Anti-War Right Unlikely, War-Skeptic Right Possible

republican-elephant-angledThere is a growing pocket of Republican skeptics of the war in Afghanistan, Reihan Salam contends, and they could cause serious problems for President Obama.  Alas, his argument is short on examples and long on speculation.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican known for his independent streak, has made a conservative case for withdrawal. And my guess is that by the 2010 congressional elections, dozens of Republican candidates will be doing the same across the country.

As it turns out, Chaffetz is the only example cited in the piece.  But Salam agrees with him, which leads to some wishful thinking:

In a statement on his House Web site, Chaffetz makes the point explicitly. Deriding the idea of a counterinsurgency strategy, he writes, “our military is not a defensive force for rough neighborhoods around the world.” Rather than fight to protect Afghan civilians, Chaffetz argues that U.S. forces should focus exclusively on al Qaeda’s threat to the homeland by targeting and killing its members. In essence, Chaffetz is recognizing the contradiction at the heart of what had been bipartisan support for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan: Americans have supported the war effort insofar as it is designed to keep Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda. But the consensus among foreign-policy experts is that the safe-haven argument is weak: The tribal areas of Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia are far likelier candidates for a safe haven, and Islamist terrorists also are found in American and European cities. The more sophisticated case, made by conservative foreign-policy intellectuals like Christian Brose and Daniel Twining, rests on the need to shape Pakistan’s behavior. As strong as this case may be—I happen to think that it is completely correct—it isn’t very politically potent, particularly when it looks to the American public as though U.S. soldiers are dying to protect one group of Pasthun tribesman from another.

Now, I’m a Republican and agree with that analysis.  Which brings us to three.  But where’s the polling data or trend analysis to show growing Republican dovishness?   None is proffered.  Instead, we get some political philosophy and history:

Chaffetz’s argument resonates strongly with what Walter Russell Mead has referred to as America’s Jacksonian tradition. In a 2003 interview, Mead described the Jacksonians as being a bit like bees: “When somebody attacks the hive, you come swarming out of the hive and you sting them to death.” The goal isn’t to go abroad to build friendships across cultural divides or to heal the sick. Rather it is to ferociously punish anyone who dares attack the United States. Jacksonians thus have little regard for civilian casualties—they don’t believe in limited wars. By its very nature, a counterinsurgency campaign is a limited war, one that relies on winning over the civilian population through the careful use of military force combined with deft diplomacy. The idea is to use persuasion as much as possible and coercion as little as possible. So when Chaffetz writes that we’ve tied the hands of our military, he means that vanquishing enemies, not nation-building, should be our core goal.

Remember that the bitterest opponents of the Clinton-era U.S. interventions in Kosovo and Haiti were conservatives like Tom DeLay, who condemned the Clinton administration for treating “foreign policy as social work,” in Michael Mandelbaum’s evocative phrase. The post-9/11 moment represented a departure from this conservative suspicion of nation-building, as Jacksonian sentiments were yoked to the ambitious project of building democracies in the Muslim world. But now that Obama, a man most conservatives dislike and distrust, is the steward of that effort, those conservative instincts are making a comeback. Jason Chaffetz represents the beginning of a wave—and it’s not obvious that Obama can do anything to stop it.

This is a persuasive argument for why conservative war skeptics could emerge, if not evidence that it now exists in sizable numbers.  In rather colorful terms, John Cole argues that the only reason Republicans opposed the wars of the 1990s was because the sitting president was a Democrat and that “anyone who thinks there is a growing legitimate ‘dove’ movement in the GOP is smoking crack rock.”

There’s not a “dove” movement of significance on the American Right.   But there is a strong sentiment among Republicans toward a Jacksonian view of war and an antipathy toward “nation building.”  Indeed, George W. Bush campaigned hard on that platform.  Both Afghanistan and Iraq were sold in Realist national security terms, with a bit of National Greatness neoconservative Idealism thrown in for flavor.  But, over time, the latter overtook the former.

