Grover Norquist is calling for a conservative debate over the war in Afghanistan. Daniel Larison is not impressed. He makes some arguments I agree with — the Afghanistan Study Group poll overstates meaningful conservative opposition to the war — but naturally I’m going to take up the arguments I disagree with.
First, Larison argues that Norquist seems to be opposing the war in Afghanistan in order to make it easier to fight a war with Iran: “As with so many other conservatives claiming to be ‘antiwar’ because of their objections to Afghanistan, Norquist wants to free up military resources so that they might be turned toward the ‘real’ threats that he identifies elsewhere.” But “leverage” against Iran or North Korea isn’t the same thing as an invasion or occupation of either country. One of the arguments many of us made against the war with Iraq was that it would increase Iran’s power in the region. That doesn’t mean that all of us who made that argument really preferred a war with Iran instead. The ability to effectively deter or contain Iran in fact makes war less likely.
Norquist, like many conservatives, was initially supportive of the Iraq war. He gave this very Norquistian quote to the Washington Post in 2003: “The Democrats were on the wrong side of the Civil War, the Cold War and now the Iraq War.” He later became a critic of the Iraq adventure, downplaying conservative support for the policy: “If Bush changed the policy, you’d have four neocons whine and the rest of the movement would be fine.” What Norquist said about the Iraq war to Vanity Fair doesn’t suggest much enthusiasm for a sequel in Iran:
Everything the advocates of war said would happen hasn’t happened. And all the things the critics said would happen have happened. [The president’s neoconservative advisers] are effectively saying, “Invade Iran. Then everyone will see how smart we are.” But after you’ve lost x number of times at the roulette wheel, do you double-down?
Larison also thinks it is counterproductive for Norquist to bring up Ronald Reagan’s decision to withdraw from Lebanon after the Beirut bombing, since many neoconservatives have criticized this as a terror-enabling decision to “cut and run.” The analogy is obviously inapt: the original invasion of Afghanistan was a necessary response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States, while an argument could be made — and was made at the time even by hawks like John McCain — that the Marines shouldn’t have been in Beirut in the first place. But bringing up Reagan isn’t totally without merit. During the previous administration, conservatives unwittingly embraced a degree of interventionism that is not just excessive compared to Eisenhower or Taft but also Reagan, Nixon, and Bush 41.
Maybe these arguments will fail to persuade most conservatives. They have been made before without any universal assent in a very different political climate. But especially now that this climate has changed, it strikes me as exactly the kind of debate conservatives should be having.
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