|Obama takes heat on Afghan timing
By: Mike Allen
November 15, 2009 04:07 PM EST
|SHANGHAI, China – President Barack Obama made no effort to conceal his irritation when his press corps used the first question of his maiden Far East trip to ask what was taking him so long on Afghanistan.
Jennifer Loven of The Associated Press had asked: “Can you explain to people watching and criticizing your deliberations what piece of information you’re still lacking to make that call.”
“With respect to Afghanistan, Jennifer,” the president scolded, “I don’t think this is a matter of some datum of information that I’m waiting on. … Critics of the process … tend not to be folks who … are directly involved in what’s happening in Afghanistan. Those who are, recognize the gravity of the situation and recognize the importance of us getting this right.”
The cool president’s heated response reflected second-guessing from the press and Pentagon about a process that has spanned eight formal meetings with his war cabinet, totaling about 20 hours.
The White House has been deliberately portraying the process as thorough, emphasizing the opposing views the president has considered, as a way of positing a contrast with President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
But former Vice President Dick Cheney has accused the president of “dithering,” and the military brass has used leaks to push for a quick decision, with the original hope that additional troops would be in place well before the traditional spring fighting season.
In a tough column in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times headlined “Obama must rethink rethinking Afghanistan,” Doyle McManus said the deliberations were “starting to look like dangerous indecision”: “In George W. Bush, we had a president who shot first and asked questions later. In Barack Obama, we have a president who asks the right questions but hesitates to pull the trigger.”
While foreign trips often provide presidents with a respite from a pressing issue, Afghanistan has shadowed Obama during his four-country swing. He has continued to work on his plan on the road. And in their few opportunities to ask Obama a question, U.S. reporters have pressed the president on Afghanistan rather than inquiring about Asian alliances.
Obama will likely have one more war council when he returns to Washington later this week, even though Wednesday’s session had been billed as the last one. The president is said to have most of the information he needs, but is working through some details.
Aides have also begun to express open irritation at the second-guessing.
White House senior adviser David Axelrod, who attends the deliberations but says he does not “have a seat at the table,” told POLITICO that the impatience on the momentous decision is a symptom of today’s “A.D.D. political culture.”
“It’s related to politics,” Axelrod said. “No matter what decision he makes, if he were to send troops, the first brigade would not arrive until next spring. So this notion that he is delaying is simply not true. He’s been strong in asking [questions]. He understands what the parameters are for this decision and he’s not going to be pushed into it in order to deal with any kind of transient political controversy.”
Referring to the previous administration, Axelrod added: “When the lives of Americans in uniform are at stake, when enormous resources are at stake, the president has a responsibility to make a thoughtful, well-informed strategic decision. It’s something that hasn’t always been done, and we’ve paid a terrible price for it.”
At a briefing in Tokyo at the trip’s start, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs expressed his frustration, reeling off a list of news reports claiming to know where Obama was headed.
“First, there were stories that we were coalescing around a certain amount of options, right?” Gibbs lectured. “Then a week later, we were sending 34,000 troops. All of you e-mailed me about that. A day and a half later, we’d settled on 40,000. That was all in about a 10-day period of time, all with the backdrop of the president had already made a decision, despite the fact that I had stood up here many times and said he hadn’t.”
In a further blast, Gibbs added: “I can’t imagine that people who listen to whatever sources said the President had settled on a decision. I would challenge each and every one of you … to call the people. … Ask them why a decision hasn’t been made, after telling everybody and taking up lots of ink and recyclable paper about a decision that’s already been made.”
Axelrod also jabbed back hard at criticism from former (and future) Republican president candidate Mitt Romney, who charged that the president “can’t make up his mind on Afghanistan.”
“I know that Governor Romney has never had responsibility for any decision akin to this, so he just may not be familiar with all that it entails,” Axelrod told CNN’s John King in a “State of the Union” interview from Singapore. “But I think the American people are being well-served by a process that is assiduous and in which every aspect of this is considered. Because, after all, lives of American servicemen are involved here. An enormous investment on the part of the American people, — we ought to get it right.”
In answering the AP reporter, Obama said the decision will be made “soon.”
“I am very pleased with how the process has proceeded,” he said. “And those who participated I think would acknowledge that it has been not a academic exercise, but a necessary process in order to make sure that we’re making the best possible decisions.”