There’s also a significant paleocon wing of the Republican Party, which has no moral qualms about war but nonetheless is very reluctant to intervene militarily. And when they are roused, they tend to want to pursue the enemy hammer and tong with none of the niceties of limited war.

Daniel Larison correctly argues that Chaffetz’s position isn’t “anti-war” at all.

The trouble with Chaffetz’s brand of “antiwar” stance is that he conceives of a “withdrawal” from Afghanistan being a prelude to the perpetual use of air strikes and targeted assassinations. His alternative of “going big” and eliminating strict rules of engagement is a pose of “freeing” the military from constraints that the top commanders themselves insist on having to give their mission the best chance of success. Barring the deployment of an even larger force with few constraints on how they operate, Chaffetz advocates a “withdrawal” from Afghanistan that will be as non-interventionist as Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. In this approach, we will reserve the right to launch attacks on their territory with impunity whenever we wish, but otherwise we will wash our hands of the place and the consequences of our actions.

Larison believes that such an approach is not only strategically and morally problematic but not worthy of the label “conservative.”

But it may be preferable to the alternatives.  Permanent occupation is not only politically and economically unsustainable but quite likely contributing mightily to the problem.  And total withdrawal, including ignoring threats that might evolve in the resulting vacuum, would be quite dangerous.  The idea that we’re somehow going to pacify the Muslim world in the near term, ending radical Islamism by our nation-building efforts, is an absurd fantasy.  The less satisfying alternative seems to be a combination of selectively killing bad guys and arresting others.

In terms of Afghanistan, it’s quite possible that the majority of Republicans will see it as a fool’s errand.  Certainly, the arguments are overwhelming.  But the fact that we’re there mitigates against it because variations of “Victory is the only acceptable exit strategy,”  “We can’t be seen as quitters,”  “We must exit with honor,” “We have to honor those who gave their lives” and similar arguments are demagogically powerful.

What strikes me as far, far more likely is that Iraq and Afghanistan will once again remind us of the limits of American power and cause Republicans to be more skeptical of future wars, both in terms of intervening to begin with and in setting realistic war aims.

The result wouldn’t be a significant Republican Dove movement — even on the Left, true pacifists are a fringe in America — but a much more traditional Realist bent.   As Andrew Sullivan wrote nearly three years ago, those people dominated the Republican Party until quite recently.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. sam says:

    What strikes me as far, far more likely is that Iraq and Afghanistan will once again remind us of the limits of American power and cause Republicans to be more skeptical of future wars, both in terms of intervening to begin with and in setting realistic war aims.

    Republicans of a prudent, reflective nature, such as yourself, you mean. Haven’t we had lively discussions hereabouts re the future of such folks in the GOP?

  2. PD Shaw says:

    Obama made several pitches to Jacksonians, reminding them that the homeland was attacked from Afghanistan, and stating that the homeland was still at risk from attacks, though I believe he started to blur Afghanistan and Pakistan together at this point. Obama denied this was open-ended nation-building (whatever that means) and cleaved to his generals and defended his engagement with them.

    As I said in a previous thread, the deadline upset Jacksonians, and the fear that the operations is not being fully sourced with the commitment needed. If they begin to take the view that the troops are merely concealing an exit strategy for appearances, it could get ugly. But I think that would have to be built on more than the deadline, which doesn’t appear that firm anyway.

  3. James Joyner says:

    sam: I think that was the default Republican position pre-9/11 and was even the Bush administration position by 2005 or so. There’s a reason they didn’t invade — or even try to bomb — Iran on the nuke issue.

  4. You know, I never liked the “9/11 was done by Saudis” claim, because I saw them as independent criminals. Disavowed by their government, and finding sanctuary within the Taliban’s Afghan state.

    Just the same, I think it serves as a good reminder as we hear about “Jacksonian” responses to a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.

