For Obama, Afghanistan troop-level decision has risks, rewards

No matter how many troops President Obama announces will leave Afghanistan in his prime-time address to the nation Wednesday night, the United States will be at war on Election Day 2012. 

This means as many as 60,000 to 70,000 U.S. troops will still be in Afghanistan, which will force the anti-war Obama to explain why the nation is still in that part of the world 11 years after Sept. 11 and more than a year after the killing of Osama bin Laden. 

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This is a risk for a president who must appeal to both independents and liberals to form a winning reelection coalition in 2012. The left is already disappointed with Obama for sending more troops to Afghanistan last year, even though in doing so Obama largely fulfilled a campaign promise. 

A poll from The Hill released on Monday found that 72 percent of voters believe the U.S. is involved in too many military interventions and would like to see them reduced. Troops remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. is backing the NATO action in Libya and forces are involved in counterterrorism operations in Pakistan and Yemen. 

Given the activity, the White House has to be pleased to see Obama’s Republican opponents lining up in favor of ending the Afghanistan war, a reversal from the Bush years, when most Republicans backed the White House’s decision to launch military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Obama already looks strong on the issue of national security, given the successful mission he ordered that killed bin Laden. While Obama’s poll bounce is long gone from that mission and bin Laden’s death will be old news next year, it’s still something the president can tout on the campaign trail as he justifies his decision. 

What’s more, the GOP field at times appears to be conceding the tough-on-national-security card to Obama. 

Had Rip Van Winkle fallen asleep in 2007 only to wake up now, he would be shocked at the reversal by the parties on war. 

The anti-war Obama is flying drones over Yemen and is locked in a battle with Congress over his authority to bomb Libya. His allies on the Libya mission include Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who disagrees with the president that the Libya war does not require congressional authorization under the War Powers Act, but still supports the mission strongly. 

Obama’s main Republican challengers want to pull out of Afghanistan quickly. 

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who entered the race Tuesday after serving as Obama’s ambassador to China, called for refocusing resources at home. Last week he said the U.S. can’t be a “traffic cop” in Afghanistan.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the GOP front-runner so far, also said it was time to bring troops home from Afghanistan as soon as possible, prompting McCain’s ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to warn Romney risked looking like former President Carter.

“It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes to our generals that we can hand the country over to the Taliban military in a way that they’re able to defend themselves,” Romney said at the New Hampshire debate. 

He then corrected himself: “Excuse me, the Afghan military to defend themselves from the Taliban. That’s an important distinction.”

Given those statements, MoveOn might be more likely to endorse Huntsman than Obama. And is Karl Rove considering an attack ad similar to the notorious one that aired during Max Cleland’s 2002 reelection campaign, when the Vietnam veteran, who lost both legs in that conflict, was accused of being soft on terrorism? 

While Obama’s reelection is likely to be determined by the economy, which will take center stage in the 2012 contest, national security won’t be off the table and will be an issue. 

And while it looks like a strong card for the president, there are risks to Obama, too. 

A successful terrorist attack could destroy Obama if it allows Republicans to paint him as weak, for example. Casualties could also rise in Iraq as the nation prepares to remove all troops. 

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This makes it even more surprising that so many in the GOP are giving the president cover by also calling for quick ends to the Afghanistan presence. 

Republicans are taking that position because they can read polls too, and a steady stream of surveys, like The Hill’s mentioned above, show greater and greater war fatigue among voters. 

So it makes sense for the GOP to tack left. Today.

But tomorrow, and next year and the year after that, America will be at war. If Republicans forget that, they might be ceding an advantage to the man they hope to unseat.

If nothing else, Obama has been consistent on Afghanistan, and the lesson from the elections of 2002 and 2004 is that consistency is a huge asset in national-security debates.

The gray areas that come with the fog of war are boiled down to black and white when voters go to the polls. Gray is what killed the presidential hopes of John Kerry. 

But if the GOP continues to go yellow, Obama can go as gray as he wants. 

Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill.