The historical parallel most unnerving the Obama administration about the Libyan conflict is not Vietnam or Iraq, but Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration eagerly armed Islamic fundamentalists as a proxy force against Soviet troops only to see these "freedom fighters" morph into the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
In the 1980s, today's U.S. political/media structure was also taking shape, with the public debate dominated then as now by tough-guy rhetoric. Politicians and pundits kept one-upping each other over how much military support should flow to the Afghan mujahedeen. Anyone who objected was "soft."
At the end of the decade, the Afghan proxy war was viewed as a great victory for the United States and the CIA, supposedly paving the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. But the intervention proved to be a case of applying a treatment with dangerous side effects, which have included the 9/11 attacks and the nine-year U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
Regarding Libya, Washington's talking heads again are competing to prescribe the most violent solutions to the current conflict. Some speak glibly of assassinating Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi; others want to provide the anti-Gaddafi rebels with weapons and training; some condemn President Barack Obama for limiting the U.S. military role to air attacks.
Surprising to some, it has been Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Pentagon brass who have been most resistant to the escalating demands from hawkish members of Congress and Washington's neoconservative-oriented pundit class for a new proxy war in Libya.
As for arming the Libyan rebels, Gates bluntly told Congress on Thursday that "my view would be, if there is going to be that kind of assistance to the opposition, there are plenty of sources for it other than the United States."
It seems that Robert Gates may finally have learned from history.
In the 1980s, as a senior official at the CIA and the National Security Council, Gates was part of the decision-making of the Reagan and Bush-41 administrations regarding Afghanistan. As an anti-Soviet hardliner, Gates supported the strategy of assisting the Afghan mujahedeen, the Nicaraguan Contras and other armed rebel groups harassing Soviet-allied governments.
At CIA, Gates's mentor, Director William Casey, also promoted the use of religion -- both Christianity and Islam -- to undermine Moscow which officially embraced atheism. The CIA not only distributed Bibles in Eastern Europe but Korans in traditionally Muslim areas in the southern Soviet Union.
In Afghanistan, where the Soviets had intervened with 100,000 troops to support an allied communist government, the Reagan administration was so eager to stir up trouble that it collaborated with Pakistan's dictatorship to funnel money and weapons to Afghan Islamic fundamentalists whose ranks swelled with Arab jihadists, including Saudi extremist Osama bin Laden.
To keep Pakistan happy, the Reagan administration then turned a blind eye to Pakistan's development of a nuclear bomb. The thinking was that bloodying the Soviets was a higher priority than stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Reagan's Bargain, Charlie Wilson's War."]
Even after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989, Washington 's hardliners wouldn't let go. They saw a complete triumph over the communist regime in Kabul as the only acceptable outcome.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev proposed peace talks between the communist leader Najibullah and the Afghan mujahedeen, but was rebuffed by President George H.W. Bush.
At the time, I was a Newsweek national security correspondent and asked my CIA contacts why the U.S. government didn't just collect its winnings from the Soviet withdrawal and agree to some kind of national-unity government in Kabul that could end the war and bring some stability to the country.
One of the CIA hardliners responded to my question with disgust. "We want to see Najibullah strung up by a light pole," he declared.