WASHINGTON – More than a week after President Obama said he would expand the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, Minnesota Democrats have largely tiptoed around offering firm support. That lack is a testament to the uphill battle Obama faces in rallying his own party behind the biggest foreign policy decision of his young presidency.
Most of Minnesota’s Democrats on Capitol Hill are still hedging their bets, seeking more details and assurances before committing to a concrete opinion. Republicans in the delegation have been generally more supportive of the surge, though some harbor major reservations about Obama’s targeted 2011 withdrawal date.
Democratic Sen. Al Franken, who took office in part thanks to the same wave of support that swept Obama in, said last week that he wants to hear more about the rationale behind the plan before deciding whether to support a larger U.S. combat presence in Afghanistan.
In private meetings with top administration officials, he said, they have impressed on him that the surge may be the last chance to reverse the war’s momentum against the Taliban.
He is still unsure the Afghan government is “willing and able to step up to this,” later adding that he wants “to find out through the hearings how achievable all of this is.”
In a reference to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat, said: “It’s not 2001. It’s 2009. We’ve been through a president asking Congress to support him in two wars. One of them never should have been fought, and the other one was fought about as poorly as it could have possibly been. So obviously you’ve got some highly skeptical people to deal with.”
As they slowly consider endorsing the plan, Minnesota legislators are following committee testimony of top diplomatic and military leaders and speaking privately with senior officials. Congress has little power over Obama’s plan to send in troops, but it holds the power of funding, and some say they hope asking questions will allow them to shape the policy.
Second course of action
Rep. Tim Walz, who held a town hall on Afghanistan in Mankato on Monday night, said his office is drawing up an eight-point list of “critical questions unanswered” about the plan. He expects to send it to government agencies this week.
He said the list likely will include questions about the specific execution of Obama’s plan to defeat Al-Qaida, the benchmarks for measuring success and plans to fund the war.
If he’s not satisfied with the answers, said Walz, a Democrat, “I think the point we’re going to make is that we’re going to do everything we can to encourage the president to look at a second course of action,” said Walz, a veteran of the National Guard, adding that he has tried to give the president the “benefit of the doubt.”
Walz, who does not plan to oppose funding the effort, said he would be open to having Congress vote on a nonbinding resolution on the surge, similar to what happened in 2007.
Echoing unease over the capability of Afghan leadership is Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who said Congress must not allow Obama’s policy to go forward “on autopilot.”
“For me, the issue is, do we have good enough partners here?” Klobuchar said. “By asking the questions, you’re not just getting the answers, you’re actually pushing this government policy and the Afghan government to [be] better.”
Klobuchar, a Democrat, said she is “open to this military strategy” as long as there is a sufficient partnership with Afghan civilians.
Peterson on the fence
Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat, said he has been speaking with colleagues on the Armed Services Committee about the issue.
“I’m just waiting to be convinced that what we’re doing here makes sense,” Peterson said recently. “So I’m definitely on the fence.”