By Jeff Stein at CQ
A new poll
says liberal support for President Obama’s war strategy in Afghanistan is “cratering” — down 20 points since he took office in January.
The yawning rift has potentially lethal political consequences for a White House already struggling to shore up liberal Democratic support for its health care overhaul.
Throughout his campaign and into the White House, the president had ample reason to believe liberals would follow him into Afghanistan, which many liberals touted as the “good war
” (as opposed to the “bad war” in Iraq).
Only eight months ago this week, when he took the oath of office, Obama could claim bipartisan support for crushing the resurgent Taliban, not to mention Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda just across the border in the Pakistani mountains.
According to the results of a Washington Post-ABC poll
published Wednesday, the good war has gone too bad to be salvaged now, especially if it requires more troops.
“Among liberals, his rating on handling the war, which he calls one of ‘necessity,’ has fallen swiftly, with strong approval cratering by 20 points,” The Post reported late Wednesday.
“Overall, seven in 10 Democrats say the war has not been worth its costs, and fewer than one in five support an increase in troop levels.
“Nearly two-thirds of the most committed Democrats now feel “strongly” that the war was not worth fighting. Among moderate and conservative Democrats, a slim majority say the United States is losing in Afghanistan.”
“Nearly two-thirds of liberals stand against a troop increase, as do about six in 10 Democrats,” The Post added.
Obama is said to be resisting the desires of his new commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, for more troops.
Somewhat ironically, Republicans pretty much like Obama’s efforts on Afghanistan.
“Republicans (70 percent say it is worth fighting) and conservatives (58 percent) remain the war’s strongest backers, and the issue provides a rare point of GOP support for Obama’s policies,” The Post reported.
“A narrow majority of conservatives approve of Obama’s handling of the war (52 percent), as do more than four in 10 Republicans (43 percent),” the paper said.
But exactly what is it that’s worth fighting for? Defeating the Taliban? Smashing Al Qaeda? Turning Afghanistan into a stable democracy?
To many, it remains unclear. But that may be exactly what the administration secretly wants.
As I wrote
here not long ago, the administration’s numbers on Afghanistan don’t add up to victory in Afghanistan — or “success,” the president’s word – if it’s defined as ensuring the existence of the U.S.-backed government there.
“Pretty soon we’ll be topping out at 65,000 troops in Afghanistan (and the White House doesn’t want to hear any requests from McChrystal for more, according to news reports),” I wrote
“U.S. advisers are struggling to build an Afghan army of 134,000 and a national police force of 82,000, a goal hampered by corruption and defections.
“And those numbers are supposed to secure the country, which for most of its history has been a kaleidoscope of ethnic groups and tribes? Even Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair says that’s nowhere near enough.”
The real goal of the war, I argued, had to be (just) liquidating the leadership of al Qaeda and beating back the Taliban enough to give the U.S.-backed government some breathing room, declare some sort of victory and go home.
That theory gained some traction in the president’s speech
to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention this week.
“This is a war of necessity,” the president said.
“Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is a — this is fundamental to the defense of our people.”
Neo-conservative columnist and TV talking head Charles Krauthammer sniffed
the shifting nuance, and held his nose.
“If you watch and you listen to him in the speech he gave today to the VFW, if you listen carefully, he is already beginning a tactical retreat,” he said
“(H)e talked about defending us against Al Qaeda — he defines the war in Afghanistan entirely in terms of Al Qaeda, not Afghanistan. And later in the speech, he talks about the reason that we’re in Afghanistan is to decrease the area of Taliban control, thus decreasing the area in which Al Qaeda has freedom of action.
“If you look at the war that way, and your intention is to fight and defeat Al Qaeda — he used the words ‘dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda’ — then what you’re arguing in favor of is a war in Afghanistan which is a war of containment against expansion of the Taliban, and that is a minimalist war which he could sustain.”
You’d think Democrats, even liberal Democrats, could get with Obama on that kind of strategy – applauding what Krauthammer deplores.
But here’s the rub: Even as it becomes apparent that Obama’s real objective is holding back the resurgent Taliban, which provided a platform for al Qaeda to attack us, liberals seem to be concluding that any military fight in Afghanistan is unjust, no matter how limited – or rational.
Peter Feaver, a veteran of both the Clinton and George W. Bush White House national security councils, said Obama’s VFW speech was “all in all … fine.”
But then he attacked one the president’s central rationale for staying the course.
“The president reiterated the ‘war of necessity, war of choice’ distinction which, as I have argued before, just does not stand up to rigorous scrutiny,” Feaver argued on his “Shadow Government” blog on Foreign Policy’s Web site. ”It is short-hand for ‘wars I support, wars I do not support.’”
“Serious security studies specialists argued against the Afghanistan war from the outset and even more argue that we should walk away from Afghanistan now,” Feaver continued.
“I do not endorse their views, but I say that they are an existence proof that the necessity vs. choice distinction is more rhetorical than real. It may even be misleading, since we have lots of choices ahead in Afghanistan and it is entirely possible for us — either the president or the public or both — to get those choices wrong.”
As if on cue, Hollywood liberal filmmaker Robert Greenwald released a new documentary on Wednesday featuring three former CIA officials talking about their opposition to U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan.
“I don’t think the strategy we’re pursuing right now, which is focused on building up the Afghan army, building up the national police and trying to establish central government control throughout Afghanistan is going to work,” Robert Grenier, a former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, says in “Rethink Afghanistan,” which Greenwald’s Brave New Films posted
on You Tube.
“Both wars have made the Middle East and the world much more dangerous for Americans and for any American presence overseas,” Graham Fuller, a former CIA station chief in Kabul, says
“It’s creating much greater hostility towards the U.S. and creating a whole lot more people that would be happy to kill Americans or join in some kind of terrorist operation,” Fuller argues.
Robert Baer, a former CIA operations officer in the Middle East, says Afghanistan is not the place for the administration to make a stand.
“Our original objective in Afghanistan was to find Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden,” he says in the film.
“Eight years later, there is no Al-Qaeda left in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda has all fled to the Pashtun border of Pakistan. The last thing we want is for Al-Qaeda, an international terrorist organization to destabilize Pakistan and take over their nuclear weaponry.”
In response to a query about the Post-ABC poll, White House spokesman Michael Hammer said he hadn’t had a chance to study the numbers, “but our policy and goals for Afghanistan are clear.”
“We have developed a new, comprehensive strategy to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda and its extremist allies in order to ensure that those who plotted the 9/11 attacks are not able to attack Americans or the homeland again,” Hammer said by e-mail.
“As the President has said, we recognize Afghanistan poses a difficult challenge but we plan to properly resource our brave men and women in uniform, as well as our diplomats and other civilians serving in Afghanistan, to succeed in their mission.”