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Week In Politics: U.S. Troops In Afghanistan, Democratic Presidential Debate


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Kelly McEvers in Culver City, Calif.


And I'm Audie Cornish in Washington. And American troops aren't leaving Afghanistan any time soon.

MCEVERS: President Obama has delayed the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan until at least 2017. Given his campaign pledges to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014, the first question he faced yesterday after the announcement was how disappointing it was to make that call. He said it wasn't.


BARACK OBAMA: As I've continually said, my approach is to assess the situation on the ground, figure out what's working, figure out what's not working, make adjustments where necessary. This isn't the first time those adjustments have been made. This won't probably be the last.

CORNISH: To talk more about what this move means for this president and the next, we have our Friday political commentators, columnist David Brooks, of The New York Times. Welcome, David.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to be seeing you.

CORNISH: And E J Dionne of The Washington Post.

E J, welcome back.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: David, I want to start with you. Obviously, you did some reporting, visiting Afghanistan in 2009, as a skeptic, and left the country hopeful, right, that the U.S. (laughter) could achieve some of its goals. How are you feeling now?

BROOKS: Skeptically hopeful.


BROOKS: A little less hopeful, a little more skeptical. But, you know, I think what Obama did was politically courageous. He had made this promise. I think he would like to have, as a matter of principle, get out. But troop levels matter. And when the U.S. keeps some troops in, we have more political leverage. We can do more work with the forces on the ground. And we saw that in Iraq. And the decision to withdraw completely from Iraq, I think, contributed largely to the chaos that we see there now, the rise of ISIS. And if we had left entirely to Afghanistan, the Taliban would have taken over more ground.

Now, there's some criticism that, you know, with 5,000, whatever's going to be left, we won't really be able to turn the tide but just maintain the status quo. But that's better than chaos so I think it was the right move.

CORNISH: E J, for progressives who might consider this a broken promise or a broken campaign pledge, what do you have to say?

DIONNE: I think that the - first of all, I think this is the least surprising reversal that you can imagine because Obama has always been a realist and a pragmatist on foreign policy. And right from the start before he was president, he identified Afghanistan as the right war and Iraq as the wrong war. And he has tried all kinds of things to try to make Afghanistan better. So I think there'll probably be - there is some grumbling on the left. But I think that people will cut him some slack here because he's been very consistent in focusing on Afghanistan. And I think it's a - you know, the fact of the matter is that the place isn't as stable as he had hoped. Afghanistan is very difficult. It's very difficult for everybody. The interesting thing about this is that probably what he's doing is giving this problem over to the next president of the United States 'cause we will not be out of there by the time the next president's inaugurated.

CORNISH: Speaking of the next president, the candidates vying for the Democratic nomination appeared on stage together. Here's some of what they had to say.


JIM WEBB: I am very comfortable that I am the most qualified person standing up here today to be your commander-in-chief.

BERNIE SANDERS: Well, I think the secretary is right.


SANDERS: And that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: Thank you. Me, too. Me, too.


LINCOLN CHAFEE: I think we need someone that has the best in ethical standards as our next president. That's how I feel.

ANDERSON COOPER: Secretary Clinton, do you want to respond?



COOPER: Governor, Governor...

CORNISH: Those are candidates Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders, Lincoln Chafee and Hillary Clinton in the CNN debate on Westwood One News.

David, let's start with the contrast in tone and content compared to the Republican debates. Obviously this has to do with the moderators and who's putting it on, but I felt like I was looking at political parties with wildly different ideas about what the country is facing and what needs to be addressed.

BROOKS: They do, different constituencies. The Democrats are arguing about what to believe, and the Republicans are arguing about how to believe it, how strong and fierce to be. So there's a lot of this content on the Republican side, at least when Donald Trump is in the room. But I have to say, the one advantage the Republicans have is they actually are - like, a bunch of them actually want to be president. The Democratic side appears only one person wants to be president, and that's Hillary Clinton. She was strong, polished...

CORNISH: There's going to be a lot of Bernie Sanders fans who are going to (laughter) dispute that comment, David.

BROOKS: Well - well, then why doesn't he challenge her? His one - just as a matter of political tactics, he really has only one avenue - to beat her. And I don't think it's going to be ideological. People aren't going to have to decide she's not trustworthy enough, she's not viable enough on character and personal grounds to be elected. And when he takes the emails off the table, he's really taking away that lever. And so I think he basically raised the white flag of surrender and really strongly and very powerfully diminished any chance he might have of getting the nomination.


DIONNE: I disagree with that. I think he made a choice on the emails that reflected the overwhelming view within the Democratic Party, including among Bernie Sanders supporters. I mean, I've been joking that Hillary Clinton is going to make Kevin McCarthy her ambassador to Ireland or somewhere because the timing of his declaration that these hearings were, in some significant part, about denting her poll numbers, couldn't have come at a better time. And so there's a broad mood in the party that this has been an attack on her. She was better than I have seen her in any debate, and she's a good debater. She did well against President Obama back in 2008. And I think that the biggest, the most important thing about that debate may have been that Hillary Clinton, A - reassured all the people who more or less thought they were for her but had been starting to lose heart over the summer, and they saw the candidate - a candidate who explained why she is the front runner. And she made it much harder for Joe Biden to get in the race. If she had...

CORNISH: You say that. (Laughter) you say that and yet, right, today we're hearing rumors still about what Biden may or may not do. What's going on?

DIONNE: Ted Kaufman, the former senator who filled his seat on an interim basis, who's very close to Biden, sent out an email that is being read as suggesting - we'll put it that way - that he may well run. There are a lot of conditionals in that sentence. But if somehow the email issue hadn't been pushed back like that, and if Clinton hadn't done well, there would've been a lot more hankering after Joe Biden than there is today. And so it's - if he does get in, it's going to be much harder for him than it would've been a week before that debate if he had been on the stage and could've changed the nature of that debate.

CORNISH: David, are you surprised we are still talking about whether or not Biden may or may not get in after the debate?

BROOKS: Yeah. I have trouble making decisions too. I don't blame him. You know, I think she was so strong. She was very, very strong. She was very well-prepared. She was aggressive, and she was aggressive at people who are way down on the polls. And the rest were just not aggressive. Martin O'Malley, this was - like, he had the Carly Fiorina model staring right in front of him. If he had any shot, you got to come out swinging with the real reason why you want to be president, why you're better than the other people. And he was, you know, milquetoast for at least the first half. And then the other two, well, they don't deserve to be on the stage. And so what I saw was one really strong candidate. Sanders has a good ideological and good intellectual background. He's very consistent. His affect is a little negative maybe, but she was good, and the rest were not willing to fight.

CORNISH: All right. With that scorched-earth review from David Brooks of The New York Times, E J Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, thank you both.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.