    International criminal conspiracies are just that. Fighting them in a “place” is like the old story of the drunk looking for his car keys under the street lamp. “Did you drop them here? No, but at least here there is light.”

  5. legion says:

    But where’s the polling data or trend analysis to show growing Republican dovishness? None is proffered. Instead, we get some political philosophy and history

    Of course, James. That’s because this is a trial balloon – if the GOP can successfully “attach” the War on Terrah to Obama and the Democrats, they (the GOP) will suddenly become the anti-war party. Just wait – if this looks like it’ll “stick”, people like Rush and Beck and Newt will become doves so fast they’ll have whiplash. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the “right” answer or not, nor what the consequences to the country are – the motivation is to find something to attack Democrats with. Just another example of the treasonous moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the modern GOP (and yes, I do draw a distinction between the GOP and actual Republicans).

  6. Brett says:

    But the fact that we’re there mitigates against it because variations of “Victory is the only acceptable exit strategy,” “We can’t be seen as quitters,” “We must exit with honor,” “We have to honor those who gave their lives” and similar arguments are demagogically powerful.

    It would be interesting to get more Russian perspective on this. After all, while the Soviet Union died not long after the Soviet Afghan War ended, there were plentiful other causes, and Russia does not seem unduly burdened by the loss of face involved in withdrawing in defeat from Afghanistan.

    Indeed, George W. Bush campaigned hard on that platform.

    This is definitely true. If you want to get a good idea of what that was like (at the time, I was still a bit young to be commentating on politics), reading Condi Rice’s foreign policy essay in the Foreign Policy from that year (2000). I remember reading it fairly recently out of curiosity and thinking, “You know, this isn’t half-bad. I’m not exactly fond of Republican domestic politics, but this foreign policy platform isn’t too bad for the most part.”

  7. just me says:

    I think the “9-11” changed everything comment probably applies here.

    I know most of the objections to Clinton’s interventions centered on whether or not nation building was possible and a good use of our military resources, and I remember Bush running against that kind of policy.

    Then 9-11 happened and the interventionist philosophy came to the forefront.

    I don’t think you will every see a truly anti war wing in the GOP, but I do think a lot of GOP voters are starting to realize why they weren’t keen on nation building when Clinton was doing it.

    I do think Cole is right to some degree that who’s in the White House may influence which side of the coin they sit on when it comes to war, but there were several conservatives-the Pat Buchanan types that were never on board with Iraq and support for Afghanistan was a mixed bag.

    Also, I think there is always room for a legitimate changing of the mind.

    I am still not sure where I sit when it comes to Afghanistan-I am not sure that I think the motivations for the war are wrong, but I am not sure that it is ever going to be successful-at least not if the goal is a fully stable Afghanistan. Maybe we need to reevaluate the goals and decide if it is worth it or not.

  8. TangoMan says:

    Now, I’m a Republican and agree with that analysis. Which brings us to three. But where’s the polling data or trend analysis to show growing Republican dovishness?

    When I read this and you counting only 3 people I immediately thought of the entire Paleo-Con and Evo-Con wings of the Republican Party, but then later in your essay you make mention of the Paleo-Cons, so that directly contradicts the 3 person count. There are sizable numbers of conservatives who think it is futile to embark on a project of grafting Democracy to Muslim tribal lands – the cultural substrate cannot accept the graft.

    I think the “9-11” changed everything comment probably applies here.

    I think that there’s a lot of truth to this point. Consider these remarks from the Bush-Gore debate in 2000 regarding nation building:

    Bush: ….. But we can’t be all things to all people in the world, Jim. And I think that’s where maybe the vice president and I begin to have some differences. I’m worried about overcommitting our military around the world. I want to be judicious in its use. You mentioned Haiti. I wouldn’t have sent troops to Haiti. I didn’t think it was a mission worthwhile. It was a nation building mission, and it was not very successful. It cost us billions, a couple billions of dollars, and I’m not so sure democracy is any better off in Haiti than it was before.

