The war in Afghanistan has produced divisions among Democrats in Congress from the start, but a series of votes on Thursday night revealed a rising tide of Democratic discontentment that could alter the trajectory of the Obama administration’s approach to the conflict.
[Security1] A measure to fund the administration’s 30,000-troop surge with $33 billion narrowly passed late Thursday, by a 215-210 margin. But the inclusion of domestic spending projects in the overall package appeared to boost its support among some Democrats, while a number of votes on amendments signaled a growing desire for an exit strategy.
“The close vote shows the rising disagreements over war policy,” said Darrell M. West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “The war has never been popular among Democratic activists and now lawmakers are starting to express their own doubts.”
An amendment calling for a flexible withdrawal timetable — sponsored by Reps. David Obey (D-Wis.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) — failed to pass the House, but it won 162 votes, including those of 153 Democrats, three-fifths of the Democratic caucus.
McGovern hailed it as an “important milestone” in a statement released Friday. “This vote should send a signal to the Administration that Congress is increasingly troubled by risking the lives of our troops and borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars for ‘nation-building’ in Afghanistan while we are facing a dire economic situation here at home,” he said. “I will continue to work to build bi-partisan support for a meaningful exit strategy from this war.”
An amendment introduced Thursday by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) proposed to restrict future war funding to troop redeployment and protecting soldiers presently in combat. It received 100 votes, including those of 93 Democrats. A third amendment to slash war funding entirely from the bill won the votes of 25 congressmen, including 22 Democrats, while an additional 22 Democrats chose not to oppose it and voted “present.”
“Obviously, a lot of people are understandably anxious. The sustainability of this war is in some doubt,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy expert at Brookings.
Antiwar sympathies seemed notably stronger than during a previous effort in the House to implement a withdrawal timetable, a motion in March by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) that failed 365-65. Prior attempts have likewise been overwhelmingly defeated.
Speaking out most forcefully for limits to the war were the 23 members of the “Out of Afghanistan Caucus,” established by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) on May 18.
“It’s a fool’s errand,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), one of the members, during a press conference Thursday. “Every dollar we spend in Afghanistan, every life we waste there, is a waste. … What makes us think, what arrogance gives us the right to assume that we can succeed where the Moguls, the British, the Soviets, failed?”
Also on Thursday, Reps. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Mike Honda (D-Calif.) took aim at President Obama for depicting the measure as urgent.
“It is disingenuous to say this is an ‘emergency’ supplemental,” they said in a joint statement. “The only emergency,” they said, is that “we are putting America further into debt” by “funding the longest war in history.” They added: “Last year, President Obama pledged to stop these off-budget gimmicks to hide the cost of war.”
West of Brookings noted that it’s historically unusual for presidents to face challenges over war policy from within their own party.
“Generally, members of your own party support your foreign policy,” he said. “It’s typical that you have to worry more about the opposition party than your own, and the fact that Democrats are expressing reservations should send a warning sign to the Obama administration.”
This deepening fissure could turn into a headache for the president and Democratic leaders.
“There’s been a schism in the Democratic Party over all wars since Vietnam. What matters is the intensity of it,” said Eric Alterman, of the liberal Center for American Progress. “[The antiwar coalition is] going to make it more difficult for [Obama] to continue the war, and they’re going to be a faction that has to be negotiated with.”
“But they’re not going to cut him off at the knees, they’re not to going to humiliate him, and they’re not going to destroy his presidency over it,” Alterman continued. “It’s not going to be the kind of thing that tears the party apart, as this issue has done in the past, because people have learned those lessons.”
O’Hanlon, a self-described Democrat and proponent of the Afghanistan occupation, cautioned that stripping funding now would cause Democrats to get “pilloried by Republicans” for “being weak on defense.” “It would be not only strategically unwise but politically suicidal,” he said.
And while skeptical Democrats could play an important role in determining the eventual outcome of the war, they may not wield much influence over the administration’s short-term strategy.
“This group has influence in the broader sense because obviously it has put a stake in the ground, and if things continue to go badly in Afghanistan, its influence will grow,” O’Hanlon said. “At some point it may be able to push the United States out of this conflict, but for now it’s not going to have any direct impact on strategy.”
Recent weeks and months have enhanced negative perceptions of the war, due to escalating violence, the ousting of Gen. Stanley McChrystal and charges of corruption by the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Polls suggest Americans are growing increasingly dissatisfied with the war.
The Obama administration hasn’t flinched in its commitment to the effort, and has even begun to back away from its promise to begin winding America’s involvement in the war next July. “That absolutely has not been decided,” said Defense Secretary Robert Gates on June 20 on Fox News, nothing that withdrawal will be “conditions-based.” Obama said on June 28 that there’s “a lot of obsession” about the withdrawal date, which irritated some Democrats who perceived it as a snub.
It’s unclear whether Democrats will accept the president’s decision to extend it beyond then, if he chooses to.
“I think a year from now all bets are off if we haven’t seen major progress,” O’Hanlon said. “It’s possible to imagine a revolt within the party in a year.”
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