Post Politics: McChrystal vs. Gates, Troop Levels, More

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Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post White House reporter Michael D. Shear discussed the latest news about the Obama administration, Congress and more.

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Michael A. Fletcher: Good morning, everyone. The president meets with his national security team later today as he continues his examination of his administration's Afghanistan policy. Also health care reform continues to inch toward a vote in the Senate Finance Committee, and administration officials are in Chicago in response to the horrific spate of youth violence there. And, of course, we know the Second City lost out in the Olympics sweepstakes despite President Obama's personal plea to the International Olympic Committee in Copenhagen. Lots to discuss. So let's get started.

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Tuckerton, N.J.: It seems the U.S. is intent on replicating the great success of the USSR's war with Afghanistan by escalating troop levels there. Why?

Michael A. Fletcher: I don't get the sense that an increase has been decided upon, although the White House has sent signals that a steep reduction may not be in the cards. The issue, of course, is the importance of stabilizing Afghanistan and neighoring Pakistan. Eight years in, and the war is not going well. Obama's aides say the war has never been waged well, with the Bush administration's focus on Iraq.Some feel that the Taliban could rein supreme if the U.S. leaves and that could affect both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some say the return of the Taliban does not necessarily mean the return of al Qaeda safe havens, but others say that could destabilize a nuclear armed Pakistan as well as Pakistan, putting U.S. national security at risk.

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New York: Good Morning!

My question concerns President Obama's judicial appointments. Of his 21 nominations to the federal bench so far, only 3 (including Sotomayor) have been confirmed by the Senate!

What's the holdup? The Democrats are still the majority in the Senate right?

Michael A. Fletcher: Yes, they are in charge. But given the preogatives enjoyed by senators, Republicans still have substantial power in slowing nominees. And that is what is happening now. Both the White House and the GOP add that much committee time was absorbed with the Sotomayor nomination, and the approval of some 34 executive level appointees. But beneath all of that, it is clear that the judicial confirmation wars continue despite President Obama's vow to end them.

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Downtown DC: I'm appalled at the reports of some Republicans cheering that "Obama lost" when Chicago wasn't chosen by the IOC. I'm tempted to ask, "Why do you hate America?" Can you put this incident in perspective -- have Democrats been this petty and vindictive; is this part of a coarsening of public life lately?

Michael A. Fletcher: Hard to compare the level of pettiness, but I remember learning during the flap over President Obama's address to school children that Democrats in Congress had put President George H.W. Bush through the ringer for making a similar address to students. So it goes both ways. I think that both sides in the political debate look for every opportunity to criticize the other side, and that's what you saw with Obama's Olympic pitch. I can imagine that if he decided not to go to Copenhagen and Chicago had lost out, he'd be criticized for that. As you point out, that is the tone of our politics these days.

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Albany, N.Y.: How helpful, in your view, is the Vietnam analogy in explaining the situation on the ground in Afghanistan? I can think about as many differences as similarities, but both sides seem to be using Vietnam analogies as ammunition for their positions. How sensible is this as a way to decide how to fight a war?

washingtonpost.com: Afghan Strategy Divides Lawmakers

Michael A. Fletcher: I'm no military strategist, but I am surprised about how much Vietnam continues to weigh on the American psyche. It seems that every conflict brings immense challenges, particulary if you are going against people who are not afraid to die to kill you. Of course, nobody wants to sink into a quagmire, and Afghanistan has been a difficult battleground for great powers going back eons, as we often hear. So that's where the Vietnam analogy fits, whether it is totally apt or not. But I get the sense that policy makers are focused on the most efficient way of addressing American interests in Afghanistan, and the Vietnam experience serves as a cautionary tale, even if it is widely discussed elsewhere.

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Chantilly, Va.: Now that Sarah Palin has weighed in, can we expect troop levels to increase immediately? (tongue planted firmly in cheek)

You think she can find Afghanistan on a map?

Michael A. Fletcher: I did see where she weighed in on her Facebook page or somewhere. And, yes, I bet she can find it on a map.

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Anonymous: How much is Joe Biden a factor in the President's Afghanistan strategy ?

Michael A. Fletcher: I think he is a big factor, a tough sounding board who pushes the president even if he in the end his advice is not heeded. The vice president is said to be a proponent of a "small footprint" antiterror strategy in Afghanistan, as opposed to the counterinsurgency approach, which requires many more troops. We'll see where this debate ends up.

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Evanston, Illinois: What are the odds Obama fires McChrystal? He should know better than to go spouting off to the foreing media and try to box the President in.

Michael A. Fletcher: I would doubt that he would do that. But already the president has been put in a box, in part by the leaking of the McChrystal report and in part by his own strong statments calling Afghanistan a war of "necessity."But Obama chose McChrystal and the White House says he still likes him, even if he does not appreciate his advice being given outside the chain of command.

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Avon Park, Fla.: With Obama's poll numbers appearing to have ticked back up, why is it still the media narrative that Obama is on a tailspin politically? There's even polling data to indicate that support for his health care plan has gone back up.

Michael A. Fletcher: I don't know that the narrative is that he is in a "tailspin," as much as it is that his presidency has arrived at a critical juncture. With health care reform up in the air, and his Afghanistan strategy under review it is clear that President Obama faces momentous decisions that could determine the course of his presidency.

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Boston: Probably a philosophical question but: the founders created the Senate as a way to keep us from going too far off the policy deep end by moving too quickly/too far on ideas. However, isn't that also our system's Achilles heel now that we are in the deep end fiscally and seemingly not able to handle very serious, long term issues like health care, social security, military funding, etc.?

Michael A. Fletcher: I don't know that the Senate has been an more culpable in this than, say, the House. It is hard to separate the roles of the evolving nature of the media and the seemingly growing partisanship in Congress when it comes to the nation's problems facing up to big problems.

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Rhode Island: Michael, why is it up to the U.S. to supply all the additional troops? If the threat is as great as McChrystal says, stabilizing Afghanistan is important to world security, not just ours. I know there are UN troops there now, but why are we not hearing about other nations ponying up?

Michael A. Fletcher: Good question. And one that has frustrated both President Obama and President Bush.

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Florissant Valley, Mo.: Maybe too much of an inside DC question: did you see the press "conference" of Congressional leaders after meeting with Mr. Obama yesterday? The snippet I saw was Reid assuring the world that no matter what the President decides to do he'll have full support of Congress. As he said those words, Pelosi seemed to blink and shudder. Anything to read into that body language? Thanks

Michael A. Fletcher: Speaker Pelosi had said that she had a tough time rounding up votes for the last Afghanistan appropriation, so her body language was understandable. And it reflected her statement, which I recall was along the lines of "we'll see" when asked about support for the president's upcoming decision.

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The Closet: I watched a new HBO documentary titled, "Outrage," which takes the media to task for not reporting on closeted Democratic and Republican Senators who vote in lock-step against equal rights for gay people. The film makes a strong case that the closet forces these lawmakers to vote against equal rights for gays, in order to hide their true identities. Why does it take HBO (and bloggers) to raise this important human rights issue? Why won't the establishment media report on these closeted lawmakers?

washingtonpost.com: Documentary's Camera Aims To Shed Light On D.C.'s Closet

Michael A. Fletcher: I'd hate to see us be about the business of calling out lawmakers because of their sexuality, or suspected sexuality, absent some other factor that would make it relevant.

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Anonymous: why hasn't the GOP put forth health care reform based on tort-malpractice reform?

Michael A. Fletcher: I know Louisiana Gov. Jindal laid out a plan, that had tort reform as a plank. I'm not sure about others.

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Michael A. Fletcher: Time's up. Gotta run.

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