During President Obama's almost six months in office, support for two key aspects of his national security policy has been greater on the right than on the left. This fact has been curiously underreported. On Afghanistan, conservatives were quicker than their counterparts on the left to praise and defend President Obama's decision to send an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan. On Iraq, they hailed his willingness to go back on a campaign pledge and modify his timeline for troop withdrawals from sixteen to nineteen months. On the left, Obama's policies were greeted with concern about Afghanistan becoming "Obama's Vietnam" and the formation of a "Get out of Afghanistan" caucus made up of the remnants of the "Get out of Iraq" caucus. Key Democrats have threatened to impose benchmarks and limit funding for the war in Afghanistan if progress is not made within a year. Despite this support from Republicans who want to ensure that the United States does not desert Iraq or Afghanistan before the job is done, recent comments by Obama administration officials indicate that the administration's approach may not continue to be so worthy of praise. Last week, during a visit to Afghanistan, National Security Advisor James L. Jones warned Marines that they had to make do with the troops they currently had rather than the forces they wished they had. Sound a little Rummyesque, perhaps? Bob Woodward reports on the conversation:
Now suppose you're the president, Jones told them, and the requests come into the White House for yet more force. How do you think Obama might look at this? Jones asked, casting his eyes around the colonels. How do you think he might feel? Jones let the question hang in the air-conditioned, fluorescent-lighted room. Nicholson and the colonels said nothing. Well, Jones went on, after all those additional troops, 17,000 plus 4,000 more, if there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have "a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment." Everyone in the room caught the phonetic reference to WTF -- which in the military and elsewhere means "What the [expletive]?" Nicholson and his colonels -- all or nearly all veterans of Iraq -- seemed to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get. Jones, speaking with great emphasis to this group of Iraq veterans, said Afghanistan is not Iraq. "We are not going to build that empire again," he said flatly."
Jones' comments came just as the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, begins a 60 day review of the U.S. war strategy. Several days after Jones' remarks, a Washington Post editorial asked "Can commanders in Afghanistan tell the president the truth about troop shortages?" The Pentagon was quick to send a different message -- that requests for additional troops would be considered. Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told reporters that Gen. McChrystal has been told that "you can come back and ask for what you need."This episode wouldn't be so concerning if it was just a misstatement by a National Security Advisor who is widely rumored to be on his way out the door. However, Secretary Gates has repeatedly told everyone who will listen that he doesn't think additional troops will be required and has made frequent references to the fact that the Soviets were unable to win in Afghanistan with more than 100,000 troops in the country. Meanwhile in Iraq, the "empire," Jones referenced, Vice President Biden made the rounds in Baghdad last week, reportedly telling Iraqi leaders, that "if Iraq returned to ethnic violence, the United States would be unlikely to remain engaged, ‘because one, the American people would have no interest in doing that, and as he put it, neither would he or the president.'" It's one thing to prod the Iraqis to take more responsibility for their own security, but it is another entirely to state that if the security situation in Iraq deteriorates the United States will stick to its timeline for withdrawal at all costs. Republicans have been exceedingly supportive of the Obama administration's Iraq and Afghanistan policies, as they should be in a time of war. They have grimaced and bit their tongues as the administration makes the right strategic decisions but avoids discussing either war on a regular basis or explaining to the American people the difficulties that still lie ahead in both countries. This support, however, should not be limitless, especially if the Obama administration decides to disregard U.S. commanders on the ground in both countries and let politics rather than principle determine its wartime policies. President Obama might want to remind his National Security Advisor and other senior officials of his statement during the campaign that "when I am Commander in Chief, I will seek out, listen to, and respect the views of military commanders." That seems to indicate that a different response than "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" is in order.
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