Don't kid yourself. President Obama’s decision to withdraw 33,000 troops from Afghanistan before he stands for reelection is not driven by the United States’ “position of strength” in the war zone as much as it is by grim economic and political realities at home.
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A sagging economy, a soaring national debt, and an increasingly restive Congress pushed Obama to order troop reductions that are both deeper and faster than recommended by his military commanders.
“America,” the president said in a prime-time address from the East Room, “it is time to focus on nation building here at home.”
In announcing his decision, which still leaves 68,000 troops in the country after the 2012 election, Obama focused on a set of numbers that pander to a war-weary nation—10,000 troops out this year and another 23,000 in 2012—keeping a promise he made in 2009 to begin winding down the “surge” by the middle of this year.
By 2014, Obama said, “this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.”
(RELATED: How The White House Played Petraeus)
But the president’s eye is set on numbers that have little to do with battlefield strategy and everything to do with his reelection hopes. They include:
- Fifty-six percent of Americans say U.S. troops should be brought home as soon as possible, up from 40 percent a year ago (Pew Research Center).
- Fewer than a quarter of people see signs of improvement in the economy and two-thirds say the country is on the wrong track. A clear majority of Americans say their children are destined to a lower standard of living (Bloomberg News National Poll).
- The United States has spent $1.3 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade. Afghanistan alone is costing about $120 billion this year.
“Now,” Obama said, “we must invest in America’s greatest resource—our people.” He called for more spending on infrastructure and new energies and urged Americans to “recapture the common purpose that we shared at the beginning of this time of war.''
White House operatives went to great lengths to show Obama shifting focus from wars abroad to domestic issues at home. Their public-relations plan called for, among other things, leaking word that Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, recommended a more limited withdrawal.
The usually leak-averse White House also made sure reporters were told that both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, two hawks in the Obama cabinet, had accepted Obama’s decision—but only reluctantly.
The message as framed by the Obama political team: He knows it’s the economy, stupid; he’ll focus on it like a laser beam, even if it means “defying” his commanders and Cabinet.
In doing so, Obama laid out a “more centered course” in U.S. foreign policy. Without calling it a new doctrine, Obama said the United States must be “as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute.”
“When threatened, we must respond with force—but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas,” Obama said. He cited Libya as an example of the United States leading a coalition whose aim is to help a nation win freedom.
Obama does not need to worry as much as past Democratic presidents about being labeled soft on national security—not after giving the order that led to the assassination of Osama bin Laden. No, his biggest concern is being labeled tone deaf on joblessness and debt.
He saw the writing on the wall when a growing number of lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, clamored for a drawdown in Afghanistan. The shift was most pronounced among the candidates seeking the GOP presidential nomination. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who entered the race on Tuesday, hammered Obama not from the right, but from the left.
“I think there is room to draw down more,” Huntsman told ABC.
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia was even more pointed about Obama’s choice—more war or steps toward peace? “We must choose,” Manchin said in a warning shot issued before Obama’s address, “and I choose America.”
In the end, Obama chose the clearest course to reelection.