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The Anti-War Left’s Big Gun

By Benjamin Sarlin at The Daily Beast

As Obama continues to debate a troop surge, liberals who want the U.S. out of Afghanistan are turning up the heat. Benjamin Sarlin on Alan Grayson—yes, that loudmouth on health care—the freshman congressman who’s leading the charge.

If you think Alan Grayson was tough on Republicans over health care, wait until you hear him talk about Afghanistan.

The freshman Florida congressman, who represents a moderate district that includes parts of Orlando, rode into office on Barack Obama’s coattails last year—and has generally supported the president’s domestic agenda. But his loyalty does not extend to military matters—on which he’s shown a fiercely independent streak. Grayson is one of 51 House Democrats who have voted against funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and favors withdrawing all troops from the latter theater, as soon as possible.

“There is no need to occupy other countries against their will,” Grayson told The Daily Beast in an interview. “The British gave up on that 60 years ago. The Soviet Union gave up on that 20 years ago. What are we waiting for?”

“Grayson has been very strong from Day One on this issue, when there were very few of us talking about it,” says filmmaker Robert Greenwald. “First of all, he’s got a huge amount of relevant knowledge. Second of all, he’s fearless.”

Grayson, who became a Democratic hero overnight for his bare-knuckled assault on the GOP’s health-care opposition, is rapidly emerging as one of the leading voices of the anti-war left. He brings a certain authority to the cause; a defense lawyer in his previous life, he hauled Iraq War defense contractors into court, and racked up huge settlements—giving him both a substantive expertise and the kind of financial cushion that allows him to speak his mind with impunity.

He’s arriving at a crucial juncture in the Afghanistan debate. From his right, the president faces pressure to ramp up troop strength, as recommended by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and endorsed by lawmakers like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). From the left, Obama has been lobbied to leave the force size alone or even begin drawing it down in favor of devoting more resources to chasing al Qaeda in Pakistan. The debate threatens to split Obama’s progressive base and undercut whatever boost the president might receive from a health-care victory.

Grayson is hardly alone. Recently, online juggernaut MoveOn.org, one of the most important players in the health-care debate on the left, began lending its weight to the anti-war effort, pushing for an exit strategy in Afghanistan. Activist filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who built a liberal following by taking on Fox News in years past, has been steadily promoting his antiwar film, Rethink Afghanistan. This month, Grayson attended a screening of Rethink Afghanistan, then delivered a speech to the audience warning that aid to that country was “the fig leaf to try and make Congress and the American people feel better about war and about killing”—arguing that any nation-building efforts there are “fatally flawed.”

According to Greenwald, Grayson has helped galvanize the burgeoning movement.

“Grayson has been very strong from Day One on this issue, when there were very few of us talking about it,” Greenwald told The Daily Beast. “First of all, he’s got a huge amount of relevant knowledge. Second of all, he’s fearless to say it like it is: [The war] doesn’t make any sense and it’s not going to make us more secure.”

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) is another anti-war freshman joining Grayson on the barricades. She made headlines this year by voting against funding for the war to protest what she said was a lack of strategy in the region. According to Edwards, who visited Afghanistan before her vote, the war needs significant civilian aid rather than more combat troops—as well as a much clearer long-term strategy.

“It’s really clear that Afghanistan is living in about the 16th or 17th century and it’s going to take 20 years or a couple of generations to bring it into the 20th and 21st century,” Edwards said in an interview. “If that’s what the game plan is, it’s important for the administration to be straight with the American people about it and for us to have an honest debate about that commitment.”

Edwards won her primary against Democratic incumbent Al Wynn in no small part by tying him to his support for the Iraq War. She said that the current president’s party would not affect her approach to the Afghanistan debate. “[A Democratic president] doesn’t change the questions that we have to be asking, for me or for other Democrats,” she says. “These are clearly questions we should have demanded of the Bush administration, and I think we have to demand the same thing of the Obama administration.”

Of course, the newest members have some cover from on high; even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly suggested her patience on the war is wearing thin. “I don’t think there’s a great deal of support for sending more troops to Afghanistan in the country or the Congress,” Pelosi told the Los Angeles Times this week. In the Senate, Russ Feingold (D-WI) has called for a timetable for withdrawal, similar to the one employed in Iraq, in order to reassure Afghanis that American troops are not permanent occupiers.

It’s clear from recent opinion surveys that anti-war sentiment among the public is growing. But none of the major anti-war leftists have yet had their stands tested at the polls. Nor is it clear whether their views will find any favor across the aisle; with the GOP caucus largely lining up in support of a troop surge, no Olympia Snowe of the Afghan issue has emerged yet—though one well could, given the GOP’s traditional skepticism about international adventuring.

Not long ago, leading Democrats worried about being cast as too dovish; in the aftermath of 9/11, George Bush and Karl Rove ran hard on national security, mocked critics as soft on terrorism, and made hay at the polls. But the Iraq War gave rise to a new, more muscular questioning of America’s role abroad by the left—one that may bedevil Obama in the weeks and months ahead.

“I assume basically it’s going to be the Democrats, many of whom ran and got elected on an anti-war platform, [who end the war],” Greenwald told The Beast. “The more time goes on, the more people who ran on anti-war platforms will out of necessity speak up and speak out. Then it will be hard to sustain.”

As Grayson puts it, “it’s a question of right and wrong, not left and right. ”