After last week’s firestorm of press coverage for Obama’s newly announced exit strategy for Afghanistan, I didn’t think there would be anything left for me to cover. The story had even already been addressed by a variety of essays in The Student. I was set to incite student support for the global climate talks held in Copenhagen this week when I received a stream of e-mails from the State Department’s version of a list serv. Something in a trio of them intrigued me. Partially because they were sent within a 16-minute time span, but mostly because I saw two names in the subject box of each: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The e-mails contained transcripts from three different TV interviews held Sunday, each addressing the Afghanistan strategy and each featuring a double Q-and-A session with both Gates and Clinton. Intrigued, I printed all three transcripts so I would have something to do during English class and dove in. What I found was something quite different from all of the talk I had heard last week.
Gates and Clinton made appearances on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulus, CBS’s Face of the Nation and NBC’s Meet the Press. Each time wearing the same outfits and espousing the same politically curtailed responses, this power duo thrice stressed Obama’s withdrawal date would not be quite the grand retreat the public has been envisioning. To quote Secretary Gates, the July 2011 date is “the beginning of a process … We will have a significant number of forces there for some considerable period after that.” When asked for specifics on the number to be withdrawn, Gates would only commit to “some handful or some small number, or whatever the conditions permit.” When asked about the final withdrawal date, in one interview he said “I don’t want to put a deadline on it, OK?” and in another he flat out admitted, “There is no deadline.” Clinton covered the Pakistan side of the questions and questions relating to bin Laden, which is a can of worms for which I don’t have space. Regardless, both remained firm on the fact this withdrawal date will be more of a checkpoint, a midterm assessment, if you will. And if the situation proves to be in as bad a shape as midterm grades for those classes you just can’t seem to get ahead in, you better believe we are going to be in Afghanistan well past that marked day in July 18 months hence.
Verbal fancywork and a blitzkrieg of press coverage is nothing new to the insider’s game in Washington, especially after an announcement as major as this one. However, the impressive display of the secretary of state and the secretary of defense appearing together should give one pause. Two of the three interviewers remarked this was the first time two cabinet-level officials had appeared together on their programs. The informed viewer needs to ask why that is. It’s because the White House desperately needs to regain ground after last week’s overwhelming criticism of the plan. I believe this furor of media attention can be indicative of one of two things. The first is Obama had originally intended a large troop withdrawal in July, but the backlash from many Republicans on a specific exit date led to the revision that this date will be a minor troop withdrawal. Or, second, Obama had no intention of withdrawing a large number troops this early, but had to send his Cabinet out to quantify the ambiguous language used in last week’s speech when senators like John McCain called him out. Either way, it is now apparent this promising end to the war in Afghanistan is looking more like a simple troop surge with no set end date. It is obvious more effort went into the decision-making process under this administration than under Bush’s, but the public needs to be aware that despite the July 2011 date given to satisfy a war-weary domestic public, we are going to be in Afghanistan much longer. I don’t know where this is going or how it will end, but citizens need to be aware of the nuances of this strategy and not simply take the president at his word; keeping informed is the best way to make your voice heard.