The New York Times finally acknowledged this week that a significant withdrawal from Afghanistan is a real possibility being considered by the White House.
In a lead story on June 6, the Times reported that the Obama administration is considering a "steeper" reduction of troops than previously discussed or acknowledged.
The fact is that Democratic constituencies and leaders, responding to overwhelming public sentiment against the war, have been uniting in recent weeks behind a call for "substantial and significant" troops reductions and a transfer of war funds to job creation at home.
The push began long before the killing of Osama bin Laden, though the al-Qaeda leader's death has accelerated the momentum towards de-escalation.
In effect, the Democrats finally have chosen to unite and align themselves with public peace sentiment and prepare a climate in which the president can make a bold step this month.
But will Obama himself do so? The answer to that question may reveal the nature of his presidency and determine whether he can win back disillusioned Democrats in 2012.
An Obama refusal to decide on a significant troop reduction may jeopardize his re-election and will reveal much about power in Washington. Is there an institutional mindset firmly committed to the Long War in spite of huge public opposition, or does democratic sentiment matter enough overrule the elites and shorten the war?
Most polls show Democrats and independents favoring a more rapid pullout than Obama's current proposal of ending combat operations by 2014. Consider the favorable sequence of events since February:
- A resolution by Rep. Barbara Lee calling for rapid, significant reductions and a transfer of funds to job creation passed the Democratic National Committee without dissent.
- Legislation by Rep. Jim McGovern calling for an accelerated timetable of withdrawal received 205 House votes, including an overwhelming majority of 178 Democrats.
- The House voted unanimously against sending any ground troops to Libya, criticized the president's refusal to abide by the War Powers Act, and gave 148 votes to a Dennis Kucinich resolution which would have ended all support or the NATO military operation in Libya.
- In the Senate, one-time Afghanistan hawks like John Kerry and Richard Lugar called for a fundamental rethink, while conservative Democratic Sen. Max Baucus even proposed pulling all combat troops out by 2012. This week 15 Senators sent a letter to Obama asking for a substantial drawdawn, with more signing by the day.
- Obama himself told the Associated Press that his July announcement would order "significant" withdrawals.
- In addition, Obama reconfigured his national security team by appointing the dovish Tom Donilan as director, replacing Robert Gates with Leon Panetta at Defense, and sending Gen. David Petraeus to the CIA where he might find it more difficult to oppose the president.
Meanwhile, independent think tanks with close ties to the White House, like the Center for American Progress and the Afghanistan Study Group, have pushed for an initial withdrawal in the range of 50-60,000 American troops -- 10 times the figure pushed by the Pentagon.
This entire scenario was foretold in Bob Woodward's book on White House decision-making leading up to the 2009 surge, Obama's Wars. In those pages, Obama repeatedly expressed concern that he couldn't afford to "lose the entire Democratic Party," that he needed an exit strategy, and that he expected (and needed) a timetable demand to come from the then-Democratic Congress.
The question now is whether he will bend to the Pentagon and the mainstream media whose voices are loudest in the Beltway, or heed the rank-and-file voters who have soured on the war and losing confidence in his presidency.
Prediction: In one scenario, Obama bookends the competing demands of 15,000 and 50,000 and decides on 30,000, ending the surge. But if he wants a bigger political impact, he pulls all 47,000 troops out of Iraq and cuts the U.S. force in Afghanistan in half by 2012.
Total reduction: 100,000 U.S. troops.
Total direct taxpayer savings: $200 billion through 2012.
The second course is better politics and policy. Committed peace advocates should ask no less.