Iowa reaction to Obama's Afghanistan drawdown plans

President Barack Obama announced a slight change in our Afghanistan policy on television last night.

[S]tarting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer, fully recovering the surge I announced at West Point. After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.

He asserted that the U.S. undertakes this drawdown “from a position of strength,” as the Al Qaeda terrorist network is now “under more pressure than at any time since 9/11.” He said the U.S. can achieve its goal to allow “no safe-haven” from which terorists “can launch attacks against our homeland, or our allies.” Obama also linked his gradual drawdown to boosting the U.S. economy:

Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource – our people. We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industry, while living within our means. We must rebuild our infrastructure and find new and clean sources of energy. […]

America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.

We’d have more resources to invest in the U.S. economy if we were bringing more troops home sooner. By the end of next summer our troop presence in Afghanistan will still be larger than it was when Obama became president. He ordered at least 21,000 additional U.S. troops to that war zone before the surge of 30,000 troops he announced at West Point in December 2009. Recent polling suggests a majority of Americans support withdrawing troops from Afghanistan at a faster pace.

We’d also be better positioned to “focus on nation building” at home if the president had not agreed to extend all the Bush tax cuts and bought into the austerity politics that makes another federal stimulus package unthinkable.

After the jump I’ve posted the full text of Obama’s televised remarks, along with comments released by Democratic Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Leonard Boswell (D, IA-03). Boswell praised Obama’s plan “to significantly reduce troops by the end of the year” as “an important first step in lessening our military presence and financial obligations in Afghanistan.” In contrast, Harkin said U.S. troops should be brought home from Afghanistan at a faster pace, saying, “We cannot justify the continued loss of life” and “can’t sustain the nearly $10 billion we are spending each month in Afghanistan this year.” Harkin questioned our presence in Afghanistan following the killing of Osama bin Laden. He was among 27 U.S. senators (24 Democrats, two Republicans and one independent) who wrote to Obama earlier this month urging “a shift in strategy and the beginning of a sizable and sustained reduction of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, beginning in July 2011.”

I will update this post if other members of Iowa’s Congressional delegation comment on Obama’s speech. Representative Dave Loebsack (D, IA-02) is the only Iowan on the House Armed Services Committee. Last month Representative Bruce Braley (D, IA-01) called for “immediate withdrawal of our combat troops from Afghanistan,” bringing them home by the end of this year.

In related news, the U.S. Senate on June 21 unanimously confirmed Leon Panetta as the new Secretary of Defense. Greg Jaffe reported on outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ reaction to Obama’s speech last night:

“I support the President’s decision because it provides our commanders with enough resources, time and, perhaps most importantly, flexibility to bring the surge to a successful conclusion.” It’s clear that Gates would have preferred the surge troops stay in place through the end of 2012. But his statement suggests he still believes that the military will have enough forces to continue with the current counterinsurgency strategy.

UPDATE: Braley’s statement is now also below. He doesn’t agree with Obama’s plan and wants troops to come home sooner.

LATE UPDATE: Loebsack’s statement is now below.

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Panel will study how to end Don't Ask, Don't Tell

During his State of the Union speech last week, President Barack Obama promised, “This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.” Today the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing today on the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made headlines by saying he believes “the right thing to do” is to let gays serve openly:

Adm. Mike Mullen’s statement was the strongest yet from the uniformed military on this volatile issue, although he stressed that he was “speaking for myself and myself only.”

He told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday he is deeply troubled by a policy that forces people to “lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate committee he also supports ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. However, he is appointing a panel to study how to lift the ban for a full year, meaning that hundreds more men and women are likely to be discharged under the policy before it goes away. The Obama administration is expected to implement new rules on purging troops under this policy, but it’s not yet clear how much that will reduce the number of discharges while Gates’ panel studies the issue. According to MSNBC, “more than 10,900 troops have been fired under the policy” since 1993, but “The 2009 figure – 428 – was dramatically lower than the 2008 total of 619.”

