In