Analysis

Opposition To War Piles On Obama's Woes

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Amid a rising U.S. death toll and a growing insurgency in Afghanistan, polls show more Americans consider the war not worth fighting. It's proving to be yet another challenge for the Obama administration, which is laboring to build support for a proposed health care overhaul. For insight, host Scott Simon speaks with NPR news analyst Juan Williams.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

August was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the war started nearly nine years ago. At least 47 U.S. soldiers were killed last month. And while military leaders are reportedly asking for more troops to be committed, polls show fewer of the American people support a continuing commitment in Afghanistan.

President Obama is reviewing a new military analysis of U.S. war strategy there. We're joined now by NPR News analyst Juan Williams. Juan, thanks for being with us on this holiday weekend.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: During the campaign, President Obama - (clears throat) - forgive me - (clears throat) - I beg your pardon - called Afghanistan the necessary war in contrast to Iraq, which he thought was unnecessary and foolish. Are his options now in any way constrained by what he said last year during the campaign?

WILLIAMS: Well, what he said last year was that obviously he opposed Iraq, saw it as a diversion, really, from the real threat, which he established as being in Afghanistan and Pakistan, home to not only al-Qaida but the Taliban and that kind of extremist ideology.

So his options now are limited in the sense that he opposed the surge in Iraq. The question is whether he should have a surge in Afghanistan. General Stanley McChrystal, who's the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has sent a report to the president that seems to be a run-up to potentially having even more forces put in.

The U.S. has put an additional 21,000 in Afghanistan under President Obama earlier this year. It's now a force of about 68,000. The question is whether or not he might add, let's say, 25 to another 50 thousand in an attempt to -comparable to the surge in Iraq - to try to gain control of what is generally considered to be a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

SIMON: And this comes at a time when, at least according to the polls, the White House is losing support for that. CBS News poll released this week shows four out of 10 Americans want U.S. troop levels decreased in Afghanistan. The president's approval rating on handling Afghanistan is down eight points since April. What are the political factors does he has to weigh, in his own party for that matter?

WILLIAMS: Well, without support, then it becomes Obama's war. And it becomes President Obama's war in such a way that people would say he has gone back, he has become a war president, and how ironic for a man who ran against the war. And of course on his left wing, in the Democratic Party you have people like Senator Russ Feingold, who are asking why are we involved in now an eight-year effort without a clear strategy and a clear endpoint.

And so the support for the war is even being questioned by the right. The conservative columnist George Will has called for a total withdrawal from Afghanistan. There is a split on the right about whether or not to support President Obama for his war effort. This is ironic, to say the least.

SIMON: And I want to bring things like the president's approval rating in when we take a look at the continuing challenge he has in putting across health care overhaul proposals. Obviously he's got a major address scheduled for just a few days. What have you heard from people who are your sources about how the strategy that the president might have for trying to put this across to Congress and the American people may change?

WILLIAMS: The idea is to refocus the debate to make the case that there's been lots of misunderstandings, myths put out there, in an attempt to scare people away from support for health care reform, but also that he remains committed to the public option in terms of some alternative to the insurance companies.

And he wants to make the case pretty aggressively that he knows what he wants, that what he wants is competition, what he wants are alternatives, he wants to make sure that the uninsured are covered, and that it's in the best interest of all Americans.

So this will be an appeal - I think it will have some moral basis, an increase - you're going to hear more about ethics in the address on Wednesday. But his effort now is to try to refocus the conversation in such a way as to take advantage of the fact that people still have greater faith in him than they do in the Republicans in Congress.

SIMON: So enunciate goals but not a specific plan.

WILLIAMS: Right. No specifics here. It's not as if he's going to outline the plan. And there are lots of people who argue that he needs a specific plan, because if he doesn't have a specific plan, then it's open to being demonized by the opponents.

But if he has a specific plan - even though they can take shots - he can defend it. And what's been absent - and I think it's been a really difficult political month of August for him - what would be possible for him then to do is to say this is what I stand for, and if you trust me, trust me in terms of this plan. This is the best plan for the American people.

That's the argument that we haven't heard so far. It's what you'll hear Wednesday night.

SIMON: NPR News analyst Juan Williams, thanks so much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Scott.

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