Republicans Go Wobbly on the War

Now that the war in Afghanistan belongs to Obama, the GOP is turning a 180. Why this is dangerous, both for Afghanistan and for America

Now that it is Obama's War, how tempting must it be for Republicans to channel Edwin Starr and ask, "Huh, what is it good for?" Now that favorable impressions of the campaign in Afghanistan have reached an astounding new low, what a perfect moment it must be for one-time hawks to grow white feathers and claw for the nearest olive branch. After two years of Democrats blaming President Bush for everything but the laughter of newborn babies and puppies, sticking it to President Obama on foreign policy must seem irresistible.

David Frum put it best. If, he said, he were an incoming House member, swept into office on a program of fiscal discipline, he could balance the budget through unpopular cuts to entitlement programs, "or I could ask myself why I was voting $740 billion a year -- very nearly as much as Medicare and Medicaid combined! -- to fund the war-fighting policy of a president I despised and mistrusted." (Note that he does not recommend this course of action.)

Last month, Danielle Pletka and Thomas Donnelly penned a provocative opinion piece in the Washington Post asking, "Is freedom's price too high for the right?" and warned that fiscal conservatives in the next congress will be eager to sacrifice the war for the budget, despite the fact that the "burden to the nation from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- 1.9 percent of GDP -- is less than the burdens of the Korean or Vietnam wars (3 and 2 percent, respectively)."

Proof that the GOP is wobbling on the war in Afghanistan now, at its most critical juncture, presents itself in a phrase seldom heard since the 1990s, and now reaching a crescendo in public discourse: the dreaded "nation building."

In a speech that would cause a sharp intake of breath even from George Orwell, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele recently called Afghanistan a "war of Obama's choosing," adding, "This is not something the United States has actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in."

Three months ago, Ann Coulter compared Afghanistan to Vietnam. In 2001, she advocated converting the entire country to Christianity. If she thinks our present policy of building and defending girls' schools is too lofty a challenge, how well did she expect building churches to go? Though the overwhelming majority of Afghans reject the Taliban and loathe the white-hot tip of Sharia law, it's a stretch to see them raising Bibles and shaking tambourines on Sunday morning.

Republican congressman-turned-talk-show-host Joe Scarborough rushed to her defense, saying, "For too long you've had John McCain, and you've had Bill Kristol, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman define what it meant to be a Republican when it came to foreign policy, when in fact historically the Republican Party has usually been for restraint. They've been accused of being isolationist in the past. Now it seems like a small group of people want to fight every war in every corner of the planet, and it's just not good for the party." He fails to note that he was part of that "small group of people," voting in favor of military campaigns in both Afghanistan and Iraq. If he had serious misgivings about Afghanistan, he failed to mention them at the time, or even in his June 2009 book.

George Will wrote in 2001 that "Purely cathartic uses of military force today would be worse than inaction." In a column shortly thereafter, he lamented inevitable but familiar calls "to confine the war to minor objectives. But those objectives would mock the president's calculated and correct use of the word 'war.' When advocates of merely minor objectives are praised as 'cooler heads,' the pertinent attribute may be cold feet."

Last year, though, after eight years of following through with Will's prescription of major objectives and fevered audacity, he decided that "forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters."

Ironically, it is the supposedly left-wing Time Magazine that offered the most significant defense of the war, picturing on its cover an Afghan woman whose nose and ears had been recently severed by the Taliban. As the Obama administration pushes for negotiations with these extremist Islamic barbarians, the plight of women is quietly being pushed aside (to say nothing of homosexuals, academics, artists, and secular Afghans). In the piece, Aryn Baker writes:

In negotiations, the Taliban will be advocating a version of an Afghan state in line with their own conservative views, particularly on the issue of women's rights, which they deem a Western concept that contravenes Islamic teaching. Already there is a growing acceptance that some concessions to the Taliban are inevitable if there is to be genuine reconciliation. "You have to be realistic," says a senior Western diplomat in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We are not going to be sending troops and spending money forever. There will have to be a compromise, and sacrifices will have to be made." Which sounds understandable. But who, precisely, will be asked to make the sacrifice?

"You have to be realistic." Dot. dot. dot. Some women and some gays are just going to have to be gutted and hanged by their entrails. That's just smart diplomacy.

For his part, President Obama deserves a lion's share of the blame, as both commander in chief and head of state. When President Bush ordered the surge in Iraq, he owned it unapologetically. President Obama, meanwhile, drowning in bad ink, is desperate to keep the war and his surge strategy from the front pages. His now-famous six page, hand-written policy of sending as many soldiers as possible to the region while simultaneously planning their withdrawal on an arbitrarily set date, regardless of progress, is schizophrenic at best. It's no small wonder that American support for U.S. Afghanistan policy is at 37%. If the man who wrote the plan doesn't believe in it, and if we're leaving regardless of success or failure, why bother in the first place?

In 2001, the president of the United States declared that "I make this promise to all the victims of that regime: The Taliban's days of harboring terrorists and dealing in heroin and brutalizing women are drawing to a close." He continued: "The United States will work closely with the United Nations and development banks to reconstruct Afghanistan after hostilities there have ceased and the Taliban are no longer in control. And the United States will work with the U.N. to support a post-Taliban government that represents all of the Afghan people."

This vow was taken seriously by the Afghan people, and these people stand to suffer fates far worse than even the young woman brutalized on the cover of Time. In this messy business of war, we've shed our blood and they've shed theirs, all for the common goal of a better life for innocent peoples. But the war is not over, and our obligation is not yet fulfilled. This is not a question of party or power, of president or poll, but of the value of America's word. For better or worse, we gave it to Afghanistan. Either we are good for it, or we aren't. But once that value is gone, it is gone forever.

Republicans ought to remember that when the next Speaker drops the gavel.