GOP Agrees on One Thing About Afghan War: Obama’s Wrong
“I don’t like the drift of the Republican Party toward what appears to be a retreat or a move more towards isolationism.”
-- Former Minnesota Gov. and Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty in an interview with Politico.
President Obama will announce tonight a “significant” withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan despite pleas from the Pentagon to stay the course, but he will still be more of an Afghan hawk than most of the Republicans looking to replace him.
As Republicans move away from the international interventionism of the post-9/11 era, Obama faces less risk of being accused of pacifism and more danger of being branded as playing policeman to the world at a time of ongoing domestic distress.
When the 2008 Republican presidential nominee rose in the Senate Wednesday to rebuke Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia for an “isolationist, withdrawal, lack of knowledge of history attitude” about Afghanistan, John McCain may have been talking to the members of his own party too.
Of the entire Republican field, only former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is expressing the kind of “no retreat” attitude on U.S. interventions in the Muslim world that McCain made a centerpiece of his second presidential run and that President George W. Bush championed in his 2004 re-election campaign.
On the moderate side of the GOP, frontrunner Mitt Romney has called for withdrawal from Afghanistan as circumstances allow and Jon Huntsman actually made the oxymoronic-sounding “aggressive drawdown” part of his Tuesday campaign rollout.
But among the conservatives in the field, like Reps. Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann, there is even less support. While they, like Huntsman, bemoan the high cost of the war, they also suggest that the ongoing American presence in Afghanistan is counterproductive.
This presents a serious challenge to the interventionists across the political spectrum.
Unless the Republican presidential candidates are threatening to make Obama pay some political price for not maintaining the 100,000-troop level in Afghanistan (an increase of almost 70,000 troops since taking office), hawks will have far less leverage is seeking to maintain the status quo.
The greater political risk for Obama when he takes the podium for a 10-minute speech on his Afghan plan is that he will be accused of maintaining an unaffordable, nation-building effort in that woe-begetting country. It’s a real danger for Obama given public exhaustion with that war and a fatigue with the expensive, Clintonian “smart power” Obama has employed around the globe.
It’s hard for the hawks to drive the Republican field back into a pro-Afghan war stance because Obama has been such an interventionist himself. Aside from the two troop surges in Afghanistan, Obama has hugely escalated the covert war in Pakistan and embroiled the U.S. in a stalemated civil war in Libya.
When Obama took office, hawks feared that he would plunge America into an isolationist foreign policy, but he has instead expanded the nation’s military commitments far beyond those he inherited from George W. Bush.
Republicans generally don’t mind using force but have long had misgivings about long-term military commitments and “foreign entanglements.”
The Bush Doctrine’s emphasis on standing up stable democracies in the Muslim world came after the initial retributive and preemptive strikes on Afghanistan and Iraq. For Obama, nation building has been more of an end unto itself than a necessary consequence of initial military actions.
The risk for Obama is that he is increasingly seen as pursuing the kind of expensive, vague, internationalist goals that American voters so dislike. Remember the success with which Bush himself hit Al Gore in 2000 for the Clinton administration’s U.N.-sponsored interventions of the 1990s.
If Obama were talking about “winning” or “victory” he might find Republicans rallying to the cause, but given the fuzzy objectives he has laid out for the use of force in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and elsewhere, conservatives feel uncomfortable continuing to empower him with their support.
Obama tonight will try to preserve his activist, internationalist foreign policy by placating his own political base that resents his turn toward militarism after nominating him, in part, for his opposition to the Iraq war. If Obama wants to maintain his 70,000-troop army in Afghanistan until 2014, he will have to convince the left and skeptical center than the war is ending… eventually.
The twist is that in starting this very gradual retreat he all but guarantees that Republicans will increasingly turn against the war.
There is political opportunity for Pawlenty or another Republican in attacking Obama for being a defeatist in Afghanistan, but even that is unlikely to revive conservative support for the war at this critical juncture.
Europeans, Arabs Sour on Libya War After Civilian Deaths
"When I see children being killed, I must have misgivings. That's why I warned about the risk of civilian casualties. You can't have a decisive ending. Now is the time to do whatever we can to reach a political solution."
-- Arab League President Amr Moussa to The Guardian (UK) urging a ceasefire in the Libyan civil war.
After a weekend of errant NATO air strikes killed rebel fighters and Libyan civilians the Italian government is calling for an immediate end to hostilities in the Libyan civil war and the Arab League now wants a cease fire.
This proves problematic in Washington where the Obama administration is fighting to preserve U.S. involvement in the conflict.
The White House cites the sanctioning of the war by the Arab League as part of the reason that congressional authorization for U.S. involvement is unnecessary and points to the need to stand by our European allies as a rationale for the continuing U.S. commitment there.
The Italians have never been the strongest supporters of the Libyan intervention, but with the British and the French growing increasingly frank about their inability to prosecute the war it looks like the rest of NATO might lose heart before America would have the chance to abandon the Europeans.
That European disheartening will speed up as Arabs continue to decry the war and demand some kind of negotiated truce between the Eastern and Western tribes. The fear of terrorist reprisals for more civilian casualties will push NATO nations toward the exits.
The Chinese and Russians have now said they can do business with both sides in the war and the Euros may follow suit. The two nations that would emerge would be a motley pair of twins. In the east, Islamists in the new government would find fast friends in the radicalizing Egyptians next door. In the west, the Qaddafi clan would, with the help of other allied African despots, plot its reprisals against their cousins to the east and the Westerners who helped them break away.
With some 50,000 troops from other NATO countries providing non-violent (except for the remaining Brits) support in Afghanistan, the Obama administration is keen to help. But having declined to get Congressional approval, the president can hardly now deploy the requisite force needed to crush the western tribes.
But once Obama begins his own gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan, he may be unable to convince the increasingly impoverished, war-weary Europeans to provide a garrison force that would allow the president to show substantial troop reductions before the 2012 election without risking a humiliating collapse of the government Americans have propped up since 2002.
Congress is trying to rouse itself to the issue, but leaders find few good options.
It is unlikely that a pro-war resolution offered by Sens. John McCain and John Kerry could pass in the House. It’s just as unlikely that a House resolution de-funding the war could pass in the Senate. It’s another stalemate.
That helps Obama in the short term because Congressional inaction buys time for the air campaign against the western tribes. It looks increasingly likely that by the time Congress ever gets around to expressing its will on the war that the conflict will have moved into a new phase whether through the killing of Col. Muammar al Qaddafi and his family or the collapse of NATO support and international tolerance for Western involvement.
And whatever happens in Libya, Obama will have struck a serious blow on behalf of presidential power by defeating the War Powers Resolution that has bound all of his predecessors since Richard Nixon.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“I think the task the president has in the speech is to reassure the left among the Democrats and some of the concerned Republicans who want to pull out that we are in fact getting out, while at the same time reassuring our allies and particularly the Afghan peasantry that we are not getting out. That is a contradiction he has had since the December 1, 2009 speech at West Point where he announced the surge and the next sentence announced we're getting out in July of this year.
And I think it is a problem that the president cannot solve. He has sent 30,000 additional Americans in harm's way, some of who will not return, in a war to which he shows remarkably little personal commitment. I think that's his problem.”