War & Pieces: Obama Seeks to Change Afghanistan Debate

By Gorman Gorman

Dec 1, 2009 8:27am

ABC News’ Rick Klein reports: He can again unite the nation, after all. Dick Cheney and Michael Moore (plus George Will and Bob Herbert) are already in agreement, and the president hasn’t even spoken yet.

The long, public deliberations leading up to the unveiling of President Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy Tuesday night at 8 pm ET at West Point have given plenty of time and opportunities for the case to be made against the president’s plan. But as he faces louder critical voices from both left and right, this is where the president starts to make the case for a new tack. It’s a lonely place to be right now. The message: “Investments will be based on performance,” a senior administration official tells ABC’s Jake Tapper. “The era of the blank check for President Karzai is over.”
Will this be the last order of additional troops? “The president sure believes so,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told ABC’s Diane Sawyer, on “Good Morning America” Tuesday.

The decision doesn’t have to be about politics for the politics to be critical. No, he can’t be President Bush, not if he wants his base (since he’s not getting Bush’s).

Yet whether he likes it or not (and no president likes it), his is becoming the second straight war presidency. What he didn’t own before, he sure does now.

“Tonight, officially, the Afghanistan war becomes President Obama’s war,” Tapper reported on “GMA.” “The White House says that this final strategy represents true consensus and compromise at that war council table.”

Obama is “tying his presidency to the outcome of a war that has deteriorated since the U.S. ousted the Taliban from power eight years ago,” Bloomberg’s Hans Nichols and Indira A.R. Lakshmanan report.

“Perhaps his toughest task will be balancing his plan to send 30,000 to 35,000 more American troops with talk of new benchmarks for success and the strong signal that U.S. troops will turn over Afghanistan’s security to Afghan forces and get out,” McClatchy’s Steven Thomma and Nancy A. Youssef report.

By the numbers: “The new deployments, along with 22,000 troops he authorized early this year, would bring the total U.S. force in Afghanistan to more than 100,000, more than half of which will have been sent to the war zone by Obama,” Karen DeYoung and Scott Wilson write in The Washington Post. “The combined U.S. and NATO deployments would nearly reach the 40,000 requested last summer by U.S. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the coalition commander in Afghanistan, as part of an intensified counterinsurgency strategy.”

“On top of previous reinforcements already sent this year, the troop buildup will nearly triple the American military presence in Afghanistan that Mr. Obama inherited when he took office and represents a high-stakes gamble by a new commander in chief that he can turn around an eight-year-old war that his own generals fear is getting away from the United States,” Eric Schmitt reports in The New York Times.

The point: “Aides familiar with the new policy insist that Mr. Obama hasn’t ended up where he started his review, planning for an open-ended escalation. He will lay out benchmarks for the U.S. and Afghan governments to meet on the recruitment and training of Afghan security forces, as well as on rooting out corruption that has bedeviled the country,” The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Weisman and Peter Spiegel report.

In the right corner — former Vice President Dick Cheney, worried about “weakness”: “I begin to get nervous when I see the commander in chief making decisions apparently for what I would describe as small ‘p’ political reasons, where he’s trying to balance off different competing groups in society,” Cheney told Politico’s Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei. “Every time he delays, defers, debates, changes his position, it begins to raise questions: Is the commander in chief really behind what they’ve been asked to do?” (Asked whether he’d consider running for president, he responded: “Why would I want to do that?”)

(Robert Gibbs, to Diane Sawyer: “I would be a busy man if all I did was respond to the poppings-off of the former vice president. I’ll be honest with you, Diane: I’m not entirely sure what qualifies the former vice president to render an opinion on Afghanistan.”)

In the left corner — Michael Moore (citing everyone from George Washington to President Obama’s grandmother): “If you go to West Point tomorrow night (Tuesday, 8pm) and announce that you are increasing, rather than withdrawing, the troops in Afghanistan, you are the new war president. Pure and simple. And with that you will do the worst possible thing you could do — destroy the hopes and dreams so many millions have placed in you. With just one speech tomorrow night you will turn a multitude of young people who were the backbone of your campaign into disillusioned cynics. You will teach them what they’ve always heard is true — that all politicians are alike. I simply can’t believe you’re about to do what they say you are going to do. Please say it isn’t so.”

