GOP Claims Foothold in Afghanistan Debate
Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 6:00 am
[GOP1]Over two days of hearings with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of CentCom, Republican members of Congress settled on a common line of questioning. Did the general have everything he needed to win? Did he have everything he asked for? Was President Barack Obama’s proposed July 2011 deadline for the beginning of a troop withdrawal feasible?
“I have heard that your request of the president was anywhere from 10,000 to 80,000 additional troops,”said Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), during the morning hearings on the House side. “We have not been given your request. All we’ve had to go on is what we’ve heard.”
The afternoon’s questioning in the Senate took on the same tone. “We’ve announced a date divorced from conditions on the ground when we will start to withdraw our troops,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), kicking off his party’s line of questioning. “It doesn’t matter whether we call it a cliff or a ramp or anything else. It’s still an exit sign, and it sends the wrong signal to our friends and our enemies.” Over the course of a long day, McChrystal reiterated his support for the president’s decision, but Republicans got statements on the record about the malleable nature of the proposed July 2011 and cast some doubt on whether the general was getting everything he needed. For the conservative military analysts who’d spent the year consolidating unconditional Republican support for the war, it was a mixed success.
As the Obama administration closes its first year, Republicans have staked out a combative position on the issue that gives the president the most trouble with his restive liberal base. Beginning in March, Republicans and foreign policy hawks whose influence had waned at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency began to argue that the opposition party’s role in Afghanistan policy would be to argue for a sustained commitment. In the summer and fall, as Republicans saw more political openings against the president, they balanced criticism of his approach with avowed support for a troop increase. As Gen. McChrystal departs Washington, Republicans and conservative military analysts are confident that they’ve played a role in the president’s decision and set themselves up for the debate to come.
“Things are going pretty well right now because the Obama administration realized that the American people want McCrystal to make these decisions,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) told TWI. Referring to the role Republicans have played in challenging the Obama administration not to back down from a troop surge, Inhofe added that “a lot of that’s our doing.”
Quietly, other Republicans share Inhofe’s opinion. “I think the criticism had the effect of keeping pressure on, and keeping people focused on Afghanistan,” said one GOP aide in the Senate. “Now we’re focused on the success of the strategy. Politically, as far as we’re concerned, the past is the past.”
According to a Quinnipiac University poll released on Tuesday, Republican voters are, as they have been, the strongest supporters of the war in Afghanistan. Seventy-one percent of them say that fighting the war is the “right thing.” However, only 36 percent say they support President Obama’s handling of the war. That’s more support than the president gets from Republicans on other issues–only 21 percent support his foreign policy in general.
The Republican approach to Afghanistan was telegraphed at the start of the year, most publicly with the launch of the Foreign Policy Initiative–a PR-savvy think tank led by Weekly Standard editor-in-chief Bill Kristol, scholar and surge architect Frederick Kagan, and former Defense Department spokesman Dan Senor. The March 30 launch of the new think tank was a festival of praise for President Obama–he made, according to Kagan, a “gutsy and correct” decision in sending 10,000 more troops to Afghanistan in February. The think tank’s goal, said Kagan, was the formation of “a consensus to commit to Afghanistan.”
According to Jamie Fly, the executive director of FPI, the consensus held then and is holding now, especially among Republicans. “On the Hill, a lot of what we do, laying out what the case should be on foreign policy–a lot of our messaging is followed quite avidly,” said Fly. “The hope is that people there will be less likely to be critical of the policy if we’re not critical of the policy.”
Between March and this week, however, the Republican approach to Afghanistan was limned with criticism of President Obama. At McChrystal’s confirmation hearing in June, Republicans voiced support for his strategy in Afghanistan and then moved onto other issues, such as U.S. relations with Colombia and the securing of loose nuclear weapons. Weeks later, on Meet the Press, McCain framed the strategy in Afghanistan as McChrystal’s to run as Congress and the White House gave him what he needed.
“General McChrystal may say we need more troops,” said McCain. “Let’s tell the American people how tough it is. Let’s tell them what’s at stake. And I want to work with the president and make sure we win this thing.”
In September, after the news that McChrystal had submitted a report on Afghanistan that asked for more troops, the Republican argument took on a harder edge. The president’s deliberation over an Afghanistan strategy, said former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, was a “slow-motion trainwreck.” In the most widely-circulated criticism, former Vice President Dick Cheney accused the White House of “dithering” over whether or not to send more troops, a charge that reporters latched onto in the month between that comment and the president’s announcement.
The most quietly influential criticism of the White House, however, may have been FPI’s September 7 letter, signed by Sarah Palin and other Republican influentials, urging the president–with some sarcastic language that recalled the 2006 report of the Iraq Study Group–to “fully resource this effort” and “do everything possible to minimize the risk of failure.” This, according to strategists, helped inform months of Republican criticism that was critical of the policy without becoming overly partisan. Cheney’s “dithering” attack, said Fly, was a rare (if influential) “wavering” of rock-solid conservative support for the president on Afghanistan.
Since the president’s announcement of the 30,000 troop surge, Republicans have refined their criticism to the areas that came up in this week’s hearings while pledging support for the policy overall. The only visible break from the GOP’s Afghanistan stance came when Rep. Josh Chaffetz (R-Utah), a freshman from Utah, proposed bringing the troops home at a high-profile speech in his home state. Chaffetz’s argument, however, was perfectly in line with Republican criticism of Obama’s decision-making process and of the over-arching argument that the president wasn’t listening to generals. “We can win any war but only with the president’s full commitment to the mission,” Chaffetz wrote in a December 8 op-ed explaining his stance. “Absent such a commitment, our presence in Afghanistan does nothing more than endanger our troops, compromise our readiness, and waste our money.”
The rest of the GOP, with no time for a “bring the troops home” message, have found their footing in critical questions about the policy. On Tuesday, Inhofe prodded McChrystal to agree that the July 2011 timeline is tied to “the conditions on the ground” and “not a calendar decision.” James Cay Carafano, a military analyst at the Heritage Foundation, told TWI that Republicans needed to do more to “get it on the record that this is a risky strategy,” to find out whether the White House passed on a recommendation for more troops, and to undermine the idea that America could leave Iraq before the job is done.
“If things go well, no one’s going to care about the deadline,” said Carafano. “A couple people from Code Pink will run around and nobody else will give a damn.”
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.