President Obama: The prudence of following Hollande’s lead

When it comes to the War in Afghanistan and austerity, Obama should take a leaf out of the new French President’s book.

U.S. President Barack Obama Visits Bagram Air Base in Kabul
Barack Obama has said that the US intends to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by 2014 [GALLO/GETTY]

Washington DC – Newly elected French President François Hollande is coming to the White House next week to meet with President Obama ahead of the G8 and NATO summits. Two items are sure to be on the agenda: Hollande’s call for a “New Deal” (as it were) in European economic policy that would restore growth rather than continue budget austerity, and Hollande’s promise to speed up the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan.

Press reports suggest that Obama’s agenda for the meeting will include trying to induce Hollande to renege on his pledge to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan. That would be a mistake, a terrible waste of a unique opportunity for Obama to agree with Hollande on a common position for speeding up the withdrawal of all foreign forces that they can announce at the NATO summit in Chicago.

The fact is, at the level of rhetoric, Obama and Hollande already agree on ending the war, as they already agree that the European austerity policy has failed and should be replaced by a policy of restoring economic growth. A common Obama-Hollande front on ending the war and ending European austerity would be in the interest of the American 99 per cent, the European 99 per cent, and the Afghan 99 per cent. (As the Obama Administration has correctly pointed out, austerity in Europe hurts Americans too, when Europe is in recession, Europeans buy fewer American goods and services.)

In his weekly radio address on Saturday, President Obama said the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan would free up money to help rebuild the US economy: “After more than a decade of war, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.”

So, Hollande and Obama agree that US and French forces should be withdrawn from Afghanistan; they agree that the US and France should refocus on their domestic economic problems.

But President Obama still has a policy in place that doesn’t make sense in light of this agreement on in principle on withdrawing troops. If we agree on bringing our troops out, why wait until 2014 or longer? As Eugene Robinson asked quite reasonably in the Washington Post, if we’re going to switch to counterterrorism and training in Afghanistan in 2014, why not just make the switch now?

The overwhelming majority of Americans, including the majority of Republicans, want US troops to come home from Afghanistan soon, not tarry until 2014.

In addition to the Americans and Afghans who will be killed – as the Seattle Times pointed out – if we keep tens of thousands of US soldiers in Afghanistan until 2014, there is a real domestic economic cost to keeping our Afghanistan policy on autopilot.

Reporting on the efforts of House Republicans to cut domestic spending, including food stamps, in order to protect military spending, Bloomberg notes that the annual cost of the food stamp programme, which is now serving forty-six million Americans, are projected to reach $80bn. Quelle horreur! Guess what we’re already slated to spend on the Afghanistan war this year? $88.5bn.

Which is more important: making sure that forty-six million Americans – including children who have no say about anything – have enough food to eat? Or keeping the Afghan war policy on autopilot until 2014, even though we aren’t accomplishing anything there that requires keeping 88,000 US troops in harm’s way? We know the answer for the majority: The overwhelming majority of Americans, including the majority of Republicans, want US troops to come home from Afghanistan soon, not tarry until 2014.

So let’s hope that the reports that Obama is going to try to talk Hollande out of withdrawing French troops from Afghanistan turn out to be unfounded. Hollande’s election is a change to turn the page. The American people are with Hollande in saying that our troops should come out. Obama can use Hollande’s pledge to withdraw French troops as a lever to force the Pentagon to swallow a faster drawdown. Wouldn’t it be better to withdraw all our troops faster together, than have other countries withdraw sooner, and leave US troops in Afghanistan all alone?

Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.