Afghanistan Is Dividing the Soul of the Republican Party

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The GOP is torn by conflicting visions of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

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Former U.S. Republican presidential candidate Texas Governor Rick Perry poses with a photo cut-out of an American soldier, serving in Afghanistan, while campaigning at the Iowa State Fair / Reuters

For Republicans, there are two Afghanistan wars. There is Afghanistan the good war and there is Afghanistan the bad war. Dueling visions of the conflict compete for the conservative soul, but it's the bad war image that is growing in prominence.

The first narrative sees Afghanistan as the good war. Just as we were attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and rallied to defeat the enemy, so we were struck on 9/11 and should stay the course to crush evil. Add to this a reflexive Republican instinct to support the troops, and the war becomes a test of our commitment and resolve. When the flag is planted the United States should fight to win. This narrative of the good war allows Republicans to attack Obama as weak on defense for drawing down U.S. forces in Afghanistan--a traditional election year strategy against Democrats.

Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie argued in Foreign Policy that the Republican nominee should focus on "the struggle that will define this century's arc: radical Islamic terrorism." The objective was "victory" requiring the use of "all tools of influence--from diplomacy to economic ties, from intelligence efforts to military action." Republicans "must condemn the president's precipitous drawdown in Afghanistan," which "emboldens America's adversaries and discourages its allies."

Mitt Romney opposed Obama's withdrawal date from Afghanistan because the Taliban can simply "wait us out." Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, said that events in Afghanistan symbolize a foreign policy based on "retreat, appeasement and weakness."

But for Republicans there is a second and more difficult narrative, with Afghanistan as the bad war. Over time the campaign has become a depressing exercise in big government nation-building. Republicans don't have much faith in Washington's ability to mold American society. And yet here we are trying to socially engineer a country that's stuck in the nineteenth century. The predictable result: wasteful expenditure and a culture of dependence. Nation-building in Afghanistan looks like a conservative nightmare, where our fearsome warriors spend their time giving handouts to foreigners. Shouldn't the Afghan people make their own way in life, free from government meddling?

Ron Paul has long exemplified this strain of thinking: "We can't stay in 130 counties and get involved in nation building." But skepticism of big government nation-building in Afghanistan has spread much further into Republican ranks. Last year, Sarah Palin said that nation-building was a "nice idea in theory," but not the "main purpose" of American foreign policy. John Huntsman went further, saying "I don't want to be nation building in Afghanistan when this nation so desperately needs to be built." Newt Gingrich recently concluded:

We are not going to fix Afghanistan. It is not possible. These are people who have spent several thousand years hating foreigners. And what we have done by staying is become the new foreigners. This is a real problem. And there are some problems where you have to say, 'You know, you are going to have to figure out how to live your own miserable life because you clearly don't want to learn from me how to be unmiserable.' And that is what you are going to see happen.

The soul of the Republican Party is torn over Afghanistan. This is more than just a difference of opinion about how well the battle is going. It reflects a more fundamental division over the nature of the war. Is the end of defeating radical Islam worth the means of big government nation-building? Recently, the bad war narrative has moved into the ascendancy. The mission started out looking like World War II. But increasingly for Republicans, social engineering in Afghanistan resembles Obamacare on steroids.


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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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