8 a.m. ET: Back in October, Eugene Robinson wrote that "the decisions on Afghanistan truly are either-or," so President Obama could not -- as is his habit -- decide to split the difference on the war. But to friends and foes alike, Obama's speech Tuesday night demonstrated that splitting the difference is exactly what he's trying to do.
Dan Balz writes that "Obama assumed full ownership of the war in Afghanistan on Tuesday night with a speech arguing that the fastest way out of the conflict is a rapid and significant escalation of it." Doyle McManus observes that "Obama turned at least one piece of conventional military thinking on its head: The belief that announcing a timetable for withdrawing from a war simply emboldens the enemy to wait things out." And Peter Baker and Adam Nagourney saw, according to their headline, "Two Messages for Two Sides," one on his plan to escalate the war and the other on his plan to end it.
Reaction on Capitol Hill Tuesday made clear why the speech seemed bipolar: Democrats don't want to stay in Afghanistan, and Republicans don't want to leave. So does the fact that neither side is completely pleased with Obama's decision mean that he struck just the right balance? Or does it mean that he is now on a political island, with no one to back him up if the situation in Afghanistan gets worse?
Mike Allen, passing along the White House's own take, writes: "It didn’t leak, but 30,000 was the final number that Secretary Gates took to President Obama, in mid-October -- a reminder that the Pentagon chief is the most influential member of the Cabinet, bar none. His argument with the president in this regard was dispositive. This gives POTUS an airtight alibi against claims that 30,000 is a triangulated, political number, not based on any specific brigade configuration." Mark Halperin provides a glowing list of 15 goals Obama achieved in his speech, including "Seemed more comfortable as commander-in-chief than perhaps at any other public event since taking office" and "Most of all: Bought himself time, while creating a sense of urgency."
John Dickerson is less charitable, calling the bulk of Obama's address "a bit blurry. According to his speech, Obama is escalating while retreating, adding more troops while also setting a date for their departure. Obama said he was putting pressure on the Afghan government, but he didn't suggest how." And Thomas Friedman flatly states: "I can’t agree with President Obama’s decision to escalate in Afghanistan. I’d prefer a minimalist approach, working with tribal leaders the way we did to overthrow the Taliban regime in the first place. Given our need for nation-building at home right now, I am ready to live with a little less security and a little-less-perfect Afghanistan."
Obama's 2011 target for withdrawal was the most obvious magnet for conservative criticism. Rich Lowry writes that Obama's decision shows a "conflicted" president: "His head says 'win,' his heart says 'don’t commit.'” In a phrase you'll hear repeated often, John McCain said "Success is the real exit strategy." Sarah Palin chimes in, "Talk of an exit date also risks sending the wrong message. We should be in Afghanistan to win, not to set a timetable for withdrawal that signals a lack of resolve to our friends, and lets our enemies believe they can wait us out." And not all the skepticism of the 2011 pledge comes from the right. Nate Silver writes, "Politically, this seems very risky: in the long run, there's much more downside to breaking the promise than there would be upside to keeping it. If nothing much has changed in Afghanistan and our troops aren't getting out 20 months hence, we can presumably expect some major blowback, especially from liberals -- a primary challenge from Obama's left flank would not be entirely out of the question.
To those critics, Fred Kaplan points out, "The key word in Obama's speech was that in July 2011, the United States will 'begin' to transfer responsibility for security to the Afghan forces. The pace of this transfer—how quickly we will continue to withdraw and at what point we'll get out altogether—will be determined by 'conditions on the ground.'" Kaplan adds that an administration official "predicted that it would be the most misunderstood and misreported part of the speech." But William Kristol, in a mostly positive review of the speech, mocks "the laying down of a pseudo-deadline for beginning a process of transitioning our forces out in July 2011, combined with the claim that the pace and duration of the withdrawal is to be conditions-based – a typical example of Obama trying to be too cute by half."
For context, Foreign Policy runs down the five options for Afghanistan Obama didn't choose, ranging from a complete pullout to the limited counterterrorism strategy advanced by Vice President Biden to an increase of 80,000 troops. And Michael Crowley points out that Obama's speech Tuesday "often reads like a lightly rewritten version" of the address he gave in March, when he first committed additional troops to the fight.
So what's next? David Rogers writes that "the White House’s new Afghan war strategy sounds an uncertain trumpet for many in Congress, inviting criticism from the left and right even as lawmakers are asked to commit billions more at a time of economic distress at home." The Associated Press is a bit more bullish, reporting that despite complaints from both sides of the aisle, "Congress appears willing to approve the buildup's $30 billion price tag." How or whether that money would be offset remains unclear; Ben Nelson floated the idea of war bonds Tuesday. Roll Call notes that neither Nancy Pelosi nor Steny Hoyer offered their explicit endorsement of Obama's plan, while Harry Reid "was overtly supportive" of it.
December 2, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
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