The War Debate Returns

The Senate is getting ready to hold confirmation hearings for Gen. David Petraeus, and the general is expected to sail through.

But the hearings will carry their political baggage for the Obama administration, anyway, because with them will come a reopening of debate over the war in Afghanistan and President Obama's withdrawal date and chosen strategy--a debate Obama has largely avoided in the past months.

When Obama announced his new war strategy in December, pledging that troops will begin to withdraw in July 2011, he was criticized from more than one angle. "Why pick an arbitrary date without tying it to conditions in Afghanistan?" Republicans asked. "What does he mean by 'begin' to withdraw?" Liberals wondered, asking just how many troops will come home. Since then, political debate over Afghanistan hasn't gathered much attention, even as doubts grow over whether the U.S. can succeed. 

The debate has now been reopened. 

John McCain, who serves the Senate Armed Services Committee's top Republican, predicted at a press conference on Capitol Hill today that Petraeus will see the fastest confirmation process in committee history--but he cautioned that senators will revisit their questions over Obama's withdrawal date. 

"The concern that we have and the issue that will be raised in general exactly what is meant by withdrawal in the middle of 2011--whether that is, quote, 'etched in stone'...or whether it will be conditions based," McCain said. "Obviously we feel very strongly that it needs to be conditions based, because if we tell the enemy that we're leaving, it has an adverse effect on your ability to succeed."

The hearing, in other words, will give senators an opportunity to air their questions and complaints about Obama's strategy for the unpopular war. (Americans believe the war has not been worth fighting by a margin of 53% to 44%, according to a poll this month by ABC and The Washington Post.)

Afghanistan has actually been a bright spot in Obama's approval polling of late. Just before he announced his new strategy, Obama polled in the 30's on his handling of the war; in late May, 44% approved and 37% disapproved, according to CBS.

It's loosely the same debate that played out during the 2008 presidential campaign over the war in Iraq, and even before that in the Democratic Congress's confrontations with Bush. Candidate Obama wanted to end the war; McCain said the surge was working and that any withdrawal should be based on conditions on the ground. Speaker Nancy Pelosi wanted a date for withdrawal attached to war-funding bills; Bush wouldn't agree to a timetable without benchmarks for Iraq. (Petraeus, oddly enough, may face similar questions about Afghanistan that lawmakers asked him about Iraq in 2007.)

Once again, it will be McCain making those arguments: as ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, he will jointly preside over Petraeus's confirmation in committee. His pulpit will be second biggest, to the Democratic chairman, Carl Levin.

So despite Petraeus's broad popularity on the Hill, and despite the easy confirmation process that's expected to begin soon, the difficult question will come up again: just how fast will U.S. troops withdraw in 2011? It's a question that hasn't entirely been answered, and it's one that may have broader political implications, depending on what the answer is.