Where have we heard this music before?
The year was 1964. Speaking at Akron University on Oct. 21 while campaigning to win his first elected presidential term, President Lyndon Johnson assured Americans that he had no intention of expanding America's military involvement in Vietnam's decade-old civil war.
"We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves," he loudly declared. Four months later, and less than a month after being sworn in, he ordered 210,000 additional American ground troops to Vietnam.
They would be there only six months, the president promised his surprised fellow-citizens. Four years, 525,000 troops, and 30,000-odd dead Americans later, an exhausted Lyndon Johnson announced that he wouldn't seek another presidential term.
Even then, of course, the war to which he committed us didn't end. Instead, bequeathed to his successor, it went on for another four years, inflicting 28,000 more fatalities before the Nixon administration compelled its reluctant South Vietnamese client to accept what turned out to be a short-lived peace. Two years later, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese army.
Those of us who lived through that history might perhaps be pardoned for feeling as if we're hearing the same music again this week, as news reports surfaced that the Obama administration is in the process of expanding America's ground force commitment to the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
On Monday, less than a week after the death of the first official U.S. military casualty in that fight, the Washington Post reported that "senior national security advisers have recommended [moving] U.S. troops closer to the front lines in Iraq and Syria" ó whatever "front lines" mean in a war without any.
Recalling America's Vietnam experience, which similarly began with the commitment of a limited number of military "advisers," on Friday, several news agencies reported that the Pentagon currently is preparing to deploy additional Special Operations forces to Iraq and Syria, and likely will relax their rules of engagement to permit greater participation in what the administration unconvincingly declines to label "combat" operations.
All this, needless to say, without any involvement by Congress, prompting at least one legislator to complain bitterly ó and correctly ó that Congress has failed to carry out one of its most fundamental constitutional responsibilities: to authorize or refuse to authorize the use of U.S. military force abroad.
The White House of course insists that there has been no change of policy requiring such approval. Commented White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Thursday, "I do not envision a scenario anytime soon where [our] basic strategy is going to change."
That assertion of course skates right past the question whether the Obama administration had any constitutional right to commit the U.S. to war against ISIS in the first place.
It also eerily recalls the early years of the Vietnam War, during which first Kennedy, then Johnson administration officials repeatedly denied changes in "policy" with respect to Vietnam even as U.S. military deployments steadily escalated.
President Obama and his senior civilian and military advisers certainly are familiar with that depressing legacy. But they seem no more able than their hapless predecessors of the 1960s to escape the same trap, in which each successive military failure results in deepening the nation's involvement rather than compelling, as it should, a fundamental rethinking of the premises of the original commitment.
In the present case, the problem is especially troubling, since it remains entirely unclear why the U.S. is engaged militarily at all in a struggle in which no vital U.S. interest is at stake, and in which all the other parties involved are busily pursuing objectives that are at best widely different from and at worst directly antithetical to our own.
Some years ago in this space, I described the "dollar auction," a classroom exercise devised by Yale economist Martin Shubick to illustrate the self-defeating process through which bidding on sunk costs ó "doubling down" in the vernacular ó tends to produce ruinous over-commitment absent change in the underlying dynamics of the situation prompting it.
During the past ten years, we've seen two administrations in a row commit that error. In both cases, additional U.S. military investment prolonged the war and increased its costs in lives and treasure without either compelling our adversaries to abandon their resistance or in any conclusive way altering the war's fundamental character.
This week, the likelihood increased that we're about to engage in the third such exercise. Nothing about the evolving situation in Iraq and Syria ó never mind Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere in what some have called the "arc of instability" ó suggests that this iteration will end any better than its two predecessors.
So far, at least, it has cost only one uniformed American life. Odds are that he won't be the last.