A prominent conservative thinker is calling on Republicans to begin a serious debate about the war in Afghanistan, its costs and what Ronald Reagan would do in the same circumstances.
And while Grover Norquist stopped short of personally calling for a rapid withdrawal, he made it clear Tuesday night that he thinks an honest conversation on the right would inevitably lead to that conclusion.
"I'm confident about where that conversation would go," he told attendees of a dinner sponsored by the New America Foundation. "And I think the people who are against that conversation know where it would go, too."
Norquist said he was aiming his plea to "the people who voted for Ronald Reagan, or would have." And he pointed out that Reagan's response to the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, which cost 241 American lives, was not to occupy Lebanon.
"His reaction to the Lebanon bombing was not to stay, it was to leave," Norquist said. "Ronald Reagan didn't decide to fix Lebanon. I think that's helpful in getting the conversation going on the right."
Norquist said conservatives recognize the weakness of the arguments for the war, which is why they don't often make them.
He scoffed at the notion that fighting two wars was making American stronger. "Being tied up there does not advance American power," he said. "If you've got a fist in the tar baby Iraq and you've got a fist in the tar baby Afghanistan, then who's afraid of you?"
His word choice was vivid, but problematic. "Tar baby" is often used as shorthand to describe an inextricable problem or situation, but it is also a derogatory term for black people. Such public figures as Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney and former White House press secretary Tony Snow have taken flak for using the term.
Norquist, the spirited leader of the anti-tax wing of the Republican Party, also noted that the cost argument alone is a potent one against the war.
The Congressional Research Service estimates that total Afghan war funding in fiscal year 2011 will hit $119 billion, up from $19 billion in 2006 -- and all that in a country with an annual gross domestic product of less than $12 billion.
Norquist said the question for those who want to reduce government spending is this: "If you don't take $10 billion out of the occupation of Afghanistan, you're going to take it out where?"
He said the debate about the war in Afghanistan should include discussion "about the vast expenditures of cash, the vast expenditures of other people lives, and the opportunity cost" of money and effort that could be expended elsewhere.
"It seems to me that it has been more expensive than not. And it has made America weaker than otherwise," he said.
A recent CNN poll found that while 63 percent of the general public now opposes U.S. involvement, support remains strong -- 52 percent -- among Republicans and Tea Partiers.
But a new poll of conservatives set for release today -- commissioned by the Afghanistan Study Group, which supports a rapid withdrawal -- finds that when asked about the costs of war and its impact on the deficit, about two-thirds of conservatives and Tea Partiers describe themselves as very worried or somewhat worried.
Norquist also suggested that many prominent conservatives privately hold the view that the war in Afghanistan should end quickly.
But they certainly aren't saying so in public. Six months ago, The Huffington Post compiled a list of 20 Republicans who had come out against the war in Afghanistan, part of what we called a "small but growing movement." It turns out we were only right about that first part.
Not one prominent Republican has called for withdrawal since then that we know of -- not even among the Tea Party-heavy freshman class in Congress.
Indeed, Norquist's call for debate on the right faced considerable skepticism from some members of his dinnertime audience, who expressed strong doubts that the Republican Party generally -- and especially any Republican candidate for president in 2012 -- would ever abandon the ability to use national security as a weapon with which to bludgeon President Barack Obama and other Democrats.