Obama's Big Republican Problem (It's Not What You Think)

Barack Obama has plenty of problems with the Republican Party. But his biggest problem is the least obvious of them: the Republicans are turning anti-war.
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Barack Obama has plenty of problems with the Republican Party. But his biggest problem is the least obvious of them: the Republicans are turning anti-war. And as they do so, any popular base of support for the Afghan War disappears.

While the Republicans' long-entrenched hawk faction favors a less aggressive withdrawal from Afghanistan than Obama outlined in his Wednesday night address, or none at all, growing numbers of Republicans in Congress, many new Tea Party types, want the war to simply end. And because they are backed up by polling numbers showing a sharp decline in support for the war among Republican voters, the party's presidential candidates have responded with much less resolute rhetoric than in the past.

President Barack Obama announced his new Afghan War policy last night, promising to cut the number of troops there by a third by the end of summer 2012. But he's fallen behind public opinion.

At the first big Republican presidential debate of the season, putative frontrunner Mitt Romney opined that America shouldn't get bogged down in Afghanistan because "our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation."

Jon Huntsman, a new Republican establishment hope, called Obama's draw-down plans, "a little slow and a little cautious."

It's all too much for John McCain, who started pushing back hard on Sunday's chat shows against his party's newfound "isolationism." Withering under McCain's fire, Romney, predictably, vaguely backtracked some after Obama's speech, saying he's against "timetables," while still saying "we all want our troops to come home as soon as possible." And you wonder why he's called a weathervane.

It's one of the great ironies of contemporary politics that this Republican evaporation should be taking place. After all, it's the Republicans, and especially their then-dominant neoconservative faction, that steered America into Iraq -- one of the great non sequitur moves in history -- in the wake of 9/11. And it's the Republicans who made the test of patriotism, and international friendship, whether "you're for us or against us."

That's why it was necessary for national Democrats, i.e., those who intend to actually win elections by appealing to enough voters to do so, to make Afghanistan the good war and Iraq the bad war. But Obama, who correctly identified Iraq as a "stupid war," thus transcending notions of "good" or "bad," in 2002, took the whole thing way too far in late 2009 when he fatefully decided to do a big "surge" of his own in Afghanistan. Not content to pursue the appropriate mission there -- surveil and strike when necessary to prevent it from again becoming Al Qaeda's haven -- he engaged in a nation-building exercise in a place with far less infrastructure for that than Iraq. And Iraq is barely holding together, even with a huge American presence.

I wrote at the time that Obama's evident intent was to escalate to negotiate. But the negotiation is going slowly, if at all, with the Taliban more interested in waiting.

The reality is that it was a bad idea from the beginning. With the exception of Germany and Japan, both advanced industrial societies, in the aftermath of World War II, America has shown little ability at nation-building.

We're engaged in the resource and bandwidth equivalent of a moon shot in Afghanistan, but are building little more than sand castles in the tides of history.

With backing for the Afghan War plummeting among Republicans, 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain nonetheless decries Obama's timetable for a troop draw-down.

Counter-insurgency was never the way to go there. Counter-terrorism was the mission appropriate in the wake of 9/11.

On the eve of Obama's latest big speech on Afghan War policy, a new Pew Research poll showed that a record number want US troops brought home from Afghanistan as soon as possible:

For the first time, a majority (56%) says that U.S. troops should be brought home as soon as possible, while 39% favor keeping troops in Afghanistan until the situation has stabilized.

The proportion favoring a quick withdrawal of U.S. forces has increased by eight points since last month (from 48%), immediately after the killing of Osama bin Laden. A year ago, just 40% favored removing the troops as soon as possible, while 53% favored keeping them in Afghanistan until the situation stabilized.

Americans continue to say the decision to use force in Afghanistan was the right one, and 58% believe the United States will definitely or probably succeed in achieving its goals in Afghanistan. That is largely unchanged from the 62% who said the U.S. would achieve its goals in Afghanistan shortly after Osama's death. But at the same time, a majority (56%) says it is unlikely that Afghanistan will be able to maintain a stable government after the U.S. military leaves. ...

Over the past year, support for removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible has increased across nearly all political and demographic groups.

Two-thirds of Democrats (67%) now say troops should be removed as soon as possible, up from 43% a year ago. A majority (57%) of independents also support immediate troop withdrawal, an increase of 15 points from last year.

Republican support for removing U.S. troops as soon as possible has risen 12 points since last June. At that time, 65% of Republicans favored keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan until the situation is stabilized while 31% favored removing them as soon as possible. In the current survey, 53% support keeping the troops there and 43% favor their withdrawal.

The take-down of Osama bin Laden, ordered by Obama, has spurred opposition to the Afghan War.

So we see that in one year's time, Republican support for the Afghan War has plummeted from a 34-point margin in favor to only 10 points.

The trend line is clear. And with more bad news on the way from Afghanistan, it will only continue.

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