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July 25, 2014

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LETTER FROM WASHINGTON:

Obama’s Afghanistan plan draws little support from Titus, Berkley

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CHARLES DHARAPAK / ASSOCIATED PRESS

President Barack Obama greets cadets Tuesday at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., after delivering a speech that outlined his plan for the war in Afghanistan. He intends to send 30,000 additional troops and begin withdrawing forces in July 2011.

Dina Titus

Dina Titus

Shelley Berkley

Shelley Berkley

The difficulties President Barack Obama will encounter selling his Afghanistan troop surge to the nation can be found in the positions of Nevada’s House Democrats following last week’s presidential address.

Democratic Rep. Dina Titus faces a potentially difficult campaign in her Southern Nevada district, where she ran on an anti-Iraq war platform in 2008, but now faces two potential Republican challengers who have burnished their military records for the race.

Titus appreciated the president’s speech last week, noting the thoughtful time he devoted to assessing the difficult situation. But that does not mean she is supporting Obama’s decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.

“I’m not taking a position,” Titus said. “I deserve some time to study it myself.”

Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, who faces no serious challenger yet in her mostly Democratic district, would only give Obama conditional support.

“I am willing to support the president at this time,” Berkley said, “but this is not an open-ended support.” She wants to see the Karzai government in Afghanistan step up.

Congressional Democrats in Washington have run the past two election cycles opposing the Bush administration’s execution of the Iraq war and pledging to bring the troops home.

Now that a Democratic president has turned attention to Afghanistan, the anti-war lines are not as clear.

Many on both sides of the aisle agree that Afghanistan is not the same war as Iraq. Democrats have often called Afghanistan the right war, the one the country should be fighting, rather than carrying out Bush’s hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

But as 2010 approaches, the prospect of a costly troop surge and a potentially long-running conflict is discomforting to those lawmakers who would rather focus on a recession-weary nation at home.

Obama acknowledged as much during his national address last week when he promised the troops would be withdrawn 18 months after they surge, “because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.”

But timelines can shift, and even the president’s defense secretary testified last week that the planned 2011 withdrawal depended on conditions on the ground.

Congress does not need to vote now on the president’s decision. The troops will be sent in early 2010 based on long-running authority Congress gave the former president to launch the Iraq and Afghanistan wars after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Yet eventually the bill will come due, and talk in Washington has again turned to a war tax to help pay the tab.

Berkley said she welcomes the national war tax debate launched by Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, although she has not signed on to his bill.

Titus, however, does not have the luxury Berkley has of a more securely Democratic constituency. Even though Democrats outnumber Republicans in Southern Nevada, Titus won her first term with less than 50 percent of the vote and must walk a fine line to maintain support from fiscal conservatives and independent voters.

Here, Titus sounds a note similar to Republicans, including Nevada’s Sen. John Ensign and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who both suggested last week that the war in Afghanistan could be paid for by trimming government spending in other areas.

“You can look at other places for savings before you start talking about a war tax,” Titus said. “The timing’s not right. You hate to raise taxes in a time of recession.”

This is a dicey strategy for funding a war. Lawmakers are loath to cut programs in one area for fear the budget ax will fall on another closer to home. It is easy to see why government tends to grow rather than shrink.

But Congress will not have to make that decision until next year, when the spending bills come up for votes. By then, Democrats will have had a chance to better weigh the situation.

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