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Armchair Quarterbacks

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009 10:15 AM

From one side, Dick Cheney, whose last war didn't work out so well, is accusing President Obama of "dithering" on the conflict in Afghanistan.

From the other side, Karl Rove says Obama is going wobbly on the war.

And they both--I'm sure this is a coincidence--say Obama is following a warmed-over Bush strategy.

Call it a two-front attack, led by two of the previous administration's leading lights. George W. Bush may have opted for diplomatic silence, but his former lieutenants, not so much.

Now it would be easy to say that the former vice president has, shall we say, a mixed record when it comes to war. "My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators," Cheney famously said on "Meet the Press" before the Iraq invasion for which he had strongly lobbied.

And if the right path in Afghanistan were clear, how come the Bush-Cheney team failed to find it for seven years?

So Democrats may well find this second-guessing from those who have left the field a bit rich.

The Obama administration has a clear conundrum on Afghanistan. There are no good options. Sending more troops might not work. Not sending more troops might not work. The Karzai government, which just tried to steal an election, is not the most reliable partner. Tribal factions control much of the country, which seems less susceptible to a counter-insurgency strategy than Iraq did. And the conflict has now dragged on twice as long as World War II.

As for domestic politics, the president is likely to get more support for an aggressive military strategy from Republicans than from his own party. He's also boxed in by the fact that he praised the Afghan effort as the good war while campaigning against our involvement in Iraq.

But while some congressional Republicans might join Obama in trench warfare on Afghanistan, he's got to contend with sniper fire from the former Bushies. How dare he take his time to make up his mind?

"Former Vice President Dick Cheney on Wednesday night accused the White House of dithering over the strategy for the war in Afghanistan and urged President Barack Obama to 'do what it takes to win.' 'Make no mistake. Signals of indecision out of Washington hurt our allies and embolden our adversaries,' Cheney said while accepting an award from a conservative national security group, the Center for Security Policy."

In his WSJ column, Karl Rove pushes back against Rahm's criticism that his team didn't ask the tough questions:

"The Bush administration did in fact conduct a top-to-bottom strategic review of Afghanistan in 2008. . . .

"After consultations with the Obama transition team, the Bush administration's strategic review was not released nor were its recommendations implemented. Instead, the review was handed over to the incoming president. Drawing on it, Mr. Obama announced a 'comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan' on March 27. . . .

"There is also the heavy whiff of politics in the administration's war deliberations. The president's senior political adviser, David Axelrod, apparently attends war cabinet meetings--something I did not do as President Bush's senior political adviser.

"Mr. Obama's aides could be worried that by sending more troops to Afghanistan the White House will draw the fury of the left and lose support for its domestic agenda."

Rove may not have attended such meetings, but he certainly helped sell the war on terror.

Commentary's Jennifer Rubin warns of an appearance of weakness:

"Clearly, the Obami are tied up in knots over Afghanistan. They decided to implement a counterinsurgency plan and now are undecided, or re-deciding. Domestic-policy advisers have apparently convinced Obama that he is at risk with his base and with the country at large if he follows the advice of his highly respected general, Stanley McChrystal. . . .

"While Obama is concerned about becoming an unpopular wartime president (George W. Bush redux), he would do well to recall that Bush's party suffered at the polls in 2006 when the war strategy had not yet been revised. And Obama would also be wise to think about another president whom the American people came to see as irresolute, naive, and unable to stand up to America's foes. That president, Jimmy Carter, got only one term."

But NYT columnist Nick Kristof sees little light at the end of the tunnel:

"We have been . . . oblivious to the strength of nationalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly among the 40 million Pashtuns who live on both sides of the border there. That's one reason the additional 21,000 troops that President Obama ordered to Afghanistan earlier this year haven't helped achieve stability, and it's difficult to see why 40,000 more would help either.

"American policy makers were completely blindsided in recent weeks by outrage in Pakistan at the terms of our latest aid package -- and if we can't even hand out billions of dollars without triggering nationalistic resentment, don't expect a benign reaction to tens of thousands of additional American troops. . . .

"Remember also that the minimum plausible cost of 40,000 troops -- $10 billion -- could pay for two million disadvantaged American children to go to a solid preschool. The high estimate of $40 billion would, over 10 years, pay for almost half of health care reform. Are we really better off spending that money so that more young Americans could end up spilling their blood in Afghanistan without necessarily accomplishing much more than inflaming Pashtun nationalism?"

Meanwhile, John Kerry hasn't gotten this much good press since he won the 2004 Democratic nomination. Slate's Fred Kaplan gives the Massachusetts man his due:

"Sen. John Kerry's successful mission to Kabul--in which he convinced Afghan President Hamid Karzai to hold a second-round runoff to August's fraud-soaked election--suggests that the Obama administration is putting the squeeze on Karzai to clean up his act as a precondition to getting more U.S. troops to help fight his war.

"The squeeze was subtler--or, at least quieter--than the yelling sessions that AfPak envoy Richard Holbrooke and Vice President Joe Biden--both famously voluble characters--have held with Karzai in recent months.

"Yet a chronology of Kerry's 'shuttle diplomacy' pieced together by ABC News shows the Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate foreign-relations committee meeting with Karzai six times, some sessions for hours at a stretch, during a five-day trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan Oct. 16-20--each visit at the behest of, and in consultation with, Holbrooke and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"They and President Barack Obama clearly understand that without either a runoff election or some power-sharing arrangement with the runner-up, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan is all but doomed."

