Obama's Tough Sell on Afghanistan

The candidate who criticized George W. Bush is now a war president himself.


War defined the presidency of George W. Bush. Now, his successor is striving to make sure it doesn't do the same to him.

President Obama speaks to the nation tonight, outlining his plans for withdrawing troops in Afghanistan. The chief executive who was seen by voters as an antidote to the war cabinet of Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Obama does so presiding over three conflicts—Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. There's also the ongoing drone campaigns against al Qaeda militants in Pakistan and Yemen. For Obama, the challenge will be convincing the public that he's not the kind of war-mongering president he criticized in the past. [Check out our roundup of Afghanistan political cartoons.]

During his 2008 campaign, voters weary of the war in Iraq saw Obama as a fresh contrast from George W. Bush, especially on contentious national security issues like holding captured terrorism suspects at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba. But just as he did with Guantanamo, reversing his campaign pledge to close it, Obama as president has found himself taking positions similar to Bush's on national security.

Obama called Afghanistan the "good" war in contrast to his criticism of Bush's invasion of Iraq. But that hasn't sat well with the Democratic base and, increasingly, with moderates and some in the GOP. Polls repeatedly show Americans have grown tired of the war in Afghanistan, especially during a time of economic hardship. The May killing of Osama bin Laden has only heightened the pressure to pull out more quickly, since finding bin Laden and neutralizing al Qaeda was the reason for the war in the first place.

In recent days, top administration officials have hinted that Obama's initial drawdown plan in Afghanistan will be modest, with only about 10 percent of the approximately 100,000 troops coming home by the end of the year. Reports also suggest that the president intends to bring home the remainder of the more than 30,000 troops sent as part of the surge, which Obama began in 2009, by the end of 2012. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]

While this gradual drawdown is favored by military leaders, including outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama will have a harder time convincing war-tired voters, particularly his past supporters. "We knew that this was what the president was committed to doing, but we're also weary of this war, and don't see it bringing success," says David Cortright, the director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and author of Ending Obama's War. "It's not worth it."

The American people, now more than ever, want U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, only 39 percent of Americans want to "keep the troops there until the situation has stabilized," while more than half (56 percent) want as quick a withdrawal as possible. That's a reversal from the same poll taken just before Obama was elected president in September 2008 in which 61 percent favored a continued troop presence and 33 percent favored withdrawal.

Many analysts predict the Taliban will simply wait for American troops to leave and then take control of the country. Adding to the chorus of calls for withdrawal have been comments from Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, who recently referred to U.S. soldiers as occupiers and made public the fact that America had held talks with the Taliban.

As if Afghanistan were not a big enough headache for Obama, there's the not-so-small matter of Libya. Many in Congress are upset with the undeclared war there, which is officially a NATO action but relies heavily on U.S. assistance. With Election Day less than 18 months away, Obama needs a course correction if he is going to position himself as more peacemaker than warmonger.

Part of Obama's problem in both these conflicts, Cortright says, is that the president has deferred too readily to the pressures of NATO and his own military leaders rather than to the changing will of the American people. "In Afghanistan, even with the troop reduction, there's no fundamental shift in strategy," he says. "That suggests that he continues to believe the military pressure is the thing that somehow is going to bring the positive result. And that's clearly what he's following in Libya as well." [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East uprisings.]