Monday, June 28, 2010

How Obama Could Lose Me

Cross-posted from

President Obama has had a jam-packed two years and done some great things: Saving the economy from collapse. Health care reform. Now financial reform. Two qualified Supreme Court nominees. A tobacco law we tried for over a decade to pass. Credit card reform. The Lily Ledbetter Pay Act. Support for high-speed rail, clean energy research, and other green initiatives. On the foreign side, we're getting out of Iraq, albeit slowly. And unlike many progressives, I supported the Afghanistan surge.

But I supported it because Obama included the beginning of a timetable. Yet yesterday, at the G-20 summit in the wake of Petraeus appointment, he seemed to be back away from that promise - and that's where he could lose me.

Progressives have been uncertain about Obama in the areas of foreign policy and executive power for quite some time. He has done very little to roll back George W. Bush's unconstitutional and dangerous expansion of executive power, and now he's implying that he'll pull another Bush and lead us down the same road of endless war. From yesterday's G-20 press conference (emphasis my own):

We intend to be a partner with Afghanistan over the long term. But that is different from us having troops on the ground...

What I expect is that by the end of this year, we will have seen progress on the strategy that was laid out. We will conduct a full review. Those things that are not working, we will fix. Those things that are working we will build on -- both on the civilian side, and on the military side, as well as on the diplomatic side...

I think that right now the debate surrounding Afghanistan is presented as either we get up and leave immediately because there’s no chance at a positive outcome, or we stay basically indefinitely and do “whatever it takes” for as long as it takes. And what I said last year I will repeat, which is we have a vital national interest in making sure that Afghanistan is not used as a base to launch terrorist attacks...

So, A, we’ve got a vital interest in the region. B, we do not expect because of our involvement in Afghanistan that the country is going to completely transform itself in a year or two years or five years. President Karzai does not expect that. The Afghan people don’t expect that. Afghanistan has its own culture. It is a very proud culture. It has a lot of work to do with respect to development and it’s going to have to find its own path....

Now, there has been a lot of obsession around this whole issue of when do we leave. My focus right now is how do we make sure that what we’re doing there is successful, given the incredible sacrifices that our young men and women are putting in. And we have set up a mechanism whereby we are going to do a review -- and I’ve signaled very clearly that we’re not going to just keep on doing things if they're not working -- and that by next year we will begin a process of transition.

That doesn’t mean we suddenly turn off the lights and let the door close behind us.

I don't want to turn off the lights and close the door behind us next summer. I do, however, want to rapidly flick the light switch on and off for a minute as a heads up to the Afghani people, signaling last call. Ten years is one thing; ten years and counting is another.

It's tough to tell what, if anything, the President was signaling with these answers. He says we'll help Afghanistan for the long term, but not necessarily with troops. That sounds good. But then he says we'll build on our military success even after next summer, and the only instance where he talks time he says "five years," and that's troubling. Mr. President, you promised the beginning of a withdrawal next summer, not a build-up. But what's most troubling is the mocking tone he uses when talking about the war's opponents. I am not an opponent of this war - yet - but taking a different position than the or demanding answers from the White House does not qualify as "obsessing."

The President said his focus is not on how to withdraw, but on how to win. I want to win in Afghanistan too, but at some point it becomes a Pyrrhic victory, a victory that just isn't worth what it once was. If by next summer the end isn’t in sight, we’ll have to get out. Even if the end is in sight but would require years more of troops-on-the-ground, we’ll have to get out. As I said, a decade is one thing, but a decade and counting is another - especially since a responsible withdrawal would take another full year anyway.

I'm with the President now, especially but on the domestic side, and I'll answer OFA's calls to help with the energy bill and the midterm election. But next summer’s review will include the withdrawal of at least two brigades and the implementation of a timetable, or Obama will likely lose me.

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