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The fog of war

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009; 10:29 AM

Did the press botch the president's speech on Afghanistan?

Or was Barack Obama being rather Clintonian in his language?

For days, the media chatter revolved around the president saying he would send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan but begin withdrawing forces in the summer of 2011. Analysts said he was trying to placate both the right (by launching a surge) and the left (by promising an exit strategy). Critics said it made no sense to beef up the force while signaling to the Taliban that the clock is ticking. And the White House didn't go out of its way to knock down that interpretation.

But on the Sunday shows, the administration's new line seemed to be: What exit strategy? We never said that.

Either our parsing skills failed us -- it all depends on the meaning of the word "withdraw" -- or the administration is backing away from last week's announcement.

"Perhaps only a 'handful' of American troops will be leaving Afghanistan in July 2011, the date President Obama has set to begin a gradual withdrawal, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an interview broadcast Sunday. 'We will have 100,000 forces, troops there,' Mr. Gates said on ABC's 'This Week,' 'and they are not leaving in July of 2011. Some, handful, or some small number, or whatever the conditions permit, will begin to withdraw at that time. '" Gates said this was a "transition," not an "exit strategy."

Ho-kay.

Now it's true that if you examine the president's words, he said his approach will "allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011," and that this would involve "taking into account conditions on the ground." Which is the kind of thing that George W. Bush used to say about Iraq. Maybe journalists just didn't read the body language correctly.

But here's what CBS's Chip Reid told me on "Reliable Sources" about his dealings with Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman: "Gibbs called me as I was writing the sentence in my script for that night that said, 'It appears that this date is not etched in stone,' which makes me think maybe they're reading my scripts as I write them -- I don't know.

"But he called me at that moment, and he said, 'Could you come to my office?' And I went to his office, and he said, 'It is etched in stone and I have the chisel.' He went to the president after the briefing, and the president said, absolutely, it is not flexible."

But was this like modern art, where we didn't realize what was being chiseled?

Commentary's Jennifer Rubin says the Obama team had no choice but to change emphasis:


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