Barack Obama reaffirms his Afghanistan policy, he’s also emboldening
critics in Congress who think he should use a shakeup in commanding
generals to change the course of what they believe is an intractable
“I think he has to reassess the strategy,” Rep. Jackie Speier
(D-Calif.) said Thursday. “I can’t believe for a minute that he’s not
Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern fired off a letter Wednesday to
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), asking her to hold off on a
war-funding bill until Congress can assess the full fallout of a
Rolling Stone article that concluded — without correction from the
White House — that the president and his commanders have been backing
off plans to withdraw starting in July 2011.
The bottom line: The president and congressional critics, long on a
collision course over the war in Afghanistan, are hurtling ever faster
toward each other since the ouster of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and
doves on Capitol Hill are feeling a little tougher right now.
The anti-war coalition continues to be a thorn in the side of
Democratic leaders, who are trying to find a way to move a war-funding
bill over liberal objections and past a Republican Party unified in its
opposition to using the must-pass $33 billion measure as a source of
War critics say Obama is missing a golden opportunity to use the
McChrystal flap as an excuse to reshape his policy in Afghanistan.
Instead, he’s reaffirming a policy that was shaped in large measure by
McChrystal and using acclaimed Gen. David Petraeus to execute it,
leaving himself little room to cast blame should things go wrong.
“He’s doubling-down,” said a senior Democratic congressional aide.
It’s not clear how the funding fight, or the larger battle over conduct
of the Afghanistan war, will be resolved. But no one is backing down.
For 48 hours, Obama has been saying he’s not interested in a
recalibration of his policy, even gently mocking those who hope for a
quick exit next summer.
“We did not say, starting in July 2011, suddenly there will be no
troops from the United States or allied countries in Afghanistan,”
Obama said Thursday. “We didn’t say we’d be switching off the lights
and closing the door behind us.”
But the firing of McChrystal — and the choice of Petraeus — has cleared
the way for a fresh debate over the war. And while Petraeus should
cruise to confirmation, it’s clear that many Democrats may love the
general but are starting to hate the war.
“Until a full and complete explanation of these [McChrystal] comments
and views are presented to Congress, we believe that a vote of the
House of Representatives on the administration’s request for a
supplemental appropriation for the war in Afghanistan would be
inappropriate,” McGovern and 29 colleagues wrote to Pelosi.
Of the McChrystal-Petraeus trade, McGovern said, “Same menu, different waiter.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi is trying to be the peacemaker between the anti-war critics in her caucus and the president.
president is the commander in chief, and we all stand by him in the
decision that he made in terms of who would be in command in
Afghanistan,” she said. “So we’ve trusted him before, we trust him now;
it’s just a question of where people stand on our involvement in
Petraeus, who was on Capitol Hill on Thursday, will be back in front of
the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday for a hurriedly planned
confirmation hearing. The last time he met with the senators, he
fainted during a round of questioning from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.),
who has been among the lawmakers critical of the conduct of the war.
Rep. Joe Sestak, a retired Navy admiral who is the Democratic nominee
for Senate in Pennsylvania, said Obama needs to give Congress a better
sense of how he measures success in Afghanistan, so that lawmakers can
make informed decisions for their constituents.
“We haven’t gotten those metrics,” he said. “The strategy may be working. We just don’t have the metrics.”
Still, lawmakers hope there’s room to revisit the policy after Petraeus is confirmed.
“[Obama] would be imprudent not to have Gen. Petraeus report back to him based on what he finds on the ground,” Speier said.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a conservative on the Armed Services
Committee, said after a Tuesday meeting with Petraeus that he is
confident a fresh pair of hands will reshape the policy.
“Anytime there is a change of command, there is an opportunity to
fine-tune the approaches and strategies being used on the ground,”
Inhofe said. “After meeting with him in my office this morning, I know
that is his plan going forward. If anyone can take control of the
effort in Afghanistan and see it through to a successful completion,
Gen. Petraeus is that person.”
Obama and war critics do agree on one key aspect: They agree that the general is not as important as the policy.
“We’ll see how it works out,” said Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), an
outspoken opponent of the war. “It’s too early to say. But policy is
more important than personnel. Clearly, someone has to be in charge
While most lawmakers are supportive of the Petraeus pick, some say no one — not even Ulysses S. Grant — could win the war.
“That McChrystal thing is just a symptom of what we won’t face up to,
which is that it’s a totally failed policy,” Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas)
told POLITICO. “If we were on the verge of a great success, do you
think we’d fire the general? So it was an absolute confirmation of the
failed policy, and yet the policy doesn’t change. They should have
changed the policy and kept the general.
“Maybe that would have been better,” Paul said, before going on to say
that it is the policymakers — not the military brass — who are to blame.