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Stakes High as Obama Weighs Deploying More Troops

November 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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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.

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?


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?

Public opinion continues to shift

Andrew Kohut
President, Pew Research Center
The public has soured on the war in Afghanistan.

ANDREW KOHUT, president, Pew Research Center: Well, over the history of this year, the public has soured on the war in Afghanistan.

As the focus shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan, both in the media and with respect to what the public was paying attention to, we saw the percentage of people saying that war was not going well, it fell from about 50 percent going well to 37 percent by -- by August.

And we saw, accordingly, the percentage of people saying that we should keep our troops there fall from 57 to 50 percent at that point in time, which is about where it is now.

The public has become disillusioned with the way the fight is going. But what's really important, Judy, is it's not all one way. People continue to say, there's a rationale for this war. Most people say that we -- a majority continue to say that we were right to -- to go there in the first place. That's not like Iraq.

With Iraq, people quickly came -- the Americans quickly came to say, we made the wrong war. Most people say that we, the majority continue to say that we were right to go there in the first place. That's not like Iraq. With Iraq people quickly The Americans quickly came to say we made the wrong decision. While the public is sour on the war and worries about how it's going, they haven't given up on the rationale for the war.

Most people continue to believe that, if the Taliban were to take control of Afghanistan, it would represent a major threat to the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we heard the president say today, when the American people hear our rationale, we think they will come along.


JUDY WOODRUFF: That's what he said.

ANDREW KOHUT: Maybe. A lot of that has to do with the perception of whether the United States can win there -- and people don't judge the military situation very well -- and whether the Afghanistan -- the people in Afghanistan -- the Afghanistan government can succeed after we have left.

And there are a lot of doubts on the part of the public about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Josh Gerstein, pull some of this together. What are the political forces out there weighing on the president?

JOSH GERSTEIN, Politico: Well, here's what I think the basic problem is.

It is that we may know by 2011 or 2012 whether the decision the president is about to announce is a success. We may know whether there's better traction for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

We're probably not going to know by the time members of Congress face reelection in November of next year. In fact, not all the troops that the president is expected to send there will even be in country by that time.

So, those members of Congress are going to have to face their electorates simply with the policy, and not the results. And we know that the public is very concerned about this. And, in addition to what Andrew said, the problem, as I see it, is that the greatest concern for Democratic members of Congress has to be that the bulk of their electorate, the Democratic electorate, is the most skeptical about the mission there, and, in fact, about the notion of adding additional troops as the way to fix it.

And that has to be a great, great worry to members of the president's own party.

War of necessity?

Michael Beschloss
Presidential Historian
It's unnerving how close this does parallel LBJ in, say, February of 1965.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how much is that weighing? I mean, you cover the White House. How much do we know that is weighing, or not, on the president?

JOSH GERSTEIN: We know that they're very concerned about that. We know that, especially on this issue of the cost of the war that recently entered the deliberations, that the budget chief, Peter Orszag, attended this meeting on the war for the first time last night to address the issue of how much this is going to cost, perhaps $30 billion to $40 billion a year for the number of troops we're hearing will be sent over there.

So, the White House is very aware that this is going to be an uphill battle on the Hill. And you have members of Congress, Democratic members, saying they either will only support this if there's some sort of tax put in place, and, of course, the possibility that the president may in fact, awkwardly, have to look to Republicans for the bulk of support for sending more troops to Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much, Michael Beschloss, should public opinion, the political forces, weigh on a president? The conventional wisdom is a president doesn't take a country to war unless the people are behind it.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And a lot of presidents have violated that rule, case in point, Harry Truman in 1950. Just five years after World War II, Truman sent huge numbers of Americans into a place that most had never heard of, Korea, a war that was raging. Most Americans didn't feel that fighting in Korea was necessary to win the Cold War.

Within 18 months, Americans flipped against the war in Korea. That was in the early 1950s, when they were pretty sensitive to what presidents wanted -- Johnson, in Vietnam, the same.

So, the result is that, unless President Obama can get Americans to think this is a war that's absolutely vital to our national security, and the cost is worth it, even if it may take 10 years or 50,000 soldiers' lives, and also huge amounts of money, if Americans are convinced that all that is true, then this war will go on auspiciously.

If they're not, there's no way he should get into this deeply.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andy Kohut, based on what you were just telling us, how much more convincing, then, does the president need to do to get more people on his side?

ANDREW KOHUT: A fair amount.

I mean, he's in a very difficult position, because members of his own party doubt the mission. Only 45 percent of -- of Democrats say that we should -- we should have gone there in the first place. A majority, 70 percent, a majority, of Republicans say, yes, we should go there. But those people are highly critical of Barack Obama. They give him a 14 percent approval rating for the way he's handling Iraq.

So, on the one, he's -- hand, he has got his own base doubting the merits of this, and he has got the opposition doubting whether he's doing a very good job. He's got to hope that he can convince a lot of these independents, who -- who don't -- who aren't as conflicted as -- as both sides of the political equation are.

