Politics & Government

Antiwar activists split over Obama's Afghan buildup plans

Sen. Barack Obama gives a statement after he arrived in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Tuesday.
Sen. Barack Obama gives a statement after he arrived in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Tuesday. Jae C. Hong / AP

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama's plan to build up U.S. forces in Afghanistan while keeping perhaps 50,000 troops in Iraq has triggered a deep rift among antiwar activists, a reminder of the difficult tasking facing the presumptive Democratic nominee as he tries to broaden his appeal.

The Illinois senator wrapped up three days of tours and talks in the war-ravaged nations Tuesday, stressing in a news conference that the "situation in Afghanistan is perilous and urgent" and that "we should not wait any longer" to provide additional troops.

In Iraq, Obama won a tacit Iraqi endorsement of a plan to withdraw U.S. combat troops in 2010, but he also said that he backs leaving a residual force in Iraq to help train military personnel, provide security for U.S. interests and thwart terrorist threats. The residual force might total up to 50,000 troops, his campaign advisers have told reporters.

Some hailed Obama's trip as an important breakthrough.

"So far the trip has been out of the park. It's an enormous moment," declared Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, which supports Obama. He hedged about Obama's troop commitments, however: He said he wasn't fully aware of Obama's call for a residual force in Iraq and was trying to get a sense from MoveOn members on their views about Afghanistan.

Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobbying group, was less enthusiastic.

"It was a significant step forward," she said, "but it was only a step."

Others were simply annoyed.

Barbra Bearden, spokeswoman for Peace Action, called Obama's comments about Afghanistan "a bit disheartening."

Ian Thompson, lead organizer in Los Angeles for Act Now to Stop War & End Racism, an antiwar group, found Obama's Afghanistan position similar to that of President Bush and presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

"What this shows is that Barack Obama does not really represent any policy shift," he said.

Republicans thought that Obama supplied them with new political ammunition. Obama supports withdrawing U.S. combat forces within 16 months after becoming president, while McCain has called such fixed timetables artificial and unrealistic. He says troops should come home when conditions on the ground warrant it, and not before.

Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., a McCain backer, charged Tuesday in a conference call with reporters organized by McCain's campaign that Obama has shown he's "frighteningly inexperienced. The difference is Senator Obama's (view) is based on the calendar, while Senator McCain believes the decision should be based on conditions on the ground."

The trip's chief political goal has been to bolster Obama's stature among voters. The 46-year-old first-term U.S. senator is running against an opponent with a lengthy national security resume, and a Pew Research Center poll taken June 18-29 found 55 percent of voters thought McCain could better defend the U.S. against terrorism, while only 31 percent preferred Obama.

And they thought, by a 47 to 41 percent margin, that McCain could make better judgments about Iraq.

Experts were cautious Tuesday in measuring the trip's political impact.

Obama took on some risk by "looking like he's being tutored," said Harold Cox, professor emeritus of history at Wilkes College in Pennsylvania.

"Things seem to be going as planned, and he could be helping himself," said Kareem Crayton, associate professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California. "But we have to wait and see; we don't know the public reaction yet."

After Obama met Monday with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said that while Iraq did not endorse a date certain for withdrawal, he hoped it could occur sometime in 2010.

Some thought Obama helped himself politically.

"The prime minister clearly supports Obama's plan for exiting Iraq," Pariser said. "This couldn't really be better."

The visit "appears to have given the Iraqis the courage to express some of what they're thinking, without fear of the Bush administration reprisals," said Campbell of NETWORK.

But Obama's views troubled many peace activists.

Bearden of Peace Action said that "we've seen the results of these military actions. We create a power vacuum and try to create a government. We did that in Iraq, and now we're talking about using the same failed strategy again in Afghanistan."

Judith LeBlanc, organizing coordinator for United for Peace & Justice, said that "dealing with the threat of terrorism cannot be done on a military basis." She and other activists wanted to hear more from Obama about a strategy for dealing with terrorism around the globe, including more use of diplomacy and economic aid.

The activists agreed on this much: They're not going to vote for McCain.

But whether Obama generated new enthusiasm, let alone attracted fence-sitting independent voters as McCain continued to blast him as naive, remains an open question.

"I think it's fair to say," said Crayton, "that he hasn't hurt himself."