“I figured it up the other day,” Bob Dole memorably snarled during the 1976 vice presidential debate. “If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans — enough to fill the city of Detroit.” It wasn’t Dole’s finest moment as an orator, but it should be a cautionary tale for a Democratic president seeking bipartisan support for a “surge” in Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama’s long-awaited decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan — arrived at after much handwringing and more than a little celebration of the commander-in-chief’s King Solomon-like wisdom — did not win universal acclaim.
Antiwar Democrats in Congress panned the president’s plan. Appearing on CNN’s “The Situation Room,” Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) asked, “Why does it make sense to have a huge ground presence in Afghanistan to deal with a small al Qaeda contingent, when we don’t do that in so many other countries where we’re actually having some success without invading the country and attacking those that are part of al Qaeda?”
Feingold’s host, Wolf Blitzer, asked point-blank, “Will you vote against funding for this new escalation in Afghanistan?” The senator was unequivocal: “Absolutely.” While he isn’t likely to have many fellow travelers in the Senate, many liberal Democrats in the House feel similarly.
Republican hawks were hardly more pleased. They castigated the president for dithering, for shorting General Stanley McChrystal’s request for a full 40,000 troops, and for attaching strings and benchmarks. They noted that Obama sounded like he would rather do anything else — “I would prefer not having to deal with two wars right now,” he told reporters before his West Point speech — besides selling his Afghan surge.
The most vocal of the disaffected hawks was former Vice President Dick Cheney. He denounced Obama for providing “talk about exit strategies and how soon we can get out, instead of talk about how we win.” Cheney told the Politico, “Here’s a guy without much experience, who campaigned against much of what we put in place … and who now travels around the world apologizing.”
Yet as Afghanistan continues to unravel, the politics of the war creates strange bedfellows. Already Sen. Arlen Specter, a pro-war Republican turned endangered Democrat, has come out against the escalation while his liberal primary challenger, Congressman Joe Sestak, supports it. Although the opposition will be most intense among Democratic candidates who seek to ingratiate themselves to the netroots — not a single Democrat vying to replace Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts favors sending more troops to Afghanistan — the issue won’t always be so clear-cut.
Do not expect congressional Republicans — who opposed the Clinton administration’s military interventions in the Balkan s and elsewhere throughout the 1990s — to back Obama as uncritically as George W. Bush on matters of war and peace. While the two most vocal Republican opponents of the president’s plan are the familiar antiwar figures Congressmen Ron Paul (R-Tex.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.), there are other GOP dissenters.
Consider Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), an old-line Reagan conservative who has said he will vote against funding the additional troops. “Sending 30,000 more combat troops to Afghanistan will not make us any safer,” he argued in a statement. “Focusing a strategy around the central government in Kabul will not work, especially with a government as corrupt as the Karzai regime. Sending more American combat troops into Afghanistan just means more of those troops will be doing more of the fighting instead of the Afghans themselves, who are more than willing to defend themselves as long as they are given the resources to do so.”
Rohrabacher is not alone. Congressmen Ed Whitfield (R-KY), Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), John Duncan (R-TN), and Tim Johnson (R-Ill.) are among the Republicans who have signed on to a bipartisan letter opposing more troops for Afghanistan. Of this group, only Duncan opposed the Iraq war. That number could grow if conditions do not soon improve.
Obama has tried to please everyone, but he may end up satisfying no one. He is not taken seriously by those who believe Afghanistan is essential to American national security interests. His Democratic base no longer believes Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, is the good war. And the Republicans he is counting on to support him have a long history of turning against Democrat wars.
The president should have asked Bob Dole.