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Stakes High as Obama Weighs Deploying More Troops

Judy Woodruff speaks with a panel of experts about what is at stake for the U.S. and Afghanistan as President Obama prepares to tweak his administration's strategy there.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    That follows some context for the decision about U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

    Judy Woodruff has our story.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    To help provide that context we're joined by presidential historian and author Michael Beschloss, Andrew Kohut, president and director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and Josh Gerstein, White House reporter for Politico, an online print and video news organization.

    Thank you, all three, for being here.

    Michael Beschloss, let's talk history first.

    President Obama has to be aware of the thinking other presidents have gone through when they were confronted with a decision about whether to send troops.

    MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: He is. And, from everything we know, he's really focused on Lyndon Johnson in 1965 with Vietnam. And, you know, Judy, historical parallels, even to an historian usually, have their limits. Usually, when a president is making a decision, it's somewhat like what another president has done earlier in times, but oftentimes different.

    In this case, it's unnerving how close this does parallel LBJ in, say, February of 1965. Johnson was told by almost of his advisers, unless you send a lot of American troops into South Vietnam, it's going to fall to the communists.

    Johnson, almost offhandedly, did that, decided to send almost 200,000 troops, you know, very quickly, with very few dissenters giving him other advice, not much of a policy review.

    That was very different for Barack Obama. He's essentially said this is a decision I had better focus on. And I had better get a lot of sources of advice. I think he's asking the questions that Johnson did not ask. Johnson should have said, was Vietnam necessary to win the Cold War?

    How long would Americans support it? How well do outsiders do in fighting a war in Vietnam? And what would be the cost?

  • One final thing:

    Johnson had his old mentor in the Senate, Richard Russell, Mr. Defense, very conservative, hawkish, who told him in private: Don't go into Vietnam. We don't need to go there. Not necessary. If we go in, he said, it's going to take 10 years. It will kill 50,000 Americans. We won't win.

    You know, what would our lives be like today if Johnson had heard that advice and taken it?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Michael, is there anything another president did right that this president may be studying?

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    Absolutely.

    Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 was trying to move the nation to fight against Hitler and the imperial Japanese. And the interesting thing is, Barack Obama, as recently as last August, called Afghanistan a necessary war, in the sense that FDR would have called World War II.

    So, in a way, he's really upped the ante.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Andrew Kohut, public opinion, what is it today about Afghanistan?

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