Operation Afghanistan

For a while there, it looked like national security had been supplanted by health care and the economy at the top of the campaign priority. But now the pendulum is swinging back, with Iraq and Afghanistan returning to the fore. Or at least that’s what Hillary Clinton hopes is happening.

A few dozen journalists packed into a tiny room today in the Westin Hotel near Dupont Circle—”the size of a child’s bedroom,” quipped one reporter there—to watch Clinton discuss the “forgotten front line” in Afghanistan as a group of generals nodded in approval. Presumably the close quarters were chosen to lend it the air of a cabinet meeting or Joint Chiefs of Staff roundtable.

Clinton’s Afghanistan talking points were nothing new—increase international support there, improve security forces, crack down on narcotics—but her emphasis was. She differentiated between “ending the war in Iraq” and “winning the war in Afghanistan.” When it was his turn, former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke made the case that Afghanistan is “much more important than Iraq” for the United States in the long term. It’s a distinction that will become important against John McCain, who insists that both wars can still be won.

Like all great political stunts, this one accomplishes a few things at once. First, it uses the nomination of McCain to bring the conversation back to defense, where Clinton thinks she is stronger than Obama. And second, it turns the debate from Iraq—on which Obama can slam Clinton for voting to authorize the war—to Afghanistan, thus giving her another opportunity to ding Obama for not holding oversight hearings on Afghanistan as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on European Affairs.

No matter that the press conference didn’t offer any new information or answer any questions. (The admirals and generals might as well have been reading off index cards. Leadership, experience, Day 1. I’m surprised they didn’t put a phone on the table and have it ring on cue.) The purpose was to shift the discussion. Mission accomplished.