Facing intensifying criticism for slow-walking a decision on troop levels for Afghanistan, the White House is pushing back, saying President Obama won't let politics influence his decision.
“The president's going to make the decision that he feels is in the best interest of the United States' national security,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. “You know, the president is happy to hear the back-and-forth from both sides on this, but is going to take his time to decide what is right for the American people.”
Republicans this week accused Obama of dithering on a report from Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who warned of a grimly deteriorating mission in Afghanistan and is expected to seek up to 40,000 more troops for the effort.
In an interview with CBS' “60 Minutes,” McChrystal revealed that he has only spoken with Obama once, by secure teleconference, since taking over command more than two months ago.
That revelation put the White House on the defensive, particularly from Senate Republicans who support the war in Afghanistan and want to see troop levels increased, claiming Obama is ignoring his own top commander.
Despite White House protestations, politics appear to have some role in Obama's thinking. Many Democrats, particularly in the liberal wing of the party, are opposed to more troops and funding for the mission. And polls show public support for the war evaporating, with fewer than 50 percent calling the effort worthwhile.
Meeting in the Oval Office Tuesday with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Obama remained opaque on the issue of troop strength, and took no questions from reporters.
“It is absolutely critical that we are successful in dismantling, disrupting, destroying the al Qaeda network and that we are effectively working with the Afghan government to provide the security necessary for that country,” the president said.
Obama, who previously said he is skeptical of any plan to add more troops, is set to hear from McChrystal on Wednesday, again likely by teleconference, in a high-level meeting at the White House with administration officials and military commanders to discuss Afghanistan.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called on Obama to quickly agree to strengthen troop levels — or explain to the American people why he won't do so.
“Timing is important,” McConnell said. “A failure to act decisively in response to General McChrystal's strategy, and his anticipated request for additional forces, could serve to undermine some of the good decisions the president has made on national security.”
Obama's newfound reticence on a troop increase is a sharp contrast from a speech he gave in August to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, in which he called Afghanistan “a war of necessity.”
“This is not only a war worth fighting,” Obama said at the time, “this is fundamental to the defense of our people.”
The president earlier this year sent two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan, but has sounded increasingly reluctant to send more. While he reviews the strategy, Gibbs said Obama will not be rushed.
The administration maintains McChrystal has not formally asked for more troops, and warns the process of receiving and considering the proposal could take weeks.
“We're going to go through the McChrystal assessment and go through additional ideas and go from there,” Gibbs said. “This isn't going to be finished in one meeting.”