Congress’s Tepid Reaction to Obama’s Afghanistan Plan

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Congressional reaction to the 30,000-troop surge in Afganistan was as tepid as President Obama’s West Point speech. As details of the plan leaked out throughout the day — with more than 30 members traveling to the White House to be personally briefed — few spoke with passion: no one – including Obama – mentioned human rights, the plight of a people at war for generations or the fate of Afghani women. For many Dems, already worried that not enough attention is being paid to the plight of American workers (and voters), the war feels like a luxury – something akin to global warming. Sure, there’s a threat somewhere down the line but hey, America recycles and Obama already added 17,000 troops in Afghanistan earlier this year. Surely these problems will not blow up in the next six months like, say, 15% unemployment: why not kick the can down the road? “Is there any way that we can delay [paying for the surge] so that we don’t stifle the recovery that seems to be beginning now?” bemoaned Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Independent who supports Obama’s plan.

In March, for the first time in Gallup polling history, Americans by a margin of 51% to 42% said economic growth should take priority over environmental concerns. A September Gallup poll found jobs and the economy the most important issue facing Americans followed by health care and unemployment. The Iraq war ranked sixth, at the bottom of the list. Neither Afghanistan nor global warming even made the cut, though “dissatisfaction with government” came in fourth. A November Gallup poll found Republicans beating Democrats in generic congressional match ups 48% to 44% and, worse, winning Independent voters 52% to 30%. And just before Tuesday’s prime time speech another Gallup poll found Obama’s approval rating on his handling of Afghanistan has sunken to an all time low: just 35%, down 14 points from early September.

If not for Obama’s campaign promise and the Dems’ eternal fear of being labeled yet again weak on national security, you get the feeling many Democrats (especially those facing tough races next November) wished the problem would simply go away with the least amount of blood and treasure spent as possible. Even Obama’s closest allies hesitated to grant their support. “President Obama asked for time to make his decision on a new policy in Afghanistan. I am going to take some time to think through the proposal he presented tonight,” Dick Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois and No. 2 Senate Democrat, said in a statement. Returning from the White House, where Obama briefed them on his plan, Rep. Jim Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat, called the meeting “civil and somber”; House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer labeled it “sober.”

Some Democrats frowned with distaste at the spectacle of nation building in Afghanistan. “I don’t think there’s a reasonable chance of a successful strategy with regards to nation building,” said Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who said he was inclined to oppose the surge. “We have a central [Afghani] government that’s relatively weak that has serious corruption issues — so I don’t think that should be our goal, I don’t think we can achieve that.” Others were upset that Obama’s immense popularity abroad hadn’t returned dividends in the form of NATO troops: Obama will be lucky to get the 5,000 additional NATO forces he’s aiming for. “Why are American taxpayers and our brave soldiers bearing almost all the burden in what should be an international effort? Where are Europe, Russia, China and the rest of the world?” demanded Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent.

And while Republicans almost unilaterally support Obama’s plan, the biggest concern on both sides of the aisle was how to pay for it. The surge will cost an estimated $30 billion a year on top of the $3.6 billion a month already being spent on the war. A few Dems hoped the offsets would come naturally. “We should see some reduction in costs for Iraq,” said Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat. “And hopefully the health care plan should relieve us of significant expense.”

Realistically, Iraq will actually cost more in the short run to safely remove tens of thousands of troops and huge amounts of equipment. And health care reform – if passed — doesn’t kick in until 2013 with net savings not predicted until the end of the first decade. Obama, meanwhile, plans to have all 30,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan by the summer and for withdrawals  — if everything goes ideally — to start by July 2011. A few Republicans scoffed at the quaint Democratic notion that the war should be offset (this is the party, after all, that passed seven years worth of largely unpaid-for war supplementals). “It’s ironic that people start talking about raising taxes and exacerbating the deficit when it comes to our national security but on the stimulus people didn’t think twice in spending $1.3 trillion, including interest, in borrowed money,” said Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican. “I mean with 43 cents to every dollar being spent in Washington being borrowed, the Democrats finally become fiscal hawks and worry about deficits over this — it’s a little odd.”

And yet every Democrat — and most Republicans — I spoke with was adamant that the  funding, which is expected to come in a supplemental bill early next year, should be offset. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey suggested a war tax. Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, proposed war bonds. “People invested in their country in that fashion during World War II, it made a lot of sense back then,” Nelson told reporters. “I don’t know why it wouldn’t make sense today especially in lieu of jumping to taxes.” Perhaps the harshest plan came from Senator John McCain, Obama’s erstwhile Republican opponent. McCain, who supports the surge, suggested cutting non-defense discretionary spending which has ballooned nearly 15% in the last two budgetary years – both passed under the Obama Administration. “It’s pork barrel spending, corrupt spending around here. It’s corruption around here,” McCain railed to reporters Tuesday. “Increases over last year’s appropriations bills that have been approved by the Congress so far total to some $60 billion.”

Republicans also weren’t particularly enamored with Obama’s plan to start pulling troops out in 18 months and to see the war ended within three years. “As this surge of forces produces results in security, governance and in capabilities of the Afghanistan Security Forces, we must ensure that the transition of responsibilities is based on conditions, not timelines,” warned Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a statement. And though some progressives had been calling on Obama to include a timeline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, the provision was not enough to outweigh the harm, in progressive eyes, of such an expanded footprint. “I feel we have accomplished a lot with regard to having a time limit and not having it be open ended,” said Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who first called for a withdrawal timeline. “What’s disturbing is there’s a troop build up in the interim for not a clear purpose.” Feingold said the provision would not be enough for him to support the legislation.

Politicians from both sides expressed frustration with the President for yet again laying out policy in broad strokes with few details: What does troops coming home in July 2011 mean? How many? What defines success? How will the enterprise be paid for? “Until there’s a full debate I don’t think we know exactly where individual senators will land,” said Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat who has yet to make up his mind on whether to support the surge. “Just as the President engaged in a thorough review, I think Congress should do the same, and that means hearings, that means debate.” The Senate Armed Services Committee will kick proceedings off with testimony Wednesday morning from Defense Secretary Bob Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen. But, with health care dominating the agenda for the foreseeable future, a full Senate debate will have to wait. In the meantime, since Obama doesn’t need Congress’s permission so much as their money, troop deployments are expected to begin.

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