Politicizing Afghanistan

This post is about the politics of the President's Afghanistan speech and policy. For my take on the policy, see Blue Moose Democrat; I am tepidly supportive.

They used to say that politics stops at the water's edge. That hasn't really been true since at least Bosnia, but at least we've managed to cling to some of its rougher edges. Liberals (rightly) balked when Bush the Younger demanded that we go to war in Iraq on scant evidence, but by and large the country united around a military response to 9/11. It was understood that some things were beyond politics - until now. For months, Repubs have been telling us that they would support President Obama's leadership on Afghanistan if he sent thousands more troops there. Now that he is indeed sending the troops, are they rallying behind him?

Not so much. The President gives them what they want, and they still manage to make criticism the centerpiece of their response. Oh, they voice support for the increased troop levels, but there must have been some sort of talking points memo because every single leader's focus is on opposing the fact that it isn't an open-ended surge.

The Repub Party's most recent presidential nominee and point Senator on Armed Services, John McCain, twice emphasized his support for the new surge to NBC's Brian Williams, but the bulk of his words were critical. I don't have a transcript of that particular interview, but he told the New York Times something similar earlier today:

"Dates for withdrawal are dictated by conditions," Mr. McCain told reporters on Capitol Hill. "The way that you win wars is to break the enemy's will, not to announce dates that you are leaving."...

The military strategy appears to be "modeled on the surge in Iraq," Mr. McCain said, which he added, "I think will succeed." Mr. McCain said the United States "should have a goal of being out the day after tomorrow - a goal." But not, he said, a date as specific as July 2011.

The President has not set a date for our withdrawal, merely the beginning of a timeframe. But that didn't stop Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senator Lamar Alexander, and even the usually reasonable Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) from all saying nearly the same thing (even if our generals and foreign partners haven't). And of course you know RNC Chair Michael Steele was in on the talking points memo. When has he ever pass up a chance to politicize such an event?

"If the president remains committed to this crucial fight, Republicans and the American people will stand with him. But sending mixed signals by outlining the exit before these troops even get on the ground undermines their ability to succeed."

So Michael Steele thinks going to war with an exit strategy already in mind is a bad thing. No wonder he backed Iraq. And you can bet the right-wing blogosphere is and will be even more unhinged than the stately senators. Red State's Erick Erickson:

Barack Obama spoke at West Point tonight on the issue of Afghanistan. In 4608 words, he did not once mention the word "victory" and the closest he came to using the word "win" was those three letters appearing in the word "withdrawing."..

Proving yet again that he is a rank amateur, Obama intends to have a surge of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, but concurrently announce the timeline for their withdrawal. This is akin to announcing to burglars exactly the time at which you intend to depart your house and also announcing you intend to turn off the burglar alarm. Al Qaeda will just wait us out. They'll only need to wait a year. The men who spent years planning 9/11 are more patient than this President who wants instant gratification in a never ending campaign.

Al Qaeda will just wait us out? All 100 of them? Booga Booga! Here's hoping Erickson has managed to find his inhaler in the hours since making that post. But for all that blathering and bloviating, I don't think the right-wing attacks on Obama's speech will amount to much political hay in the long-run.

A Gallup poll out earlier today showed that Obama now has a 35% approval rating on Afghanistan and a 55% disapproval, a mirror image of his July numbers. I expect to see that 35% rise dramatically in next few days, for three reasons. First, his numbers almost always seem to rise after a big speech. Second, although this will tick off a large part of the base (see Jerome's post about Feingold and Grayson earlier today), many more are supportive. Though it's hardly scientific, a Daily Kos reader poll currently registers 44% support for the President's surge and 16% undecided with just 37% opposed. Third, I believe much of the 32% Independent approval and 16% Repub approval was based on the perceived "dithering" of the president (because apparently we learned nothing from Bush's disgust for facts). People wanted a decision. Now that they have one, their minds will change.

McChrystal thinks that with more troops, he can bring more stability. I don't know if he's right, but it didn't fail in Iraq. If Afghanistan is anywhere near the appearance of stable next November, this decision will not harm the Democrats in the midterms, and by 2012, we will hopefully be out or mostly out and this should again be a non-issue. Afghanistan hasn't been a huge electoral factor since 2002, and I don't think it's going to become one now.

Tags: Afghanistan, Barack Obama, John McCain, Michael Steele, Mitch McConnell, red state (all tags)



Re: Politicizing Afghanistan

I don't think his Afghan approval numbers will inch up noticeably. Maybe in 2011 if the situation has stabilized and the an exit is in sight.

It should be noted in this Obama has no base of support. The Hawks (Conservatives/Repubs) are opposed, just like with Iraq and 9/11 they will continue to use this to score cheap political points. The Doves (Liberals/Democrats) are divided, those that do support do so tepidly with the knowledge this is not good only necessary. Those that oppose do so vociferously.

The President is alone in this. That is not a good place to be when the country is at war, but that is the way it is.

by vecky 2009-12-01 06:49PM | 0 recs
Re: Politicizing Afghanistan

As far as modern war polling goes, it's very likely that the numbers he'll be getting on Afghanistan over the next day or two will be the high water mark - it'll be downhill from there. Especially as the body count accelerates.

The party question is: where is this Democratic support for the war escalation coming from? Folks who were likely to stay home come 2010 but are now more likely to vote? Party loyalists who are not enthusiastic but just rationalize their way to Obama's position? Obama needs to energize his base - he hasn't been able to via health care, nor via foreign policy, nor via bailouts. He's running out of options.

by Liberaltarian 2009-12-01 06:50PM | 0 recs
Re: Politicizing Afghanistan

This is, of course, the same talking point we heard from Bush.  "Can't announce a timeline, the enemy will just wait for us to leave!"  Apparently if you act like you might never leave the enemy will just give up or something.

I always figured the appropriate strategy was to announce a date, and then accomplish whatever you need to since the enemy will apparently be "waiting" instead of fighting you.  Then if you need more time, no problem, just announce a new date and they'll "wait" some more.  If only Bush was right and things really worked like that.

by Steve M 2009-12-01 06:56PM | 0 recs
Re: Politicizing Afghanistan

The heat will probably drop away from the issue. I don't expect major changes in the numbers of Afghanistan, but a more general approval bump.

In this the GOP will help. Their complaining about withdrawal will mute much of the criticism over the increase. The more they criticize the more this will look like a winding down. (and probably cement an eventual draw down in '11 despite the caveats)

In general the issue will fade to the level of where Iraq is now.

by Judeling 2009-12-01 07:47PM | 0 recs
The often ignored point

McChrystal thinks that with more troops, he can bring more stability. I don't know if he's right, but it didn't fail in Iraq.
Afghanistan isn't Iraq, but this strategy didn't not work in Iraq.

I now find myself having to summon all the faith I can in the man I campaigned for through the primaries and voted for last November.

by NoFortunateSon 2009-12-01 07:54PM | 0 recs
Re: The often ignored point

It didn't work. But it didn't fail. As far as the general population and the chattering class is concerned the "surge stabilized Iraq.

by Judeling 2009-12-01 08:03PM | 0 recs
politics should stop at the water's edge

...was a post WW II invention that may have had marginal value in the ominous early days of the Cold War, but mostly it is an invitation to GroupThink, always in service of the most belicose policy.  

There is no more reason that we should suppress debate on foreign policy than we should have a single policy on the equally difficult array of domestic issues. Quite the contrary.

by KitBinns 2009-12-02 04:11AM | 0 recs


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