(by Yochi J. Dreazen and Peter Spiegel, WSJ.com) WASHINGTON — The White House is facing mounting pressure from lawmakers to work harder to rally flagging public support for the war in Afghanistan.
With casualties rising, the administration is struggling to persuade voters that the war can be won or is worth the human and financial costs. Afghanistan is President Barack Obama’s top foreign-policy priority, but recent polls show that a majority of voters oppose the war for the first time since the conflict began eight years ago.
The politics of the war are getting trickier for key American allies as well. A junior minister in Britain’s Ministry of Defense resigned Thursday, criticizing his government’s strategy in Afghanistan on the eve of a major speech by Prime Minister Gordon Brown about Britain’s efforts there.
In the U.S., a growing number of lawmakers say that Mr. Obama needs to make the case for Afghanistan more forcefully — and more frequently — than he has done to date.
“The president, unfortunately, because of the crush of everything else, hasn’t talked about Afghanistan all that much,” said Sen. Bob Casey, a centrist Democrat from Pennsylvania, in an interview. “There’s so much on his plate that it has an adverse impact on his ability to spend enough time on Afghanistan.”
The president’s most extensive recent comments about Afghanistan came in an Aug. 17 speech to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Phoenix, where he devoted less than three minutes of a half-hour speech to a conflict he described as “a war of necessity.” Since then, most of Mr. Obama’s public remarks have focused on health care.
White House officials said there were no plans for Mr. Obama to address the Afghan war in a major speech in the near future. Tommy Vietor, an administration spokesman, said that “the president talks about Afghanistan all the time.”
“There are a lot of critical issues the president deals with every day, and a lot of critical issues he talks about,” Mr. Vietor said. “Afghanistan is on the top of his list.”
Still, a raft of recent polls shows that support for the war is falling rapidly, especially among Mr. Obama’s core Democratic and independent constituencies. A CNN/ORC poll late last month found that 74% of Democrats and 57% of independents opposed the war, dragging overall support for the conflict down to 42%.
The CNN poll found that Republican support for the conflict was holding solid at 70%, highlighting the awkward fact that Mr. Obama’s strongest allies on the war are Republican lawmakers who oppose most other parts of his agenda.
“If the president asks for more troops based on the recommendation of the commanders in the field, I expect virtually every House Republican would support the increase,” said a GOP leadership aide. “This is a fight that will be almost entirely among Democrats.”
Some Republicans say they wish Mr. Obama would make a stronger case for the U.S. role in Afghanistan. Asked recently on CNN’s “State of the Union” whether the president had sufficiently explained U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, Sen. Richard Lugar (R., Ind.) said, “No.”
“The president really has to face the fact that his own leadership here is critical,” said Mr. Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations panel.
The Afghan war’s shifting political fortunes could make it harder for the administration to sell the public on the need for further expanding the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama has already agreed to send 21,000 American reinforcements, pushing U.S. troop levels there to a record 68,000, and the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is expected to ask for tens of thousands of additional troops later this month.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert Gates sounded more amenable to such a request than he has in the past. “I’m very open to the recommendations and certainly the perspective of Gen. McChrystal,” Mr. Gates said.
The White House’s relative silence on Afghanistan comes as a surprise to many military and civilian officials at the Pentagon, who witnessed firsthand in 2007 and 2008 how the Bush administration employed Gen. David Petraeus as an effective public advocate for the Iraq war.
Gen. Petraeus, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, testified at high-profile congressional hearings and regularly addressed large audiences at think tanks and other public venues.
The appearances helped to shore up flagging congressional support for the Bush administration’s handling of the conflict, and to prevent lawmakers from making a serious push to force a drawdown of troops.
“There’s a blueprint for how to do this,” a senior defense official who began serving in the Pentagon during the Bush administration said in an interview. “The Bush team knew that Petraeus was a great public face for the war, and they put him out there as often as they could.”
A second senior military official said he believed the Obama administration erred earlier this week by failing to publicly release a new strategic assessment of Afghanistan prepared by Gen. McChrystal. The official argued that a public presentation of the new commander’s strategic vision would have helped rally support for the war effort.
“Americans want to see a plan and how we’re going to achieve success,” the official said. “We owe it to them.”
Gen. McChrystal’s gloomy assessment was classified only at the “confidential” level, rather than the more sensitive “secret” or “top secret” classifications, meaning it could have been easily scrubbed for public release.
Mr. Gates told reporters that he was comfortable with the administration’s efforts to rally support for the war, and said Mr. Obama’s public explanations of his strategy for the conflict had been “crystal clear.”
“The nation has been at war for eight years,” he said. “The fact that Americans would be tired of having their sons and daughters at risk and in battle is not surprising.”
-Naftali Bendavid contributed to this article.
Write to Yochi J. Dreazen at email@example.com and Peter Spiegel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. a) What do recent polls indicate about American views on the Afghan war? (see para. 2, 9-10)
b) What might this shift in opinion make it difficult for President Obama to do in Afghanistan?
2. How do you explain the different levels of support for the war between Republicans and Democrats?
3. What are U.S. lawmakers asking President Obama to do to increase the public’s support for the Afghan war?
4. What was the last public remarks the President made about the war in Afghanistan?
5. How does White House spokesman Tommy Vietor respond to calls for more talk from the President about Afghanistan?
6. How does the Obama administration’s approach on the Afghan war differ from that of the Bush administration?
7. Among other powers and responsibilities, Article II of the U.S. Constitution makes the President commander-in-chief of the United States armed forces. As such, should the president be more vocal in gaining public support for the war in Afghanistan? Explain your answer.