Why Vietnam Matters — a book recommended recently by George Packer of The New Yorker — gets interesting before you come across a single word written by the book’s author. Richard Holbrooke, the president’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, wrote a foreword for the book which might hold hints of the future.
The book came out before Obama won the presidency and, therefore, before Obama had a chance to pick Holbrooke for his current AfPak duties. Writing the foreword as a temporary outsider to government, Holbrooke reminisced about “Rufe,” the book’s author Rufus Phillips. Holbrooke worked under Phillips in Vietnam in the 1960s in “a groundbreaking division of the United States foreign aid mission called the Office of Rural Affairs, dedicated to what today would be called ‘nation building.'”
Quoting a colleague from those days, Holbrooke wrote that Phillips “turned the traditional U.S. aid effort on its head” away from programs that:
“… helped ministries in Saigon and had no presence in the countryside. Suddenly Rufe grafted onto that bureaucratic mission a group of creative, problem-solving, often strikingly young and highly motivated Americans … who went into the country’s provinces to work with Vietnamese on vital local needs like schools, wells, refugees, and rice and pig culture, as well as more basic issues of physical security and representative local government.”
Last week, about the same time I read Holbrooke’s foreword, I came across a Washington Post report that “President Obama has asked senior officials for a province-by-province analysis of Afghanistan to determine which regions are being managed effectively by local leaders and which require international help.”
Post reporters Scott Wilson and Greg Jaffe went on to write about “the administration’s turn toward Afghanistan’s provincial governors, tribal leaders and local militias as potentially more effective partners in the effort than a historically weak central government that is confronting questions of legitimacy after the flawed Aug. 20 presidential election.”
It all sounds a bit like Rufe.
A lengthy excerpt of Why Vietnam Matters, including a chapter called “Beyond Vietnam: Iraq, Afghanistan and the Future,” is available here.