In the New Republic, Patrick Egan and Joshua Tucker have some advice for the salesman-in-chief, whatever he decides:

"While he can't do much to change the public's opinion of the war in Afghanistan itself--some people will inevitably be disappointed, whether he decides to send a lot more troops or not--Obama will have the first chance to frame his decision in the eyes of the public. It is crucial that he make the most of this one-time opportunity to reassure people about his own ability to manage U.S. foreign policy, and lay the groundwork for continued long-term improvements in the public's perception of Democrats on defense-related issues.

"To do this, Obama should follow the same format that President Bush used to announce his 'surge' in Iraq: an address to the nation from the White House, without the back-and-forth of a press conference. His speech should focus on one theme and one theme only--U.S. national security. If he decides not to give McChrystal all the requested troops, he should explain why moving 80,000 troops into Afghanistan would actually harm U.S. national security by weakening our defenses elsewhere. If he decides to talk about the electoral fraud purportedly perpetrated by Hamid Karzai's supporters, then he has to explain why it hurts U.S. national security to be propping up an illegitimate government.

"Doing that could keep him out of the trap that Bill Clinton fell into when he allowed Republicans to frame the mission in Bosnia as a fuzzy-headed nation-building exercise. Current survey data show that Americans are much more enthusiastic about our military presence in Afghanistan--to the tune of 30 percentage points--if it is framed as an attempt to weaken terrorists' ability to attack the United States, rather than an attempt to build a stable democracy. Obama should repeat the first of these rationales over and over again. He should never mention the second one in a speech to the American people."

Yeah, George Bush said he was against nation-building too. That was in 2000.

Rally Around Fox?

As the Fox debate continues, Tucker Carlson (who's worked at CNN and MSNBC and is now at the Murdoch network) weighs in:

"Since when does the federal government get to make programming decisions, much less decide what is and what is not a legitimate news organization?

"Where did political consultants--people who spend their lives lying to reporters--get the moral standing to make pronouncements about journalistic ethics?

"When did liberals agree it was OK to use government power to muzzle opinions they don't agree with? And, most of all, when did the press decide to go along with all of this?. . . .

"The two most senior members of the White House staff attempt to bully a news outlet into silence, and hardly anyone in the press says a word. . . .

"The White House press corps ought to keep in mind as it stands by in silence while Fox is bullied: Your politics won't save you. You'll be next."

I understand the rallying cry but have one objection. How is the White House attempting to "muzzle" anyone? Fox is free to continue doing what it does, albeit without the president or top administration officials as guests. Maybe the tactics are unfair or maybe aimed at scaring off other news outlets, but this isn't about choking off free speech.

Does Fox's opinion-mongering sometimes spill into its news coverage? Does it try to drive anti-Obama stories? Is its default setting one of suspicion toward the Obama government, where it was one of sympathy toward the Bush administration? Yes. But that doesn't mean no real journalists work there. And similar complaints could be lodged against the MSNBC worldview (though that channel does give Joe Scarborough three hours a day, while no liberal has a show on Fox News).

But governing is hard. And the question is whether Obama, who yesterday likened Fox to "talk radio," is elevating the channel by greenlighting these attacks.

Hot Air's Allahpundit ties the Fox flap to a private presidential lunch the other day with, among others, two MSNBC hosts:

"Needless to say, The One's entitled to talk to whomever he wants, but playing pattycake with MSNBC's primetime stars does further raise the question of why Beck and Hannity are problematic 'opinion' shows while Olbermann and Maddow aren't."

For the record, the session included mostly liberals: Eugene Robinson, E.J. Dionne, Rachel Maddow, Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, Keith Olbermann and Bob Herbert. But Gloria Borger, Gwen Ifill, John Dickerson, Jerry Seib and Ron Brownstein also attended. I don't know if the Hot Air crowd complained when Bush had the likes of Bill Kristol, Fred Barnes, Rich Lowry and others over for private sessions. (Or, for that matter, when Obama dined with a group of conservatives at George Will's home.)

I'm also not sure what the pundits get out of it when these get-togethers are off the record. And I'm told there was nothing particularly new or dramatic at the Obama sitdown.

First Lady Is First

A USA Today poll has Barack at 55 percent approval, Michelle at 61 percent. Biden is down at 42 percent. What did he do wrong?

Publishing Palin

With the ex-governor of Alaska set to go on Oprah next week to unveil "Going Rogue," Marc Ambinder reports that other Palin books are in the works:

" 'Sarah From Alaska: The Education Of A Conservative Superstar' was written by two journalists, , Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walse, who covered Palin throughout the campaign. One worked as a campaign reporter for CBS News. The other worked in a similar capacity for Fox News . . .

"Then there's Matthew Continetti, a writer for the Weekly Standard, whose editor, Bill Kristol, was an original champion of Palin's and was a regular, if informal adviser to her during the campaign. Continetti has authored: 'The Persecution Of Sarah Palin: How The Elite Media Tried To Bring Down A Rising Star.' The title is self-explanatory.

"For an alternative point of view, two editors at The Nation have edited 'Going Rouge: An American Nightmare,' a compilation of essays about Palin written by liberals."

Gotta love that title!

Junket Journalism

The Daily Finance has the lowdown on how Newsweek and the New York Times are handling the disclosure that their writers accepted free trips.

That's Hardball

The L.A. Times reports: "Dodgers owner Frank McCourt has fired his estranged wife Jamie from her position as the team's chief executive, triggering what her attorney said would be an imminent legal response." Guess that's what happens when you split up--and your team fails to make the World Series.

High-Flying Job

Denver's Westword has cut off the applications at 200:

"It's been three weeks since we first posted news of our search for a medical-marijuana reviewer. Within five minutes of that posting, we had our first application for this extremely part-time job. Within ten minutes, our first media inquiry. And the applications and media calls keep coming."

Journalism is truly going to pot.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources." He is on Twitter.

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