Democrats Balk at Obama Deployment Plan
WASHINGTON - President Obama's long-awaited decision on the course ahead in Afghanistan provoked a topsy-turvy world on Capitol Hill.
Republicans who oppose Obama on almost everything else praised his decision, sometimes grudgingly, to deploy 30,000 additional U.S. troops. Democrats who are usually his most reliable allies expressed criticism, sometimes heatedly, over his failure to detail when the U.S. mission would end.
"I'm a big fan of the president's," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. "But I think he's come to the wrong conclusion."
That leaves Obama in a perilous political situation, facing a potential mutiny on this issue among liberal interest groups such as Move On that helped elect him and Democratic legislators on whom he is counting to pass a health care bill in the next few weeks.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who must shepherd the president's proposals through Congress, acknowledged that Obama's plan would spark debate in Democrats' ranks. Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan expressed misgivings about the Afghans' willingness to take charge of their own security. Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota worried about the costs involved, especially when many Americans are struggling.
Several Democratic lawmakers who described themselves as supporters of the president called a news conference to denounce his decision.
"As an early supporter of the president, I believe it is our duty and responsibility to respectfully disagree," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said he will pull out all the parliamentary stops to block the plan and "prevent this error from occurring."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer downplayed Democratic divisions. When asked whether he supported the president's plan, Hoyer gave it less than a warm embrace. "I think the option he has chosen may be the only option he has at this time," he said.
Addressing cadets at West Point, Obama tried to thread a needle. He reiterated his view that battling al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan is critical to U.S. security, but he sought to reassure Americans the war won't go on forever.
He courted support from allies to dispatch more troops and offered an expanded strategic partnership to neighboring Pakistan, where al-Qaeda forces have settled. He sent a message to Hamid Karzai's government in Afghanistan that it had to step up to the task ahead. He warned that "the days of a blank check are over."
Obama's tone was somber and professorial, the seriousness of the occasion underscored by the fact that his speech was interrupted only a few times by applause from the rows of straight-backed cadets. There were few rhetorical flourishes and none of the heart-tugging anecdotes presidents often tell on such occasions.
Instead, the 35-minute speech was a sweeping discussion not only of the war in Afghanistan but of the U.S. role in the world. He reviewed the history of this war, launched in response to the 9/11 attacks, and described the situation there as deteriorating and unsustainable.
Obama took on some of the specific criticisms he faces - denying the parallels to the Vietnam War made by Democrats and rejecting criticism from some Republicans that setting a timetable to begin withdrawal was unwise.
He closed with a call for national unity. "It's easy to forget that when this war began, we were united - bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack and by the determination to defend our homeland and the values we hold dear," he said. "I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again."
Obama said he will accelerate the new deployment so the additional forces will be in Afghanistan by next summer - at that point, he will have tripled the U.S. forces there when George W. Bush left office - and pledged to begin withdrawing them by July 2011.
He didn't detail how fast the pullout would take place or when it would be completed, saying that would depend on "conditions on the ground." And he didn't explain what would happen if the Afghan government failed to score gains.
All that calls for patience Americans may not have.
Support for the war has been eroding as U.S. casualties mount. At a roundtable Monday with a bipartisan group of voters from the Philadelphia area, Democratic pollster Peter Hart asked participants to stand up if they thought it was time to begin withdrawing American forces. Six of the 11 rose to their feet - most of them Obama supporters in the 2008 election.
"What the public is looking for as much as anything is a sense of leadership and a definition of goals and objectives," Hart said.
At a White House luncheon Tuesday with newspaper editorial writers, Obama admitted the political difficulties ahead.
"One speech is not going to suddenly persuade (the American people) that investing a lot more blood and treasure in Afghanistan is an attractive proposition. My goal is to explain to the American people why we have to finish the job."
Obama did get support from some unfamiliar quarters. Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, a former Democratic vice presidential nominee who backed Republican John McCain in last year's presidential election, said he was encouraged by Obama's decision and suggested he had learned from President George W. Bush's experience. "It's the strategy that worked in Iraq," Lieberman said of increased troop levels.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said he believes Obama's plan would work, though he accused the president of taking "political advice" in setting the timetable to begin withdrawal. "It's obvious where we're going to be in three years," he said. "We're going to be in the middle of a presidential election."