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Correction to This Article
A previous version of this piece misidentified the House committee that hosted Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Wednesday afternoon.
A deadline written in quicksand, not stone

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, December 3, 2009

President Obama's 18-month deadline for starting the Afghanistan pullout didn't survive its first 18 hours.

In his speech to West Point cadets and to the nation on Tuesday night, Obama said he planned, conditionally, "to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011" -- a gesture aimed to assuage the antiwar left. But in questioning top administration officials Wednesday morning, the Senate Armed Services Committee quickly learned that this withdrawal timeline was less a commitment than an aspiration.

First, Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered this qualifier to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): "Our current plan is that we will begin the transition . . . in July of 2011. We will evaluate in December 2010 whether we believe we will be able to meet that objective."

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) found more softness in the pullout promise when he asked Gates if the deadline "may not include immediately a withdrawal of our forces."

"That is correct," the secretary said, adding that "we're not just going to throw these guys into the swimming pool and walk away."

The 18-month deadline was fast expiring, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) delivered the coup de grace. "Is it possible," he asked, "to reach the conclusion it is not wise to withdraw anyone in July 2011?"

"The president, as commander in chief, always has the option to adjust his decisions," Gates answered.

"The president has choices," agreed Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton concurred.

The trio left themselves so much wiggle room that it's a wonder they didn't slip out of their chairs.

The snap analysis of Obama's Afghanistan surge portrayed it as giving something to both sides: 30,000 more troops for the hawks and a withdrawal schedule for the doves. But Wednesday's testimony made clear that while the troop increase is solid, the pullout plans are mushy.

In that sense, Obama gave the Republican opposition substantially more than he gave the liberals in his party. He showed a style of pragmatic leadership, and a willingness to defy his political base, that his predecessor never displayed. It was, depending on your perspective, either brave or foolhardy -- the sort of defiance a renegade like Lieberman could appreciate.

"President Obama has respectfully disagreed with a majority of members of his own political party," observed the Connecticut independent, who was driven from the Democratic Party over his hawkishness.

In the big Senate hearing room with wood and green marble, it was easy to tell the winners from the losers in Obama's new Afghanistan policy. First in line for the hearing was Medea Benjamin, a leader of the antiwar group Code Pink, carrying freshly printed posters showing an image of the president and, instead of the word "Hope," the words "Hopeless Escalation." Benjamin turned her heckling skills, employed for years against Bush officials, on the Obama representatives. "Hillary, you know better!" she shouted at the secretary of state. "Stop the war!" she hollered at Gates. "Admiral, could you end these wars so we could go home, please?" she called out to Mullen.

Gates's spokesman, Geoff Morrell, offered to remove Mullen to a private "hold," but the admiral stood his ground, ignoring Benjamin and making small talk about Obama's West Point speech: "Good setting . . . really nice job . . . terrific." The nation's top war-fighter then took his seat at the witness table, where he gave a whole-hearted endorsement of Obama's troop increase. "I support fully and without hesitation the president's decision," he testified.

The witnesses did little to put antiwar Democrats at ease. Gates twice reminded the senators that he was George W. Bush's defense secretary, noting that "this is the second surge I've been up here defending." Clinton praised the Afghan government with some of the cheery optimism that Bush used to describe Iraq, and she more than once tossed in a favorite Bush phrase: showing "resolve."

In the afternoon, the trio would face some stronger challenges from Democrats on the House foreign affairs committee. Rep. Gary Ackerman (N.Y.) worried about "buying another clunker," and Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.) fretted about getting "bogged down in an endless war." Senate Democrats were more subdued, offering tepid support. Chairman Carl Levin (Mich.), who had opposed a troop increase, raised doubts about "the rapid deployment of a large number of U.S. combat forces without an adequate number of Afghan security forces."

Republican jubilation, by contrast, seemed to confirm that the liberals had lost. "President Obama has made the right decision," McCain said. "I intend to support you," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.). "I want to be your teammate," said Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.).

In fact, "I expect the left is going to rise up this afternoon," Wicker told his new teammates, "and protest vehemently the statements that you've made about the flexibility and about the president always having the opportunity to change his mind."

Wicker didn't have to wait for the afternoon. As soon as the gavel fell, the Code Pink women leapt to their feet. "The American people don't want this endless war!" Benjamin shouted. The witnesses paid her no mind.

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