Lunch With The President: The Politics Of Obama's War Plan

President Obama said today he is "painfully clear" that his revised Afghanistan strategy is "politically unpopular" -- especially within his own party -- and that he expects to be held "fully accountable" if the strategy fails.

Obama, speaking with a group of columnists and reporters at a White House lunch today, conceded that Americans "are right to be concerned" about the additional expense of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. "But that's not how I make decisions. If I were basing my decisions on polls, then the banking system might have collapsed and you probably wouldn't have GM or Chrysler, and it's not clear that the economy would be growing again."
"This has been an entirely transparent process," Obama said of the months-long and often public discussion of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for additional troops. "There's no Gulf of Tonkin here. We are having a wholesome debate about the best strategy forward and I am being held fully accountable to members of Congress, all of whom I think are going to be interested in holding me accountable and making sure that this strategy works."

If it doesn't work, said Obama: "I think there is going to be enormous interest on the part of the American people and on the part of Congress in keeping me to my word that this is not a constant escalation."

It's Obama's theory that escalating the Afghanistan conflict provokes anxiety "precisely because the American people are rightly focused on, how do we rebuild America."

"Part of the goal of my presidency is to take the threat of terrorism seriously but expand our notions of security so that it includes improving our science and technology, making sure our schools work, getting serious about clean energy,  fixing our health care system, stabilizing our deficit and our debt, " he said.

The hour-long discussion was on the record, but we attendees agreed to embargo the content until the president finished speaking tonight at West Point. As Obama answered questions, White House stewards served the president and his guests a three-course meal featuring a well-cooked Chesapeake striped bass and mango sorbet. There was wine, too, but no one imbibed. Some reporters scribbled notes in moleskin books; at least two recorded the session with their iPhones; one pecked away at his computer.

Before Obama arrived, a White House aide placed five separate audio recorders in front of the president. Two of his aides took copious notes.  But the president did not seem to be overly concerned about calibrating his words, even as he discussed more sensitive issues, like counterterrorism in Pakistan and his conversations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"I would prefer not having to deal with two wars right now. We've got a lot other business that we've got to do with our long-term security prosperity. In fact if your economy doesn't thrive over the next couple of decades, that will have a direct impact on our military and our ability to project power around the world."

"I believe that it is very important for us to define the mission in a way that speaks to the very real security interests that we have in keeping the pressure on Al Qaeda but to do so in a way that avoids mission creep and takes on a nation-building committment in Afghanistan.  To steal Tom [Friedman]'s line, I'm interested in nation building here in the United States right now."

He gestured at Friedman, the New York Times columnist, who was seated to his left.

Later in the hour, Obama supposed that Americans' economic anxiety was linked to their assessment of the war.

Here's his explanantion: "The American people are having a really tough time right now, in their own lives. We've got the highest unemployment rate since the early 80s, people are deleveraging from massive amounts of debt, there's a lot of anxiety  out there about losing your  health care, losing their house, losing your job, not being able to finance your kid's college's education and so one speech is not going to suddenly persuade them that investing a lot more blood and treasure in an Afghanistan is an attractive proposition. My goal in the speech tonight is to explain to the American people why we have to finish the job and why the strategy I'm putting forward is not only the best possible strategy for our national security and has the best prospect of stabilizing Afghanistan but also has the best prospect of getting our troops home in some realistic timeframe."

At one point in the session, Obama gave a thumbnail sketch of the three basic arguments he's heard about escalation.

"One argument is that this is Vietnam and we should just abandon the field  completely. I don't know anybody who has looked at this very carefully who thinks that we are going to be as effective as we need to be in targeting Al Qaeda and other extremists if we simply allow Afghanistan to collapse. The other argument is that we can sort of stand pat, whether it's at 30,000 or 40,000 or 50,000, you have some platform there, you're basically pulled back and hunkered down but you're able to prevent Kabul from being overrun; you can still project some counterterrorism operations in the region. The problem there is whether that level is 50 or 60 ot 70, you have sort of a flatline, where there is no inflection point, there's no point at which, we can say conditions have changed conditionally sufficiently so that we can start bringing our troops home. The strategy that I'm pursuing is designed to say let's see if we can change the conditions on the ground in a time certain period. There are risks associated with that, but in the absence of that push, we are in a situation that doesn't change, and there are big costs associated to troop presence, to casualties, to a slowly deteriorating situation over a course of years that are at least comparable and probably worse than us going ahead and making this big push now."

In his speech tonight, Obama stressed that the troop increase would be paid for. In the discussion earlier in the day, he added some context:

"I have every interest in working with Congress to figure out how pay for this escalation but also how to pay for the $68,000 who are already there and how to pay for the Iraq War that is still not paid for and how we pay for the last eight years of the Afghan war. I guess the point being, what I don't want to do is create a pattern where from his point forward we are going to pay in increments for portions of our national security and that each and every order that I issue as commander in chief is subject to a congressional referendum through the appropriations process. What I am committed to do doing is fully owning up to the cost of this war and not trying to slide them off as somehow irrelevant ... and insisting that they get added to the overall budget debate that is going to have to take place over the next several years."