    Moderator:: Vice President Gore, do you agree with the governor’s views on nation building, the use of military, our military, for nation building as he described and defined it?

    Gore: : I don’t think we agree on that. I would certainly also be judicious in evaluating any potential use of American troops overseas. I think we have to be very reticent about that. But look, Jim, the world is changing so rapidly. The way I see it, the world is getting much closer together. Like it or not, we are now — the United States is now the natural leader of the world. All these other countries are looking to us. Now, just because we cannot be involved everywhere, and shouldn’t be, doesn’t mean that we should shy away from going in anywhere. Now, both of us are kind of, I guess, stating the other’s position in a maximalist extreme way, but I think there is a difference here. This idea of nation building is kind of a pejorative phrase, but think about the great conflict of the past century, World War II. During the years between World War I and World War II, a great lesson was learned by our military leaders and the people of the United States. The lesson was that in the aftermath of World War I, we kind of turned our backs and left them to their own devices and they brewed up a lot of trouble that quickly became World War II. And acting upon that lesson in the aftermath of our great victory in World War II, we laid down the Marshall Plan, President Truman did. We got intimately involved in building NATO and other structures there. We still have lots of troops in Europe. And what did we do in the late ’40’s and ’50’s and ’60’s? We were nation building. And it was economic. But it was also military. And the confidence that those countries recovering from the wounds of war had by having troops there. We had civil administrators come in to set up their ways of building their towns back.

    . . . . .

    Moderator: The use of the military, there — some people are now suggesting that if you don’t want to use the military to maintain the peace, to do the civil thing, is it time to consider a civil force of some kind that comes in after the military that builds nations or all of that? Is that on your radar screen?

    Bush: I don’t think so. I think what we need to do is convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations. Maybe I’m missing something here. I mean, we’re going to have kind of a nation building core from America? Absolutely not. Our military is meant to fight and win war. That’s what it’s meant to do. And when it gets overextended, morale drops. I strongly believe we need to have a military presence in the peninsula, not only to keep the peace in the peninsula, but to keep regional stability. And I strongly believe we need to keep a presence in NATO, but I’m going to be judicious as to how to use the military. It needs to be in our vital interest, the mission needs to be clear, and the extra strategy obvious.

    It sure seems that 9/11 changed Bush’s worldview into one more like Gore’s while Gore simply shifted his desire for hegemonic control over to international climate controls.

  9. AHR says:

    Pakistan truly is at a cross-way right now, and it is high time we charge forward with our heads held high. We have seen enough death for anyone to tell us to do more, and we realize our shortcomings. We have heard plenty of mothers crying and observed too many fathers burying their sons for us to wait and see what happens next. Tomorrow is another day, another start; it is up to us what we make of it. Those who threaten the very essence of our survival do not have the control over our decisions. Now is not the time to settle our political or religious differences, but rather the time to work and make Pakistan a better place. For it will guarantee you the peace, security, freedom and accountability we all long for!

  10. Highlander says:

    I’m a “line um all up and shoot em” kind of conservative(I realize my philosophy is just considered terribly unattractive by our feminized elites)(They prefer anonymous drones from 20 thousand feet to the more personal forms of slaughter)Same effects at the end of the day.

    But spending 1971 and 72′ on the ground all over Southeast Asia taught me how to recognize a sure loser. And the “sandpit hell” called Afghanistan is a sure loser. Even if we get lucky and win, we’ll still lose one way or the other.(I believe at Harvard that is called a Pyhrric victory).

    Load our fine young warriors up on the C-130’s and get the hell out while the getting is good. We cannot afford it financially…I say again we can’t afford it financially. We can’t afford it strategically or from a moral consensus stand point. The real American people (not people like us Bloggers) are fed up with it. I don’t blame them. They are tired of the body bags and waste. It’s called common sense. Something noticeably in short supply among the ever so well educated elites who populate our sagging Imperial Capital.

