Obama's Tough Sell on Afghanistan

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

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Another mistake that Obama has made on Afghanistan, says Kurt Volker, former U.S. ambassador to NATO and senior fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, is how he has presented the strategy to the public throughout his presidency. Though candidate Obama pushed for renewed efforts in Afghanistan, as president, he ended up imposing deadlines and constraints on troop levels, raising doubts about the war. "There has been a hesitancy or lack of desire to make massive commitments to Afghanistan even though it was described during the campaign as the war of necessity," Volker says.

So, can Obama reconcile with voters in time for his re-election?

To his credit, Obama has so far delivered on Iraq. Barring further negotiations with the Iraqi government, the administration is poised to carry out its planned withdrawal of all U.S. troops by the end of the year. And in Libya, Volker says there's a window before Congress leaves in August for him to make a stronger case for the U.S. role in the conflict and get congressional approval. So far, however, it doesn't seem the president has plans to do so.

Of course, Obama's real saving grace would be if Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qadhafi were to step down or be killed in one of the increasingly frequent air strikes on his compound in Tripoli. "Nothing succeeds like success," Volker says. "If Qadhafi goes, all of a sudden [Obama] will look like a genius. It's quite possible that in the end, he goes, and that will be a good thing for everybody, including the president." [See photos of the unrest in Libya.]

As for Afghanistan, it will depend on how voters perceive Obama's next move. If he announces a withdrawal as expected, the president is technically sticking to his 2009 promise to begin pulling out troops by July 2011. That is one argument in his favor. Also, according to Mieke Eoyang, a national security expert at the moderate think tank Third Way, while Obama's modest plans for withdrawal may upset his liberal base initially, it could win with the more moderate general electorate. Eoyang says that Obama needs to convince people that starting now, America's on a glide path out of Afghanistan, as in Iraq.

  • See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
  • Check out our roundup of Afghanistan political cartoons.
  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East uprisings.