White House and Cheney in a war of words over Afghanistan

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs lashed out at former vice president Richard B. Cheney on Thursday, dismissing the Republican's criticism of delays in President Obama's decision-making on Afghanistan strategy.

In a speech Wednesday night, Cheney offered the latest in a series of harsh assessments of the president's conduct of foreign policy, accusing Obama of "dithering" in his weeks-long review about whether to add 40,000 new U.S. troops to the fight in Afghanistan. Cheney said Obama "seems afraid" to make a decision.

Those comments drew a sharp rebuke from Gibbs, who asserted that the Bush administration -- and Cheney himself -- had sat for eight months on a request for more troops from their own military leaders.

"What Vice President Cheney calls 'dithering,' President Obama calls his solemn responsibility to the men and women in uniform and to the American public," Gibbs told reporters. "I think we've all seen what happens when somebody doesn't take that responsibility seriously."

The back-and-forth continues a feud between Cheney and administration officials that has raged almost since the day Obama took office.

In Wednesday's speech to the Center for Security Policy, Cheney called the shift to a new missile defense system "a strategic blunder and a breach of good faith" with the nations of Eastern Europe and said Obama had "moved blindly forward to engage Iran's authoritarian regime." But he reserved most of his criticism for Afghanistan matters.

"Signals of indecision out of Washington hurt our allies and embolden our adversaries. Waffling, while our troops on the ground face an emboldened enemy, endangers them and hurts our cause," Cheney said.

A senior White House official rejected the criticism, saying the new missile system replaced a "flawed one with a better and stronger and smarter one." He said Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons accelerated dramatically during President George W. Bush's terms, and he blamed the Bush team for ignoring Afghanistan.

"The situation in Afghanistan today is what it is in no small part because it was under-resourced for nearly seven years during the Bush administration," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to respond publicly.

The latest exchange appears to have been sparked by comments White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel made on CNN, in which he said, "When you go though all the analysis, it's clear that basically we had a war for eight years that was going on, that's adrift, that we're beginning at scratch."

Bush officials were furious, several said. In his speech, Cheney disputed Emanuel's comments, saying that the Bush administration had provided the Obama team a comprehensive Afghanistan assessment.

"They asked us not to announce our findings publicly, and we agreed, giving them the benefit of our work and the benefit of the doubt," Cheney said. "Now they seem to be pulling back and blaming others for their failure to implement the strategy they embraced."

Gibbs said Cheney's criticism of delays was undercut by the actions of the Bush White House. He said a recommendation by Bush's top general in Afghanistan, David D. McKiernan, for thousands of additional troops languished for as long as eight months.

"I find it interesting that he is blaming us for something he didn't see fit to do over, best I can tell, seven years of war in Afghanistan," Gibbs said.

Obama got at least some GOP support. Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said on MSNBC that "President Obama is entitled to take sufficient time to decide what our long-term role ought to be in Afghanistan. I want him to take the time to get it right."

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