Meanwhile, at today’s hearing Senator John McCain argued against reviewing the policy at this time, saying it boosts “cohesion” and “unit morale.” He also presented a letter signed by 1000 officers who support Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Come on, McCain. Even a jerk like Joe Lieberman understands why this policy is stupid.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin made the case for ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in this piece for the Politico, but it doesn’t sound like he’s in a big hurry:

So there is little reason to continue this policy. But as we proceed, it is vital that we are sensitive to any complications of this policy shift. Change is always hard, especially when it involves social issues or personal beliefs. Lack of care as we proceed might spark opposition from those who could be open to change, and inflame the opposition of those already against it. And I would encourage those who favor change not to mistake deliberation for undue delay.

Point taken, but I am concerned by the timetable Gates is setting with a yearlong study. I hope Congress will act this year, because if Republicans retake the House or the Senate this November, there will be no chance of ditching Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for the forseeable future.

Daily Kos user TennesseeGurl notes that even if Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed, LGBT Veterans will still get a raw deal. Unfortunately, I see no realistic path to fixing that problem.

UPDATE: Levin “said an amendment could be added to the must-pass Defense Authorization bill which outlines military policy for the year.” Taking that path would allow the Senate to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell with a simple majority (as opposed to the 60 votes required to break a Republican filibuster).

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Guantanamo prisoners to be moved to Illinois?

The conservative blog biggovernment.com published an alleged December 10 memo from the Department of Justice to Defense Secretary Robert Gates authorizing the transfer of some prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois. The center was built to be a high-security state prison but has mostly remained mothballed for lack of state funding to operate it. Elected officials in Illinois have urged the federal government to use this facility to house some of the alleged terrorist prisoners because doing so is expected to create around 3,000 jobs in the area.

Iowa Republicans have been hammering Bruce Braley (IA-01) over this proposal, because the Thomson facility is just across the river from Clinton, Iowa. However, Braley says his constituents overwhelmingly favor the plan.

I will update this post if other reports confirm the authenticity of the memo.

UPDATE: Ed Tibbetts reported for the Quad-City Times:

An administration official, responding to the memo Friday, cautioned that it is only a draft and said it is not unusual for such documents to be prepared for multiple possibilities.

“This is a draft, predecisional document that lawyers at various agencies were drafting in preparation for a potential future announcement about where to house Gitmo detainees,” the official said.

“Drafts of official documents are often prepared for any and all possibilities, regardless of whether a decision has been made about the policy or if the document will be used,” said the official, who requested not to be identified because the person was not authorized to discuss the issue.

Despite the cautions, top Illinois backers were reacting positively to the development.

“Even though the final decision has not been made, we are encouraged by this development,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Gov. Pat Quinn said in a statement.

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Open thread on Obama's plans for Iraq

Longtime Bleeding Heartland readers know that I’ve always worried Barack Obama would leave too many U.S. troops in Iraq for too long. When he decided to stick with George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, some analysts argued that Robert Gates would give Obama cover to withdraw from Iraq, but I felt it was more likely that Gates would give Obama cover not to withdraw from Iraq, at least not fully.

This week President Obama announced his plans for Iraq. Supposedly “combat operations” will end by August 2010, meaning that the withdrawal will take 18 months rather than 16 months, as Obama promised during the campaign. My concern is not the extra two months, but Obama’s decision to leave a residual force of 35,000 to 50,000 in Iraq after August 2010. That sounds like too large a contingent to me and to many Congressional Democrats.

I suppose I should be grateful that Obama isn’t following the advice of Colin Kahl, who headed his Iraq working group during the campaign. Kahl has advocated leaving 60,000 to 80,000 troops in Iraq for years (see also here).

Seeing the glass half full, Chris Bowers is pleased that Obama says all U.S. military will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011:

In September of 2007, President Obama refused to promise to remove all troops from Iraq by January 20th, 2013. Now, he has promised to remove them all by December 31st, 2011. That is a positive shift.

This is huge for no residual forces proponents. Now that President Obama has made this pledge, in public, it will be difficult for him to go back on it. This is especially the case since turning back on a promise with a deadline of December 31st, 2011, means violating a pledge during 2012–the year President Obama will be running for re-election. Anti-war proponents need to be prepared to raise holy hell during 2012 if this promise is not kept.

