The president is on the cusp of a decision which will define his presidency and re-election chances in 2012: whether to risk multiple military quagmires or campaign on a decisive pledge to pull American troops out of Afghanistan and Pakistan and drones out of Pakistan and Libya.
Centrist that he is, President Obama may gamble on a promise to “stay the course.” Sound familiar? All that is known is that the decisions will come quickly.
On Afghanistan, Obama told the Associated Press last Friday that his coming July announcement of troop withdrawals would be “significant…not a token gesture.”
Though the president offered no specific numbers, the phrasing was an important signal, delivered in White House–speak. According to Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars, the internal debate between the White House and Pentagon over Afghanistan has been intense. When the president announced in a December 2009 West Point speech that he was sending 30-33,000 more American troops in a military surge to Afghanistan, it appeared that the Pentagon and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had won the argument. But Obama slipped a hedge into the West Point speech pledging that he would “begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July 2011.”
What did it mean to “begin” a transfer? When would it end? Would it be based on conditions on the ground, as demanded by the military, or a firm deadline, which Obama expected would come from the Hill? Peace groups, opposed to Obama’s troop surge of 33,000, weren’t impressed by vague talk of simply beginning something that had no end. The cynicism deepened when Obama announced in November 2010 that American combat operations would end by 2014, and that counterterrorism capabilities would remain beyond that date.
Pentagon officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus, have publicly advocated the most minimal version of an initial withdrawal. In a recent speech to NATO recently, Gates chastised the Europeans for “too much talk about exit and not enough about continuing the fight.” He added that “we will not sacrifice the significant gains made to date, or the lives lost, for a political gesture.” Woodward’s book quoted Petraeus saying “I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting.”
Obama’s concern was being dragged into an unpopular, unaffordable quagmire by generals with competing agendas. As Woodward quoted him, “I can’t lose all the Democratic Party.”
But that is what’s happened. Peace sentiment, expressed openly in the streets during the Bush years, became a silent but expanding presence inside the Democratic Party as Obama escalated the war. Recent polls indicate that a majority of Americans, including 86 percent of Democratic voters, favor speeding up the withdrawal of American troops.