Bob Herbert, in his New York Times column: “After going through an extended period of highly ritualized consultations and deliberations, the president has arrived at a decision that never was much in doubt, and that will prove to be a tragic mistake. It was also, for the president, the easier option.”

On the Hill: “What’s the meaning of victory? I can’t remember a clear answer,” Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., tells Politico’s David Rogers.

One key ally: “Senator John F. Kerry is poised to endorse the outline of President Obama’s plan to send more troops to Afghanistan, a position that would put him at odds with a number of fellow Democrats in Massachusetts and in Congress,” Michael Kranish and Joseph Williams report in The Boston Globe. “Kerry has tentatively decided to back Obama’s new strategy, but wants to go over details, including precise troop numbers, with the president at a White House meeting today, said a Kerry aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision is not final.”

Perhaps not helping perceptions: “I think there’s every possibility that President Bush would have gone largely in this direction, and certainly [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates and [Gen. David] Petraeus are two of the key architects, and of course they were there under Bush as well,” Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said Monday on ABCNews.com’s “Top Line.”

A setting that will look nice, but please just about none of those who are skeptical: “One of the common complaints of George W. Bush’s presidency was his tendency to politicize the military and turn troops into props,” Dana Milbank writes in his Washington Post column. “But now Obama is antagonizing many in his party with an expected announcement that he is sending more troops to Afghanistan, and, to rub it in, he’s making the announcement at one of Bush’s favorite military locations: the U.S. Military Academy at West Point — the very birthplace, seven years ago, of the Bush Doctrine.”

Before he goes — key members of Congress get details. ABC’s Sunlen Miller has more on the president’s day.

On health care — it’s often good to start with a score, even if that score doesn’t change the game.

“The Congressional Budget Office said Monday that the Senate health bill could significantly reduce costs for many people who buy health insurance on their own, and that it would not substantially change premiums for the vast numbers of Americans who receive coverage from large employers,” The New York Times’ Robert Pear and David M. Herszenhorn report. “Centrist Democrats like Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, whose votes are vital to President Obama’s hopes of getting the bill approved, had feared that the measure would drive up costs for people with employer-sponsored coverage. After reading the budget office report, Mr. Bayh said he was reassured on that point.”

One takeaway: “Congressional budget analysts said the measure would leave premiums unchanged or slightly lower for the vast majority of Americans, contradicting assertions by the insurance industry that the average family’s coverage would rise by thousands of dollars if the proposal became law,” Lori Montgomery writes in The Washington Post.

The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn: “We may not get to the point where reform, as currently written, delivers $2,500 in savings to the average American, as President Obama famously (and, perhaps, foolishly) promised on the campaign trail. But this analysis suggests reform can in fact deliver some savings — and that it certainly won’t raise premiums, as so many conservative critics have predicted.”

The flip side: “The report found that for the 17% who buy individual policies, premiums could rise by 10% to 13% by 2016,” Janet Hook reports in the Los Angeles Times. “Those costs would go up mostly because the policies would provide more generous benefits than they do now, the CBO said. And for half of those affected, their own costs would go down because they would receive federal premium subsidies.”

Working on the pay-fors: “How the Democrats resolve the financing question could ultimately prove to be the most important decision they make, because it will resonate far beyond any final action on health care,” Politico’s Jeanne Cummings reports.

The first full Senate votes come Tuesday — and then, more waiting: “Senate health debate roadmap: weeks of waiting, amendments and debate,” per ABC’s Z. Byron Wolf.

Done by Christmas, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tells USA Today’s Kathy Kiely — but not much sooner than that: “I wouldn’t want to have [a final vote] today,” said Reid, D-Nev.

The crashers speak — and say they aren’t crashers after all: “We did not party-crash the White House,” Tareq Salahi told NBC Tuesday morning. “The truth will soon come out.” (But not soon enough.)

