Opinion
7:09 am
Thu June 23, 2011

The Nation: Quicken The Pace Or Lose The Race

John Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent. He is a contributing writer for The Progressive and In These Times and the associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin.

Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination for president because grassroots progressives thought he was marginally more anti-war than Hillary Clinton.

After securing the nomination, Obama was elected president.

Upon securing the Oval Office, he promptly abandoned any pretense of being opposed to military misadventures abroad, appointed Clinton as his Secretary of State, kept the Bush-Cheney regime's team at the Department of Defense, surged more troops into Afghanistan and steered U.S. forces into a new fight with Libya.

Now, the president is proposing to remove some of the troops he sent to Afghanistan – about 10,000 (roughly 7 percent of the occupation force) by the end of the year.

The U.S. force on the ground in Afghanistan will still be more substantial than the force that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney put on the ground there.

Indeed, even by the most optimistic timeline proposed by Obama, the U.S. occupation force will at the end of Obama's first term be much larger than the U.S. force that was there when Bush and Cheney left the White House in 2009.

Under Obama, the war will continue for years to come.

Under Obama, another billion dollars will continue to be spent every week to ten days on an occupation that the American people and the people of Afghanistan want ended.

And Obama's best-case scenario does not have the United States out of Afghanistan by 2012, 2013 or 2014. While the president imagines that combat forces may be largely out of the Afghanistan by then, he does not guarantee that. And he suggests that a dramatic U.S. presence will remain beyond 2014 – and almost certainly beyond what the president hopes will be his second term.

That's too slow a timeline, according to everyone from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman — who issued some of the first negative reviews of Obama's vague and disappointing speech. Huntsman voiced what is almost assuredly the most popular political sentiment of the moment, calling for "a safe but rapid withdrawal."

Senate Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin, D-Michigan, shared the view, suggesting that Obama had not gone far enough and calling for an "accelerated withdrawal" of U.S. forces. Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, summed up sentiments among congressional Democrats when he said, "I appreciate the president's announcement, but I believe that the withdrawal should occur at significantly faster speed and greater scope." Key Republicans in Congress, especially in the House, were similarly unimpressed with the president's plan.

Congress was not impressed by Obama's speech.

But what of the American people? Is there any reason to believe they will be impressed that Obama has added another footnote to the story of what has become his war?

No.

Will Obama gain any political advantage as a result of his much-ballyhooed announcement?

No way.

"Removing a few brigades this year, then several more next year, still leaves more than double the U.S. troops in Afghanistan than when President Obama took office. There's no military solution in Afghanistan. It's time to bring all troops and contractors home and focus on the political solution, which is the only way this costly war will end," explained Paul Kawika Martin, the political and policy director of Peace Action, who bluntly — and correctly — suggested that voters will be "disappointed" with Obama's tepid timeline.

The president is out of touch with his base within the Democratic Party, which will neither be satisfied nor energized by a tepid troop drawdown.

That's significant, as Obama needs to renew the faith and commitment of the base that nominated and elected him in 2008 if he hopes to be reelected in 2012.

As significant is the extent to which the president is out of touch with the great majority of Americans.

A new Pew Research Center survey finds that 56 percent of Americans want all U.S. forces removed rapidly from Afghanistan. That is, according to Pew, an "all-time high" level of support for what might reasonably be defined as "immediate" withdrawal. (The term "immediate" can reasonably be read as a shorthand reference to the quick, orderly and complete removal of forces over a period of several months. What is actually "immediate" is the commitment to get all the way out; the process, necessarily, takes some time.)

The 56 percent support for rapid withdrawal represents a dramatic spike in anti-war sentiment since a year ago, when only 40 percent of those surveyed were in favor of a quick exit.

The Pew poll finds that 67 percent of Democrats favor ending the Afghanistan mission (up from 43 percent a year ago). Among independents, 57 percent favor a quick exit (up from 42 percent last year). Among Republicans, 43 percent are for rapidly removing the troops — and the tax dollars – that are being poured into America's longest war. That's a doubling of anti-war sentiment in the party of Bush and Cheney.

Obama may not recognize the shifting sentiments with regard to the Afghanistan imbroglio. But his potential challengers do.

Leading Republican presidential contenders, including former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, support a speedier withdrawal than does Obama.

Other prominent Republicans, such as Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, favor the swift removal of all troops.

On Tuesday night, Obama committed himself and his administration to a vision of an extended occupation of Afghanistan – and occupation with no likelihood of a conclusion until after his first term is finished.

That will not yield him any political benefits. But it might help his Republican opponent, who might well run in 2012 as a more anti-war candidate than does Obama.

"In November 2012, voters will want to see less than 67,000 troops and even more contractors still in Afghanistan," explained Peace Action's Martin. "The President will need to speed up his plans and announce more troops coming home to please the electorate."

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