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Can Obama Make Good On Promises About Wars?

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Can Obama Make Good On Promises About Wars?

Politics

Can Obama Make Good On Promises About Wars?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning. Barack Obama pledged to change Washington. Change its culture, by curtailing the role of lobbyists in part, and we'll hear in a moment about what steps he's taking. He also talked about new policies, new approaches to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Candidate Obama promised to quickly bring home US troops from Iraq and to send more to Afghanistan. As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, those promises may not be so easy to keep.

TOM BOWMAN: Barack Obama forged his campaign around opposition to the Iraq war and turning over security to Iraqi forces, a policy laid out recently to NPR by one of his senior advisers, Richard Danzig.

Mr. RICHARD DANZIG (Senior Adviser, President-elect Barack Obama): Senator Obama has been emphasizing consistently that the challenge for us is to incentivize the Iraqis to take on more responsibility.

BOWMAN: That incentive is a sort of tough love, says the Obama camp, quickly reducing American troops. That point was made by another adviser, Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat speaking at the Democratic National Convention in August.

Senator JACK REED (Democrat, Rhode Island): It's time to responsibly end the war in Iraq and that's what Barack Obama will do. Barack Obama will work with our military commanders to begin the phased redeployment of our troops out of Iraq in 16 months.

BOWMAN: 16 months is a pretty short time line. Could the Obama administration remove combat troops from Iraq that quickly?

Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Defense Analyst, Center for Strategic and International Studies): A president has to deal with national security in real-world terms, not campaign pledges.

BOWMAN: That's Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says violence is down in Iraq but Obama may find it hard to cut American troops in large numbers since the security situation is still so uncertain.

Mr. CORDESMAN: And no one can predict at this point in time exactly what's going to happen in terms of internal civil conflict in Iraq, or that al-Qaeda will be fully defeated or reduced to such a low level of operations that Iraq can operate on its own.

BOWMAN: Cordesman says Obama can withdraw American forces in Iraq - maybe not as many or as quickly as he promised his supporters. And Obama could find himself in political peril by reducing too many US troops, says Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Brooking Institution): Should he make the mistake of withdrawing so fast that he creates a worse security environment, you can bet that will be exhibit A in future Republican criticisms of him starting with the midterm elections of 2010.

BOWMAN: But the real test for Obama may not be in Iraq, but on that other battlefield, says O'Hanlon.

Mr. O'HANLON: I think Obama's biggest challenge by far is trying to turn around the failing effort in Afghanistan.

BOWMAN: Candidate Obama said that failure centered on President Bush not sending enough troops to Afghanistan to go after al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It was a constant pledge at campaign rallies: stop one war in Iraq, turn to the other.

President-elect BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): But we will bring this war to an end. We will focus attention on Afghanistan.

BOWMAN: Sending more US troops to Afghanistan was campaign shorthand for Obama. Only occasionally, Obama raised the problem of fighters coming across the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Again, Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

Mr. O'HANLON: But that's only, at best, two out of five key parts of this problem.

BOWMAN: He points to three other key factors rarely discussed by Obama or his advisers - building up Afghan forces, increasing economic development for the Afghan government, negotiating with some of the Taliban insurgents. To help him tackle Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama will need experienced hands at the Pentagon. They include Richard Danzig and Senator Reed, whom we heard from earlier.

Danzig served as Navy secretary under President Clinton and is a respected voice on terrorism and biological warfare. Reed's a West Point graduate, a former Army Ranger, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee. And to find experience, as well as political cover on national security, Obama may reach out to Republicans, among them, Senator Dick Lugar, the Indiana Republican and longtime member of the Foreign Relations Committee. Another Republican being mentioned, the current Defense secretary, Robert Gates.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): Let me just say that I am getting a lot more career advice and counseling than I might have anticipated and I think I'll leave it at that.

BOWMAN: That's Gates recently brushing aside the question of staying, but Obama advisers say one option is to keep Gates at the Pentagon, for a few months or up to a year. Whoever runs the Pentagon under Obama will be burdened with those two national security crises: finding a way out of Iraq, crafting a way to ease the fighting in Afghanistan, both with perils for the American military, foreign affairs and domestic politics. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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