x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Afghan war dominates president's schedule

With the escalating insurgency now at the top of his agenda, some say Obama has been forced to shift his focus from domestic reforms.

The US president, Barack Obama, must decide whether to agree to a request from his top Afghanistan commander, Gen Stanley McChrystal, far left, to deploy up to 40,000 additional US troops to the country.
The US president, Barack Obama, must decide whether to agree to a request from his top Afghanistan commander, Gen Stanley McChrystal, far left, to deploy up to 40,000 additional US troops to the country.

WASHINGTON // Deliberations over the US war strategy in Afghanistan have dominated Barack Obama's agenda in recent days, locking him up for hours at a time in meetings with his national security advisers and trumping even health care as his top political concern. There is no definitive way to measure how the president spends his time, but a look at his official schedule suggests that much of it is being devoted to the war, leading some to wonder whether his focus on Afghanistan has come at the expense of his other initiatives.

Mr Obama spent at least six hours last week in two separate meetings with his national security team; he held a separate 75-minute sit-down with congressional leaders to discuss the war effort. At least one more meeting with his war council is scheduled for this week as part of a review that began in September. Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said a final decision on the way forward in Afghanistan may be "several weeks" away. Few details have emerged about the president's thinking, though it has been reported that Mr Obama has ruled out a significant drawdown of the 65,000 US forces currently in Afghanistan. He still must decide whether to agree to a request from his top Afghanistan commander, Gen Stanley McChrystal, to deploy up to an additional 40,000 US troops to the war zone.

Mr Obama's schedule, however, is not wholly consumed by war. The president found time last week for a game of basketball with legislators and has become known for his Sunday golf outings. On Friday, in what some see as a twist of irony for a president considering a troop surge, Mr Obama accepted a Nobel Peace Prize, which necessitated a speech in the White House Rose Garden. Meanwhile, healthcare reform and the economic recovery continue to rank highly on his to-do list. Mr Gibbs dismissed any notion that the focus on Afghanistan comes at the expense of other issues. "I don't think one particular thing will overshadow the complexity of all the problems that have to be dealt with," he said last week in a press briefing.

Still, Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University in Washington, said the war has clearly emerged as Mr Obama's foremost concern and may be stealing time away from his efforts on other fronts. "He has to take care of Afghanistan. Anything legislative can be postponed, it can be put off, and it can be compromised. But you don't control foreign policy. "When you have troops that are being killed, that tends to capture your eyes and ears more than anything else," he added. "Wars tend to grab your attention."

It certainly has gripped the country. As US and Nato casualties have soared to record highs, a news cycle once dominated by health care is now more focused on the war. A divided US public, meanwhile, eagerly awaits Mr Obama's decision on the war, which many analysts described as the toughest call of his young presidency. Some have worried that Afghanistan, and any prolonged preoccupation with it, could ultimately throw Mr Obama's agenda off track. Such was the case when Franklin Delano Roosevelt's' New Deal was sidetracked by the Second World War and when Lyndon Johnson's set of domestic priorities known as The Great Society was derailed by the Vietnam War.

"It's a historical reality that these big wars that distract the public can play havoc with a reform movement," said Robert Dallek, a noted presidential historian and a Stanford University professor based in Washington who personally conveyed that message to the president at a White House dinner this summer. Mr Dallek, the author of more than a dozen books on the tough decisions US presidents face, declined to say how Mr Obama responded.

But like many analysts, he said it is far too soon to draw comparisons between Mr Obama's handling of Afghanistan and other presidents whose agendas unravelled because of war. Mr Obama, observers note, is more reserved and less likely to become mired in military minutiae than a president like Lyndon Johnson, a deeply political man who was known for obsessing over daily casualty counts and the outcomes of particular battles.

David Abshire, a former US ambassador to Nato, praised the president for listening to all sides involved in the Afghanistan debate and for following a strict command structure that places civilian leaders such as Robert Gates, his defence secretary, between the White House and military commanders. He said he believes the Obama administration has an "unparallelled" ability to work simultaneously on a variety of fronts.  

"He is a remarkably organised president," said Mr Abshire, now president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington. "I've seen the organisation of a lot of White Houses and I think this one is really quite remarkable in that regard." sstanek@thenational.ae