Obama Hears War Concerns

Posted October 6, 2009 at 6:34pm

Congressional leaders emerged from a White House meeting Tuesday believing that their concerns had been heard by the president over his strategy in Afghanistan — but with no clear sense of whether he plans to send tens of thousands more troops into the war-torn region.

In the huddle with more than 30 top lawmakers, President Barack Obama told attendees in the bipartisan, bicameral gathering that he is looking for middle ground between those who want to vastly increase troop levels in Afghanistan and others who want to withdraw.

“The president reiterated that we need this debate to be honest and dispense with the straw-man argument that this is about either doubling down or leaving Afghanistan,— said an administration official who gave reporters a readout of the meeting.

“The president was clear that he will make the decision that he thinks will best prevent future attacks on the American homeland and our allies,— the official said. “He also made it clear that his decision won’t make everybody in the room or the nation happy, but underscored his commitment to work on a collaborative basis with the understanding that everyone wants what is best for the country.—

The White House has been insisting that Obama will not be rushed into making his decision on how to proceed in Afghanistan — a stance that has raised concerns among backers of troop increases that he will wait too long as the military situation deteriorates.

But the pace of consideration has picked up markedly in recent days, with Obama holding a series of meetings with his national security advisers and with more sessions scheduled for this week. National Security Adviser James Jones is also expected to brief the full House in a closed meeting later this week in the Capitol Visitor Center.

Republicans exiting the White House meeting said they would be unhappy with anything less than Obama heeding the advice of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, who reportedly wants up to 40,000 new troops on the ground.

“An important aspect of this whole decision-making is that there are a number of options, but the option that’s presented by our military commanders in the field, endorsed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should be given, obviously, additional weight because they were correct … in employing the strategy that succeeded in Iraq,— Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed McCain’s concerns, saying he is worried about Obama going with the same “half-measures— that nearly led to failure in Iraq before the troop surge.

Democrats praised Obama for trying to lay out a clear strategy before deciding on what resources he needs. “There’s a very clear, deliberative analysis taking place,— Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said.

But they were sharply divided in their advice to the president. Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) emphasized the need to beef up training of Afghan security forces before sending more troops overseas. Meanwhile, House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) pressed Obama to provide whatever level of troops and resources are sought by McChrystal.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said she thinks Congress and the country lack the will to support another round of troop increases. But during Tuesday’s meeting, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) advocated giving military leaders the resources to carry out whatever mission is dictated by the White House.

Hoyer noted after the meeting that he expected Obama to make his decision about troops “in weeks, not months.— Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also appeared to be on different pages after emerging from the session. Speaking to reporters, Pelosi said the House would not simply rubber-stamp Obama’s plans for Afghanistan

“Let me just say that there was agreement that it’s a difficult decision for the president to make, that we all respected that he was looking into every aspect of this,— Pelosi said. “Whether we agreed with it or voted for it remains to be seen, when we see what the president put forth.—

Moments before, Reid suggested that everyone would line up behind the president, no matter what he decided. “The one thing that I think was interesting is that everyone, Democrats and Republicans, said whatever decision you make, we’ll support it basically,— Reid said, drawing a look of surprise from Pelosi.

Reid later backtracked and said it was the Republicans who had stated that they would support whatever decision the president made. Reid suggested this meant the GOP should not interfere with any upcoming war supplemental request.

But McConnell indicated this was not the case. “I think the Republicans will be able to make the decision for themselves,— McConnell said.

House Republicans, who have complained for months that Democratic leaders have left them out of negotiations on key issues such as health care and Afghanistan, said they hoped the White House meeting was a sign of renewed bipartisanship.

“I’m hopeful there is a new page or a new leaf being turned over in terms of perhaps more of a two-way discussion in this town,— House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said. He noted that Obama “will need the support of Congress,— and Republicans in particular, in order to implement his Afghanistan strategy.

As Obama mulls his decision on the troops, Congressional Democrats continue to clash with each other and the White House over the need for McChrystal to testify to Congress about his assessment of the situation on the ground.

The administration has signaled not to expect a visit from McChrystal anytime soon, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates said as much Monday, when he warned that taking testimony from the U.S. commander before Obama decides on a plan forward “would put Gen. McChrystal in an impossible situation.—

Reid last week endorsed the administration’s idea of waiting “until the president makes up his mind— on his strategy before hearing from the U.S. commander. But on Tuesday, Hoyer reiterated that McChrystal should come to Congress to explain his troop request.

“I continue to believe and recommend that Gen. McChrystal, at some point in time, in the relatively near future, before we make any determination as to what we should do, testify before the Congress,— Hoyer said.