Obama's War of Few Words

By Dana Milbank
Friday, October 16, 2009

Who will fill the Afghanistan vacuum?

Carl Levin would be happy to. "I do not think we should be committing additional combat forces to Afghanistan," the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee said Thursday, just 15 seconds into a breakfast meeting with reporters.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) would also be delighted to volunteer. "It's time to end the whole mess," the former presidential candidate announced an hour later at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Duncan Hunter, a young military veteran who won his dad's seat in Congress, has some thoughts as well. "We can win this thing" if we send an additional "40,000 or more" troops, the California Republican said at a pep rally/news conference held by House conservatives Thursday afternoon.

Also offering their plans for Afghanistan are British Prime Minister Gordon Brown; Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.); Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan; and just about everybody else with access to a microphone. In fact, the only one who doesn't seem to have a plan for the conflict is the one who matters most: President Obama.

As the administration continues its extended deliberations in pursuit of a new strategy for the war, allies in Afghanistan have begun to grumble about American dithering. The pace of the policy review is causing worry in both parties on Capitol Hill.

"It has been 76 days since General McChrystal submitted his review to the administration requesting additional resources, and the clock continues to tick," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said at the start of Thursday's hearing. "Delay endangers American lives."

Democrats are more discreet, but also alarmed. "Like my colleagues, I hope the president will make a decision soon," Rep. Al Green (Tex.) said at the same hearing.

There seems to be less urgency at the White House, where the president completed his fifth meeting on the subject this week. But the only thing that seems to emerge from these sessions are new adjectives the White House press office uses to describe the conversation.

After the Oct. 6 meeting, the words "rigorous and deliberate" were used. The Oct. 7 session was described as "comprehensive." The Oct. 9 meeting, by contrast, turned out to be "robust." The Oct. 14 meeting was described as "fairly comprehensive."

Obama's drawn-out talks have bought him time while Afghanistan tries to resolve its fraud-plagued presidential election. But the slow walk has come with an unwelcome consequence: It has caused Obama's Afghanistan policy to be made for him. Opponents of a troop buildup have had time to dig in. Leaks about the military's desire for more troops have made it difficult to reduce the U.S. presence. Obama is therefore left with various split-the-difference options that will please neither side -- not unlike the way the health-care legislation has developed.

But it will probably suit Carl Levin. "What the public is very nervous about is, quote, 'getting in deeper,' " the chairman reasoned at the breakfast with reporters at the St. Regis hotel, arranged by the Christian Science Monitor. By sending military hardware and training the Afghan army, he said, Americans can "show resolve without looking like you're going to get into something deeper."

Of course, that ignores McChrystal's call for more forces, but Levin claimed the general told him that "more important than numbers is to show resolve."

On Capitol Hill, conservative House Republicans were also invoking McChrystal, but for the opposite purpose: a big troop increase.

"What isn't so clear is whose opinion the president thinks is more important, our commander in Afghanistan or Democrats in Congress," Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, told the TV cameras.

Young Rep. Hunter likened McChrystal and Central Command's Gen. David Petraeus to professional athletes. "What we're here today urging the president to do is let this dream team win," he said.

Over in the House Foreign Affairs hearing room in the Rayburn building, meanwhile, there were as many Afghanistan policies as there were lawmakers.

"The Taliban never did a thing to us," said Republican Paul, demanding a pullout.

"We either defeat the terrorists there, or we will see them again here," countered Rep. Joe "You Lie" Wilson (R-S.C.).

The only thing they could agree on was that Obama needs to come up with his plan soon.

"I believe that the administration should be providing much-needed information about where we are and where we're going in Afghanistan," argued Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.). "The uncertainty is very disconcerting."

Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), too, wanted some "clear goals" and timelines. "Absent such clarity, I believe that Afghanistan potentially becomes another quagmire of nightmarish proportions."

Quagmire of nightmarish proportions? Sounds like those robust and comprehensive deliberations at the White House.

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