June 23, 2011

GOP Finds Itself At A 'Pivot Point' Over Afghanistan

Not so long ago, when the question was war, the response on Capitol Hill was an automatic blank check.

A largely compliant Congress, and presidents and politicians who were fearful of looking "weak on defense" or "unpatriotic," rubber-stamped massive military spending.

Funny how 10 years, two wars that have cost a combined $1 trillion, a budding military engagement in Libya, and a nation mired in unsustainable spending and debt can change what was once a military imperative.

Americans' growing alarm over the $100 billion annual cost of the Afghanistan conflict while the economy struggles at home has kept President Obama in hot water with his base as he launches his 2012 re-election effort.

More strikingly, it has increasingly tied Republicans in knots over how or whether to recast their traditionally hawkish stance in the face of overwhelming public sentiment against continued involvement in Afghanistan.

U.S. combat forces left Iraq last year; about 47,000 American troops remain. A security agreement calls for them to be out by the end of the year, but that's being reconsidered.

President Obama's speech Wednesday night outlining a troop drawdown in Afghanistan that his advisers characterized as within the zone of what his military leadership had recommended can't have made the GOP's war and foreign policy calculations easier.

"Republicans are in a transitional phase in the rank and file," said Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center. "Their [foreign policy] views are being formulated right now."

A Pew survey released this week showed that the percentage of Americans who favoring withdrawal from Afghanistan "as soon as possible" has reached the highest level in the decade-long war: 56 percent.

And support among conservative Republicans for Bush-style interventionist policy has plummeted.

"Obviously, America's fiscal situation and deficit are on the minds of everyone right now," said Richard Fontaine at the Center for a New American Security. "There's a new factor in thinking about these wars that wasn't there during the Iraq deliberations when money was not a driving factor."

Hawk or Dove?

When the president announced Wednesday that he would draw down 33,000 troops in Afghanistan by next summer and continue bringing home the 68,000 still there by 2014, he also noted the cost of war.

It's time, he said, "to focus on nation-building here at home."

It seemed an intentional tweak of Republicans, who have begun defending their once-robust and now flagging support for a continued military presence in Afghanistan as "nation-building" overseas.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, considered the current frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, said in a recent debate that "it's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can."

"Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban," he said.
Fellow candidate Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann has said that she's "tired of Afghanistan and Iraq, too. Let's get them out as quickly as we can."

Those views have been harshly criticized by other Republicans, most notably Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Graham asserted that tacking to Obama's "left on Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq" is no path to the GOP nomination. McCain, the party's 2008 presidential nominee, pondered "what Ronald Reagan would be saying today."

While rank-and-file Republicans may still largely assert that peace is accomplished through military strength, surveys have suggested that they believe the cost of war is a problem.

Another recent Pew poll found that Americans cited war costs as the biggest factor in the nation's rising debt level — bigger than domestic spending or the effects of the Bush-era tax cuts.

"This idea of the cost of military intervention overseas is hitting home, and not just for Democrats and independents, but Republicans as well," said the Pew Center's Doherty. The number of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party Republicans and say they support withdrawal of troops as soon as possible from Afghanistan has doubled over the past year, to 42 percent from 21 percent, he says.

The Role Of Public Opinion

Obama's advisers insisted Wednesday in a call with reporters that public opinion "really doesn't play a role" in the president's war calculations. However, they added that the president looks at a range of things, including objectives and "resources," and the cost to the American taxpayer.

Obama is certainly aware, they said, that Americans want a "responsible end to these wars."
This is, they said, a "pivot point."

A headline on a recent Washington Post opinion piece — "Republicans for retreat?" — suggested that it's clearly a pivot point for the GOP, too.

It raises the question of how or whether Obama, in the coming election year, will have to protect his right flank on the issue of war after the recent killing of al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden and the promised drawdown of surge troops overseas.

The financial "win" of Obama's withdrawal plan for Afghanistan this year, however, is not yet clear.

Say you save $10 billion if the military withdraws 10,000 troops this year — the savings likely won't come until next year and "you're still north of the $100 billion a year cost for the war," said Fontaine of the Center for New American Security.

"I don't know if that's going to feel like a major reduction for people who are watching this and for whom the financial side of this is a big driver," he said.

The question that will likely play out in coming months is whether Republicans who have made spending and debt the centerpiece of their case against Obama's re-election will be willing or able to make a case that his war policy is too expensive.

It's a risk that at least some in the party seem ready to take.