It is frustrating that it took the Iraqi government, rather than internal anti-war pressure, to finally secure a no residual troop promise from the American government (and they actually succeeded in wringing it out of the Bush administration, something Democrats were entirely unable to achieve). Still, as someone who has opposed the Iraq war for more than six years, and who been has writing about the need for no residual American military forces in Iraq for more than two years, any promise of no residual forces from the American government, backed up by a binding, public document like the Status of Forces Agreement, it an extremely welcome development no matter how it was secured.

The Iraq war is going to end. No residual troops after 2011.

I am concerned that some excuse will be found by then to push back the deadline. (Seeing John McCain and other Republicans praise Obama’s plans for Iraq does not reassure me.) I have little confidence that the anti-war movement would raise “holy hell” during a presidential election year if Obama backs off on this promise.

But I am biased on this point, because I’ve never believed in Obama as a great anti-war hero.

So, I’m opening up the floor to the Bleeding Heartland community. Are you ecstatic, optimistic, skeptical, or disappointed with Obama’s Iraq policy? Do you believe he will stick to the deadlines he outlined this week for the end of combat operations and the withdrawal of all residual troops?

Feel free to discuss our Afghanistan policy in this thread too. Obama plans to increase the number of U.S. troops there, but Senator Russ Feingold and some others are wondering whether more troops will help us achieve our stated mission.

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Homework assignment for holiday parties and reunions

As Barack Obama assembles his cabinet and key White House advisers, he’s choosing a lot more people from the “centrist” or corporate-friendly wing of the Democratic Party than movement progressives. He is leaving George Bush’s Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, in place. He has also made some symbolic moves that angered a lot of progressives, in particular selecting Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration.

I understand the political arguments in favor of Obama’s strategy, and opinion polls support some of them. When asked whether they approve of Obama or how he is handling the transition (different pollsters ask the question differently), anywhere from 65 percent to 75 percent of Americans are saying they approve.

I’ve been wondering how much Obama’s conciliatory gestures have been helping him with Republicans and conservatives of the wingnut variety. I’m not talking about Jim Leach Republicans, I’m talking about the kind of person who really believed Obama was a “socialist.”

For example, one of my friends told me last month that her mother’s best friend believes changing the American flag will be “the first order of business” when Obama takes office. I am not kidding.

In the next ten days, many of us will attend holiday parties and family reunions. I don’t recommend that you bring up politics at these events if that would make people uncomfortable. However, if you come from a family where politics are often discussed when folks get together, I would like to hear from you.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find out whether your conservative friends and relatives have abandoned some of their more paranoid beliefs about Obama since he was elected. In other words, how well have Obama’s conciliatory gestures allayed conservative fears about his intentions? Is he likely to get more of a honeymoon than Bill Clinton did in 1993?

Feel free to post your own diary or a comment in this thread.

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Obama needs to keep his word on Don't Ask, Don't Tell

At Daily Kos and VetVoice, Brandon Friedman of VoteVets brings us the news that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has authorized a new pilot program allowing the armed forces to recruit “up to 1,000 foreigners who have lived in the states legally for at least two years” and who have medical and language skills that are “vital to the national interest.”

As Friedman points out, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy led to 3,715 troops being discharged between 2002 and 2006. Clearly, many of those people had been trained as doctors, nurses and linguists. (Friedman profiles one person who falls into each category.) In 2007 alone, 58 gay Arabic-language speakers were forced to leave the U.S. armed forces.

It makes no sense for the military to recruit foreigners to do jobs Americans are willing and able to do. Barack Obama has promised to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Aubrey Sarvis, who heads the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, says he is confident Obama will keep that promise. But last month Sarvis indicated Obama may wait several months or even until 2010 before asking Congress to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Whether a delay is smart politics is debatable. Perhaps finding consensus on other issues first is important. Perhaps packaging the repeal as part of a larger bill on military staffing makes sense. Punting this move until an election year may or may not be wise. Although a majority of Americans support allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, the issue has the potential to rile up the Republican base.

But the need for the military to have sufficient skilled personnel should trump all political arguments. If Obama is serious about being pragmatic (putting policy above political considerations), then he and his defense secretary cannot justify recruiting foreigners to do jobs Americans can do. Remember, these medical and language skills are “vital to the national interest.”

Your move, President-elect Obama.  

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