Top advisers remain divided

Josh Gerstein
What is Vice President Biden going to say, that he didn't mean it before, when he said he was skeptical about this?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another thing at play here, Josh Gerstein, and this touches on something Michael Beschloss said earlier, and that is that his advisers are divided. Vice President Biden has made it clear he doesn't think it's a good idea to put more in. Secretary Gates, Secretary Clinton are somewhere in the middle. Then you have others, General McChrystal, saying 40,000 and up.

JOSH GERSTEIN: Yes, it's going to be very difficult and a very delicate balance as this announcement is made.

I mean, what is Vice President Biden going to say, that he didn't mean it before, when he said he was skeptical about this? People like the ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, who have -- his cables having been released to the news media saying that, if we send more troops, it's actually going to undermine our efforts to build up the Afghan government, you have those voices out there.

And you are going to see the same thing in Congress, where you have people who are pretty educated and pretty informed on this issue, like Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has staked out a position that he does not think more troops should be sent over there. Is he simply going to reverse himself because President Obama gives a speech on Tuesday night saying that we need to send more troops? And will he stand in the way, regardless of whether he's intellectually opposed to it?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I see it a little differently, because I don't think that President Obama's decision that he's going to announce in the next week or two necessarily means that we're going to escalate hugely in Afghanistan.

It might mean exact -- exactly the opposite. Let's say, if he sends, as people are now saying, maybe 25,000 to 30,000 troops, 7,000 troops every three months. It will take a while. Next summer will be the moment of decision.

Do we escalate in a way that's going to win this war, or do we essentially pull out? I would think that the likelihood is that the president will say, this is not worth the cost. If our purpose is going after al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and the administration says there are less than 100 al-Qaida, then why would we fight a war for 10 years?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tricky to be talking about putting more troops in...


JUDY WOODRUFF: ... when you're also talking about an exit strategy.

Andy Kohut, in the scheme of things, the president's got the economy on his plate. He certainly has health care on his plate. How important is this Afghanistan decision in defining his presidency at this point?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, it's not as important as the economy. That's number one.

But, oddly enough, his approval rating on the economy is 42 percent. His approval rating on Afghanistan is 36 percent. So, Afghanistan is potentially a further drag on his overall popularity and the sense of his -- of his accomplishment.

And it's not as decisive as it might have been in a different time, for example, 1965 when the economy was going very well, and -- and Iraq -- and Vietnam turned out to be the bad thing of this time. There's more than one -- unfortunately, for him, there's more than one bad thing going on.

But the major issue that he has to convince the public of more -- most -- most broadly is his competence. And his competence is going to be tested on the economic front, with regard to health care reform, and in foreign policy with regard to Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Beschloss, how important do you see this in...

War presidents face uphill battle

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely central, because I think what Barack Obama is facing is the possibility, looking at it even politically, that he will run for reelection as a war president, as Harry Truman might have had to do in '52, pulled out, Lyndon Johnson might have done in 1968. He pulled out, too, because he couldn't have won.

I think the last thing -- everything you know about Barack Obama -- that he wants to be is the father of a war that's killing that many people for a mission that is still a little bit incoherent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Josh Gerstein, from inside the White House, how important do they see this?

JOSH GERSTEIN: I think they view it as absolutely pivotal, especially if it were to go in a negative way for the president.

If it goes in a positive way, if things work out over the next couple of years in Afghanistan, and we're able to cut our losses and get out of there, I think that they understand that other issues will probably take prominence. The economy will end up being a much, much more critical factor.

Other issues, like whether health care reform works out or doesn't, become much more important. If, however, it is seen as a quagmire, that the troops are going in and not coming out, this whole strategy of sending more troops in order to have an exit strategy to withdraw them I think may be counterintuitive for a lot of people.

They're going to have to make the sale on that. And if they can't make the sale, either starting next week, over the next couple of years, it is going to be a very hard slog in 2012 for President Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, in brief, Andy Kohut, at this point, what does it look like the president needs to do a week from tonight?

ANDREW KOHUT: He has got to convince the public that they're not throwing good money after bad, that we're not going to have an escalating role of -- number of casualties, and that, in the end, we're going to -- we're going to produce a situation where the Afghanistan -- Afghanistan government can stand on its own and protect its -- free of Taliban or extremist influence.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He can buy himself about 10 months. If he has a minor surge, it will put off conservatives or people who feel that we should get deeply into Afghanistan, and Democrats who are against the war will feel, well, this may not lead to escalation. He will buy some time. But next summer is the time that he's really going to have to decide.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, Josh Gerstein, from inside the White House, what do they see their task -- the president's task next week as?

JOSH GERSTEIN: Well, he's going to need to do a convincing job, not just with the American public, but with Congress and Capitol Hill, to provide enough political cover to Democrats, to members of the president's own party, that they can support him on the votes that will be needed next year to fund this operation, so that they will be ready to face their constituents at the end of next year, even if some of those constituents disagree with the mission, that the president's rhetorical strength somehow will carry the party through, and allow those members of Congress to prevail in their -- in keeping their seats when they're up for reelection next year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One week from tonight. We will be talking about it from now until then.

Josh Gerstein, Michael Beschloss, Andy Kohut, thank you, all.



JIM LEHRER: There's a collection of past stories about Afghanistan on our Web site,, plus a chart showing troop levels for U.S. and international forces.