Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
Those folks who bother to worry about the war in Afghanistan--not a large slice of the population--had reason to fret on Wednesday morning when they picked up (or clicked on) the New York Times and read a front-page story noting that President Barack Obama is adopting a new "approach to Afghanistan that will put more emphasis on waging war than on development." The piece cited unnamed senior administration officials.
At a press briefing on Tuesday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs had said that the administration was in the early stage of reevaluating Afghanistan policy. He had noted that Obama intended to meet with US Army General David McKiernan, the commander of the NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, to discuss the course ahead. It seemed as if no decisions had been rendered about Afghanistan.
Yet the Times indicated key calls have already been made:
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama held separate meetings with GOP leaders in the House and Senate to discuss the stimulus bill moving through Congress. Afterward, the Republicans talked very nicely about the new president, saying that they appreciated that Obama was reaching out and listening to them. During the meetings, several of the Republicans noted that they welcomed "the tone that [Obama] had brought to Washington" and his "willingness to seek their views," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. In fact, Gibbs added, Representative Mike Pence, a leading conservative from Indiana, ended the House-side meeting by declaring that the door to the Republican House conference would always be open to Obama.
As a matter or realpolitik, the Republicans had little choice but to be darn gracious toward Obama. The president's early approval ratings are stratospheric. And with the economic crash continuing (if not accelerating, given this week's job loss numbers), a majority of Americans are rooting for the president, hoping whatever he tries to do about the economy will succeed. On Monday afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent out an email touting a poll noting that 66 percent of Americans support the economic stimulus package put together by the Democrats in the House and supported by Obama. It would be foolish--except for Republicans from the most Limbaugh-loving areas of the nation--to stand in Obama's way. And, no small matter, the GOPers don't have the votes--particularly in the House--to stop him and the Democrats.
But can the Republicans simply cave? They have raised a fuss about certain portions of the stimulus package, labeling some provisions pork and calling for more tax cuts. Their complaints about a provision that would extend birth control coverage under Medicaid did lead Obama to ask the House Dems to jettison this piece of package. (And jettisoned it was.) But the Republicans have not gone after Obama.
Consider this statement released by House Republican Whip Eric Cantor after the meeting with Obama:
So far three daily press briefings at the White House for the new Obama administration, and only one question on the war in Afghanistan. That came on Monday when veteran Helen Thomas asked new press secretary Robert Gibbs, "Why does president want to send more troops to Afghanistan to kill people?"
It was not the most subtle way of raising the issue. But at least Thomas gave it a stab.
Afghanistan remains the forgotten war. But on the campaign trail, Barack Obama, noting he would end the war in Iraq and focus more on Afghanistan, promised to change that, The question is, will the change be for the better or not? Gibbs reminded Thomas that Obama has called Afghanistan a "rapidly deteriorating situation" and reported that Defense Secretary Bob Gates and military commanders have started a process "to evaluate our posture." He noted that Obama has said that more troops should be sent to Afghanistan.
Should the new Obama Administration dig through all the dark ugliness of the Bush-Cheney years--torture, renditions, the destruction of evidence, etc.--and start prosecuting former Bush officials, including the veep? I appeared on MSNBC's Hardball with hawk-of-all-hawks Frank Gaffney Jr. to discuss the matter.
Has President Barack Obama ended the "war on terror"?
On his second day in office, he signed an executive order that would prevent any officer of the US government from engaging in torture. As he placed his name on the order--keeping a prominent campaign promise--he declared that this move "effectively ensures that anyone detained by the United States for now" will be interrogated in a fashion consistent with the Army field manual, which notes that the use of force, threats, or inhumane treatment is prohibited by law. "We can abide by a rule that says we don't torture," Obama maintained. In other words, good-bye to waterboarding.
Obama signed the order in the Oval Office, surrounded by a group of retired generals and flag officers who had advocated a torture ban. It was yet another historic moment in a series of such moments this week. Obama reiterated what he said during his inaugural address: that the United States need not be forced into the false choice between protecting its values and honoring its ideals.
What was intriguing was how Obama characterized the fight against terrorism. He said, "The message we are sending around the world is the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism" vigilantly, effectively, and "in a manner consistent with our values and ideals." Notably, he did not use the term "war on terror." And moments later, he proclaimed, "We intend to win this fight and we're going to win it on our terms." Again, no "war."
Is this a purposeful shift in rhetoric? Has Obama decided to drop the war on terrorism metaphor that the Bush-Cheney administration used extensively?
At Robert Gibbs' first briefing as White House press secretary on Thursday afternoon, I asked if the president had booted the war metaphor. Gibbs replied that Obama had used language that was consistent with his inaugural address. In that speech, Obama had indeed said that "our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred." But he did not use the standard "war on terror" phrase. Instead he threw the word "war" against a specific target.
At the press conference, I followed up and inquired if Obama had decided not to deploy that phrase as president. "Not that I'm aware of," Gibbs answered.
De-emphasizing the war metaphor would be a significant change. But if it is a deliberate change, the White House does not want to acknowledge it.
UPDATE: Speaking at the State Department later in the day, Obama characterized the battle against terrorists as a "twilight struggle." But when listing the national security challenges the nation faces, he quickly ran through the line-up: "the war on terror, sectarian division, and the spread of deadly technology." He's obviously not allergic to the term. But it's not the description he reaches for first when he publicly discusses the matter. Not so far in his presidency.