Despite thousands of lives lost in Afghanistan, billions of dollars spent and now, a halt to the U.S. withdrawal, Ashraf Ghani’s address makes barely a ripple in Congress relative to the Israeli prime minister.
Midway through Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s address to Congress, congressional doorkeepers were still quietly directing pages and staffers to fill seats between U.S. lawmakers. The gallery above was spotted with empty chairs. But just weeks earlier in the same space, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew a standing-room-only audience that jockeyed for shoulder room.
It’s not uncommon for seats to be left unfilled at such a speech. But not even a day before, President Barack Obama had announced a freeze to the U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan, a clear sign that America’s longest war is far from over.
With that decision, which came after repeated requests from Ghani, the U.S. will keep 9,800 troops in theater until at least the end of 2015. The Obama administration also announced they will request additional funding from Congress to boost Afghan security forces and police from today’s 330,000 to 352,000 through 2017. Meanwhile, Congress will vote this week on the defense budget for fiscal 2016.
For Ghani’s speech on Wednesday, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-N.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., two of the best-known hawks, stood alongside Chief Executive Officer of Afghanistan Abdullah Abdullah. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., was toward the center, second row. But despite reports of the Islamic State’s growth in Afghanistan, and the direct threat to the U.S. service members who remain, Ghani’s address received none of the hype granted to that of Netanyahu on March 3.
“Well, because of the dispute between the president of the United States and the prime minister, whether the president was informed or not about it — great political theater,” Graham said, explaining the congressional attention deficit between Ghani and Netanyahu. “At the end of the day this was a huge visit. This was the first reliable partner we’ve had in Afghanistan in a long time and I’m proud of the people who came. I wish it would’ve gotten the same attention as the prime minister’s speech because Americans are still dying in Afghanistan.”
Among the no-shows on Wednesday was Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who had called Netanyahu’s address “Churchillian” and likened it to the British leader’s appeal to Congress as Europe faced Nazi Germany (and who announced his candidacy for president on Monday with criticism of the Obama administration’s approach to both Israel and Iran). Cruz’s office confirmed he did not attend and was not in town, saying, “He did give away his ticket, though.”
Certainly, Israel is a critical ally of the U.S. in a volatile region, and it has very real concerns about Iran’s growing influence there. But Netanyahu’s address dominated the news cycle for weeks, and lawmakers used the momentum to take their own steps to affect the talks with Iran, from Cotton’s polarizing letter to Iranian leadership to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s fast-tracking of a bill that would grant congressional review to any agreement. (He later backed off this plan.)
Much of Obama and Ghani’s presser Tuesday was taken up by questions on Netanyahu and Iran, and Obama’s comments on the Israeli leader were treated as the top story by many outlets Wednesday. They got top billing on The Washington Post Wednesday -- as on The New York Times — but his announcement on the drawdown slowdown was buried on A-12.
Sure, it’s politics. But the contrast between the two addresses serves as one marker of the continued disconnect between the attention of the American public and their political representatives and the war still being fought in Afghanistan, a divide as wide as ever.