By Sam Youngman - 12/01/09 01:25 AM EST
In a defining moment of his presidency, Barack Obama on Tuesday night will unveil his new strategy for winning the war in Afghanistan.
The president’s plea for more troops will come as powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill publicly express their opposition to the war while Republicans press for at least 40,000 additional soldiers.
Presidents are, by and large, defined by the wars they wage. Earlier this year, as they moved a war supplemental bill through the House and Senate, congressional Democrats and Obama blamed President George W. Bush for neglecting Afghanistan to focus on the war in Iraq.
But the situation in Afghanistan has further deteriorated with Obama in the White House, with polls showing that more Americans believe the war is not worth fighting. October was the deadliest month for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon, which stated that 59 military personnel perished.
While the decision to send more troops into Afghanistan is different in many respects from Bush’s 2007 troop surge in Iraq, the move shows that Obama has taken full ownership of the Afghanistan war.
The president is unlikely to win over many congressional liberals, who want the U.S. to begin a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. In order to sell his plan, Obama must convince centrist Democrats and independents who have grown increasingly skeptical of American involvement in Afghanistan. He also must persuade Republicans that he is not shortchanging his military leaders on the ground.
Obama’s Tuesday speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point is being seen within and outside the White House as a watershed moment. There was a sense of gravity at the White House on Monday as Obama and his aides prepared for the announcement.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama had been consulting with members of Congress on Monday and will continue to do so on Tuesday. Obama is set to meet with a bipartisan, bicameral group of at least 31 lawmakers at the White House on Tuesday afternoon before he leaves for West Point.
Obama spent much of Monday informing world leaders and allies about what his decision will entail.
Gibbs declined to divulge much of what Obama will detail on Tuesday night, but he did say that the president is sending more troops to help Afghan security officials build and train their ranks and target al Qaeda and extremist networks.
But Gibbs added that Obama will also stress that he is not making an open-ended commitment to the country. U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan for more than eight years.
Obama’s decision on a troop buildup comes in the wake of GOP criticism that the president has been “dithering” since top U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation of sending another 40,000 troops was leaked to The Washington Post.
Democrats rebut that criticism, noting the president ordered a full and exhaustive review of the Afghanistan strategy that included hours-long meetings with his national security team in the White House Situation Room.
Following an October meeting with lawmakers at the White House, the president and Democrats counseled patience as Republicans publicly called for him to heed McChrystal’s advice.
But Democrats were also divided, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pledging to fall in line with what Obama has ordered. After raising her eyebrows as Reid made his comment, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offering a more cautious tone, saying it “remains to be seen” if House Democrats will support the president’s strategy.
With little help from Republicans, Pelosi helped move a war-funding bill through the House earlier this year, promising anti-war Democrats it would be the last war supplemental. At the time, Pelosi did not call for timelines for the Afghanistan war, though more on the left are calling for an exit strategy this time around.
Over the weekend, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), who has proposed a bill to increase taxes to pay for the Afghanistan war, said it would be a “fool’s errand” to send more troops to help a corrupt Afghanistan government.
“The problem is you can have the best policy in the world, but if you don’t have the tools to implement it, it isn’t worth a beanbag,” Obey said on CNN.
Republicans, however, appeared to be taking a wait-and-see approach to hear what Obama says Tuesday night.
House GOP leadership aides told The Hill that most rank-and-file lawmakers are likely to keep their powder dry on whether to support the president’s request for 34,000 troops until McChrystal testifies before Congress.
“Republicans will continue to provide oversight, whether it be through codels [congressional delegation trips], briefings, hearings … [We] will continue to monitor the situation on the ground to ensure that Gen. McChrystal has the resources he needs,” a GOP leadership source said. “That’s something that we will be very attuned to: Does he have the resources he needs to succeed in a decisive manner?”
The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on Wednesday morning, followed by the House Foreign Relations Committee in the afternoon.
At both hearings, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen will testify. The House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hear testimony from Gates and Mullen on Thursday.
McChrystal is expected to testify before Congress next week.
Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) met with McChrystal while on a codel to Afghanistan over Thanksgiving.
“The generals and troops on the ground offered confidence that, given the proper resources, we can achieve our mission of rooting out al Qaeda and preventing the Taliban from taking hold of the Afghan government,” the Republican Study Committee chairman said in a statement on Monday. “If [Obama] offers a clear and resolute commitment for success, without hedges and backdoors, we will be proud to match that pledge.”
Former Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino said the amount of time Obama took is no longer the issue, adding that she thinks Republicans will fall in line if Obama’s strategy is viewed as meeting McChrystal’s request.
“While they might grumble at the process, they’d be better-served, as would the troops and the country, if they rally behind the Democrats,” Perino said. “The Democrats aren’t going to deny the president the funding for the troops, even though they’ll grumble about the cost and their fear of ‘escalation.’ ”
Molly K. Hooper and Roxana Tiron contributed to this article.