More intrigue than how they got past security: Who’s maneuvering against whom in the aftermath.

 ”E-mails turned over to the Secret Service show that Tareq and Michaele Salahi had sought a top Defense Department official’s help to gain access to last week’s White House state dinner,” The Washington Post’s Michael D. Shear and Jason Horowitz report. “People familiar with the inquiry into how the Salahis were able to attend Tuesday’s gala, even though they weren’t on the official guest list, said the Salahis exchanged e-mails with Michele S. Jones, special assistant to the secretary of defense and the Pentagon-based liaison to the White House. It was unclear how well the Salahis know Jones, but Jones includes the Salahis’ lawyer, Paul W. Gardner, as one of her 50 friends on Facebook.”

Jones, in a statement released by the White House: “I did not state at any time, or imply that I had tickets for ANY portion of the evening’s events.”

(Jones, reached by phone by the Post earlier in the day: “I am not going to say anything at this point at all. Oh, my goodness.”)

Whose fault? “It was Cathy [Hargraves, who left the White House in June] who would input all the names, take all the responses, give them to the calligraphers who would address the invites, do the place cards,” a former official told ABC’s Yunji de Nies. “On game day she was a key link to Secret Service because she was posted at the East Portico with them.”

Defending Desiree Rogers — Time’s Michael Scherer: “Is it upsetting that a couple of unapproved boobs snuck into the White House, so they could paw at the President and the Vice President, or is it upsetting that the staff member in charge of the party had a seat at the table? In this case, the answer is, apparently both, though I hope everyone would agree that the latter is far less important than the former.”

Her side: “White House social secretary Desiree Rogers has been asked to testify at a Thursday hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee about how wannabe reality TV stars Tareq and Michaele Salahi crashed the Obama’s first state dinner last week,” the Chicago Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet reports.

Good thing he was no longer interested in the job… “If I could have known nine years ago that this guy was capable of something of this magnitude, obviously I would never have granted the commutation,” former Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., said Monday, per the Los Angeles Times’ Mark Z. Barabak and Nicholas Riccardi.

They write: “But even those sympathetic to the former governor suggested that the case of Maurice Clemmons would most likely hurt Huckabee’s candidacy should he seek the White House again in 2012.”

Margaret Carlson, in her Bloomberg News column: “When most of us were having a lazy Sunday morning after Thanksgiving, Mike Huckabee was seeing his presidential dream evaporate… Being governor is one of the better preparations for running for president. Granting parole is one of the worst.”

On the march: “The D.C. Council, is expected to vote in favor of same-sex marriage on Tuesday, moving Washington, D.C., a big step closer to becoming the first jurisdiction below the Mason-Dixon line to allow full civil equality for gays and lesbians,” ABC’s Teddy Davis reports. “The DC vote, which is expected to pass by a wide margin, is reinforcing the nationwide trend towards gay marriage in legislatures and at the courthouse even though advocates of same-sex marriage are continuing to falter whenever the issue is put directly to a vote of the public.”

In Atlanta, Tuesday is the mayoral run-off: “The headline race is the battle for Atlanta mayor, which pits two-term City Councilwoman Mary Norwood against Kasim Reed, who resigned his state senate seat to run for the job,” Eric Sturges reports in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Several polls suggest the race is tight and both candidates have attacked each other’s record with increased intensity. The volatile issue of race is also a factor in the runoff. Most voters cast their ballots along racial lines in the Nov. 3 general election, and Norwood has said ‘some’ are trying to divide the city along racial lines in this election. Norwood is white and Reed is black.”

The Kicker:

“A lot of people running for office next year, I’ve met with them. They actually want me involved in their campaigns. I want to be helpful, without being hurtful.” — Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., making himself available.

“We didn’t get married this past summer despite the stories to the contrary, but we are looking toward next summer and hope you all will be there to celebrate with us. Happy Holidays!” — E-mail sent by Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky, announcing their engagement.

For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note’s blog . . . all day every day:


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