Obama’s Middle Ground on Afghanistan Is Between a Rock and a Hard Place

BY Tom LeGro  June 23, 2011 at 8:20 AM EDT

President Obama; photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Obama’s address Wednesday night is shown in the White House press briefing room. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

By seeking the middle ground in unwinding U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, President Obama now finds himself on an island.

In Wednesday night’s 13-minute address from the East Room of the White House, the president declared, “[T]he tide of war is receding,” and announced his decision to remove 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year and 23,000 more by next summer. That pace is much faster than his military commanders had recommended, but not fast enough to please his base.

“Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face. Others would have America over-extend ourselves, confronting every evil that can be found abroad,” the president said. “We must chart a more centered course.”

The drawdown, however, adheres to the schedule President Obama laid out when he authorized the “surge” of 33,000 troops to Afghanistan in December 2009. He set a July 2011 deadline at that time to begin bringing those forces home.

As we mentioned in our preview of the speech, the president had a tricky political dance to perform Wednesday night.

He had to convince Americans that the troops were coming home because the operation had been successful, and he pointed to a number of achievements to support this claim, including the killing of Osama bin Laden, the “enormous strain” the United States had imposed on al-Qaida, the “serious losses” inflicted on the Taliban and the growth of Afghan security forces.

“We’re starting this drawdown from a position of strength,” President Obama asserted.

The president also had to explain why the mission is not finished. Come the summer 2012, there will still be nearly 70,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan — twice as many as when the president took office.

While acknowledging that “huge challenges remain,” the president said it is not the responsibility of the U.S. government to make Afghanistan “a perfect place,” but rather, the goal is to “build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures — one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government.”

Lastly, President Obama needed to address head-on the nation’s war weariness, with polls showing a majority of Americans saying the conflict in Afghanistan is not worth fighting.

“Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource — our people,” the president said. “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.”

Two statements released after the president’s remarks show just how difficult a needle the president had to thread.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., called the move a “positive development” but said “the conditions on the ground justify an even larger drawdown of U.S. troops.” Sen. Levin had earlier called for as many as 15,000 troops to be pulled out by the end of the year.

By contrast, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, expressed concern that the president’s plan would pose “an unnecessary risk to the hard-won gains that our troops have made thus far in Afghanistan and to the decisive progress that must still be made.”

It seems that by attempting to please everybody, the president gave everybody something to criticize. Such is life on the island known as the middle ground.

THE 2012 GOP FIELD RESPONDS

If President Obama thought the reaction from his allies was harsh, he might want to brace himself before reading the responses to his speech from the Republican presidential candidates.

Most accused the president of not being aggressive enough to finish the job in Afghanistan.

Mitt Romney: “We all want our troops to come home as soon as possible, but we shouldn’t adhere to an arbitrary timetable on the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan. This decision should not be based on politics or economics.”

Tim Pawlenty on Bill O’Reilly’s FOX News program: “I thought his speech tonight was deeply concerning. Look how he phrased the outcome of this war. He said we need to end the war ‘responsibly.’ When America goes to war, America needs to win. We need to close out the war successfully.”

Rick Santorum: “President Obama speaks of winding down our engagement in Afghanistan, but he does not emphasize the need for victory. Every American wants our brave men and women home safely, but we cannot let those who’ve given the last full measure die in vain by abandoning the gains we’ve made thus far.”

Others, such as Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, said the president didn’t provide enough detail in his remarks.

Gingrich: “Giving a speech in isolation about our military operations in Afghanistan without explaining how it connects with a larger strategy for winning the war against radical Islamists does not help Americans understand what it will take to provide for the security of the American people.”

Cain: “The President suggested that we cannot become isolationist or engage in every international conflict, but instead, we must charter a ‘middle course.’ How does he define this? It seems to be yet another foggy foreign policy coming from this administration.”

Jon Huntsman and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, meanwhile, both called on the president to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Huntsman: “Now it is time we move to a focused counter-terror effort which requires significantly fewer boots on the ground than the President discussed tonight. We need a safe but rapid withdrawal which encourages Afghans to assume responsibility, while leaving in place a strong counter intelligence and special forces effort proportionate to the threat.”

Rep. Paul spokesman Jesse Benton: “We shouldn’t allow Bin Laden to win from beyond the grave; we have fallen precisely into the trap he set for us — stretching our forces thin trying to nation-build and sending our men and women to fight without clear objectives. Afghanistan was the downfall of the Soviet Union. We must act now so it is not the same for America. It’s time to bring our troops home to defend this country.”

MORE TALK ON THE DEBT LIMIT

Time is running out for lawmakers involved in the talks over the debt limit to reach an agreement and, so far, there’s no sign that the bipartisan group is close to reaching one.

In a sign that President Obama is getting more involved with the talks, which the White House hopes can produce a bipartisan deal to extend the nation’s $14.3 trillion borrowing limit by Aug. 2, he will host House Democratic leadership Thursday morning to discuss progress, or lack thereof.

Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading the talks, told reporters Wednesday that he had nothing to report and that the group would be back at it Thursday and Friday. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., also said there was no progress to report.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., had a less than optimistic forecast.

The group will “either agree in principle by the end of the month, or recognize we can’t bridge our differences. Too early to say which of those results we’ll end up with,” Van Hollen said Wednesday.

While few details are known about what’s being negotiated behind closed doors, the group is looking to cut $4 trillion from budget deficits over 10 years, Republican leaders refused to consider tax increases as part of the proposal, and Democrats don’t want to see big cuts to health care and retirement spending.

The group’s goal is to reach an agreement before the July 4 recess. The next round of the talks continue Thursday afternoon.

HE MADE IT WORSE

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is being bullish about his party’s chances to retake the White House in 2012. He even has a slogan picked out, aimed at tying President Obama to a presumably still weak fall 2012 economy: “He Made It Worse.”

“I think the President can be defeated,” Sen. McConnell told reporters. “If conditions of November 2012 are anything like they are today, I think he’s got a really tough race on his hands. I’m confident that we’re going to nominate someone who’s going to be a credible, believable alternative. And I think our primaries are…I can’t think of a time when they haven’t nominated somebody who people didn’t feel could handle the job. As long as we do that, and I’m confident we will, then it’ll be a referendum on the President and his performance.”

Senate Democrats argued Wednesday that Sen. McConnell and his fellow Republicans were intentionally blocking job-creating measures in order to slow economic progress and cause political problems for President Obama. Senate Democrats recently failed to get enough votes to cut off debate on an economic development bill, which had been bogged down in amendments from both sides.

“They want to play political games at the expense of getting this economy back on its feet,” Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill. said Wednesday. “They believe a weak economy is their best chance of winning the next election.”

McConnell, who has a chance of becoming Senate majority leader in 2013, said he likes his party’s chances with 23 seats controlled by Democrats in play this year, compared to 10 for the Republicans.

Larry Sabato and Kyle Kondik of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia wrote Thursday that Republicans are slightly favored to take the Senate in 2012 and only need three or four seats (depending on the party affiliation of the vice president, who has the tie-breaking vote.)

“The best Democrats can probably do is to retain the Senate by one vote or maybe a tied Senate broken in the Democrats’ favor by Vice President Biden if President Obama is reelected. Republicans look likely to gain three seats, and have a fair-to-good chance to pick up four or five,” Sabato and Kondik wrote.

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