President Obama announced his troop withdrawal from Afghanistan on Wednesday night, but the real surprise was how much time he spent clothing his decision in domestic concerns with an eye to U.S. politics.
As expected, the president explained how the surge in U.S. troops had worked in hindering Al Qaeda from finding a safe haven in Afghanistan. He mentioned the U.S. raid in which terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan as well. He also praised Afghanistan and Pakistan for their efforts while noting they needed to do more.
All of that had been expected, as had been the pledge to withdraw 10,000 troops this year and the rest of the surge forces in 2012.
But the president made it clear he was aware of the American weariness with the almost decade-long war and a desire in many quarters to use any peace dividend for domestic needs.
“America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home,” Obama said.
Notably, Obama made a similar statement when he announced the surge in December 2009, when he said, “The nation that I am most interested in building is our own.”
Now, he’s eyeing his own reelection campaign, and personal approval ratings that have sunk far from his post-Bin Laden bounce. Gallup’s daily tracking poll Wednesday showed just 43% of Americans approve of his job performance, down from a 52-week high of 53% last month.
Another survey, released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, shows that 56% of those polled said U.S. troops should be brought home as soon as possible; 39% said they favored keeping troops in Afghanistan until the situation stabilized. That represents an increase of 8 percentage points since last month, when terrorist leader Bin Laden was killed.
Not surprisingly, there is also a split along party lines as the presidential election cycle heats up. Two-thirds of Democrats, or 67%, said troops should be removed as soon as possible, up from 43% a year ago, according to the Pew poll. A majority of independents, 57%, said they supported an immediate troop withdrawal, an increase of 15 percentage points from last year.
Even Republicans who support keeping troops in Afghanistan have changed their stand. Last June, just 31% of Republicans favored a quick withdrawal; the current figure is 43%.
The GOP presidential hopefuls have taken note.
Jon Huntsman Jr., Obama’s former ambassador to China, said Wednesday he would pursue a “more aggressive” drawdown.
“What we need now ... is a healthy dose of nation-building here at home,” he told NBC News.
Mitt Romney, the nominal GOP front-runner, was more nuanced.
“We all want our troops to come home as soon as possible, but we shouldn’t adhere to an arbitrary timetable on the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan,” he said in a statement after Obama’s remarks, adding: “This decision should not be based on politics or economics.”
As is his want, the president took a broader view of the war and the United States, using about half of his less than 14-minute address to probe the United States’ role in foreign affairs.
Obama has been under pressure from elements in both his Democratic Party and from some of his rival Republican presidential aspirants over how many and how quickly to bring troops home from Afghanistan.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said tonight that members of Congress hoped “that the full drawdown of U.S. forces would happen sooner than the president laid out – and we will continue to press for a better outcome.”
Obama said America should not “retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face.” At the same time, we cannot “over-extend ourselves, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.”
“We must chart a more centered course,” he said.
That centrist course, designed to appeal to the political center and independents, has to be both practical and theoretical. Obama called for the use of force but in conjunction with allies. He cited Libya as an example of what can done right, though the U.S. and NATO role there is even more contentious than in Afghanistan.
“We don’t have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own. Instead, we must rally international action, which we are doing in Libya, where we do not have a single soldier on the ground, but are supporting allies in protecting the Libyan people and giving them the chance to determine their destiny,” he said.
Obama argued that America needs to extend its founding principles into the international arena.
“In all that we do, we must remember that what sets America apart is not solely our power – it is the principles upon which our union was founded,” Obama said. “We are a nation that brings our enemies to justice while adhering to the rule of law, and respecting the rights of all our citizens. We protect our own freedom and prosperity by extending it to others. We stand not for empire, but for self-determination.”
And those American values include helping those in the United States, while not forgetting the responsibilities abroad.
“Above all, we are a nation whose strength abroad has been anchored in opportunity for our citizens at home. 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.”
Obama closed with a plea for unity, a difficult position in a presidential election cycle.
“We are all a part of one American family. Though we have known disagreement and division, we are bound together by the creed that is written into our founding documents, and a conviction that the United States of America is a country that can achieve whatever it sets out to accomplish.
“With confidence in our cause; with faith in our fellow citizens; and with hope in our hearts, let us go about the work of extending the promise of America – for this generation, and the next,” he said.