  11. An Interested Party says:

    Load our fine young warriors up on the C-130’s and get the hell out while the getting is good. We cannot afford it financially…I say again we can’t afford it financially. We can’t afford it strategically or from a moral consensus stand point. The real American people (not people like us Bloggers) are fed up with it. I don’t blame them. They are tired of the body bags and waste. It’s called common sense. Something noticeably in short supply among the ever so well educated elites who populate our sagging Imperial Capital.

    Hmm…I wonder where talk like this was among conservatives before January 20, 2009…

  12. Highlander says:

    Interested Party,

    I have personally said GET OUT since about 2006.

    In 2002 “Georgie” Bush got lucky at the start of the Afghanistan campaign. Due to the necessity of theater dynamics our Special Operations people were give unfettered authority to think outside the box. And they promptly won a sensational victory using about 150 special ops and intelligence types on the ground and a whole bunch of B-52s in the air. It was one hell of brilliant application of American military skills.

    But “Hells Bells” no body can make serious money off a war conducted that efficiently. Enough of that efficient “Snake eater” warfare crap. “Let’s do some good old 3rd generation industrial type war,and spend some serious bucks(Money we as a people have to borrow from the Chinese by the way.)It costs the American taxpayers a cool $1,000,000 per year for each…I say again $1,000,000/year for each Soldier and Marine we have on the ground in Afghanistan!That’s all with borrowed money. Borrowed money that one day we Americans will have to pay back one way or the other.( However FOR INSTANCE this future financial burden probably won’t impinge on the lives of the Board of Directors of Northrup-Grumman too much.)

    In the end I must admit there is truth in your point. That until Obama made this his war, most Conservatives were gung ho for it.

    Unfortunately,as with most Americans the conservative ones have been dumbed down to the point that all some scuzzy politican has to do is wave a “bloody American flag, and many conservatives will follow blindly. Scuzzy men like Bush and Cheney for instance( this war has given them and their cronies the opportunity to steal billions from all of us( they get to keep it and we will all have the privilege of paying the foreigners back someday)…..AND THAT AIN’T CONSERVATIVE.)

  13. Curt says:

    Any republican “dovishness” is caused by an unwillingness to fight for our fellow citizens in politics, and an unwillingness to support nation-building, not an unwillingness to destroy nations or kill terrorists.

    Democracies have been, since Greece, exceptional at starting wars, and terrible at finishing them. Their only competitive value is in that they seem to be, in the short term, more able to generate wealth to pay for them.

    How about a different way to look at the problem?

    “The first obligation of a people is to restrain its government, restrain its military, and restrain its fellow citizenry, from violence outside it’s borders. Only such people are worthy of democracy. And unless they can prove this ability, they are simply a rabble the rest of us must bind inside the camp of their nation state.”

    We should never engage in nation building. It’s not possible, and when we think so, we simply misinterpret the conditions of our world war II successes as restoration not construction. Rather than building, we should only engage in nation restoration or nation destruction and the certain threat of both is the only wise use of power.

    No conqueror wins hearts and minds. Winning minds simply is a justification by which we wish to reduce costs. If you bomb people long enough and kill enough of them they will surrender. (Had we not given the Afghans military support, wouldn’t the Russians have solved this problem for us, and wouldn’t we rather it was their problem, in their sphere of influence?)

    Nation building is occupation. Occupation is a defensive strategy. Defensive strategies are the weakest strategy, because the surrender opportunity costs to the other side, making the defender bear the burden of constant financial drain, and the attacker gains control of costs and strategy.

    Submission is achieved by destroying your enemy and leaving them with the aftermath, begging for you (or someone else) to help them restore their nation, not giving it to them unrequested. Nation building is done by creating institutions of property registry, banking and credit, policing and dispute resolution. Settling power disputes is unnecessary. All leadership is bound by the same problem of consensus building vs cost of policing. It is simply cheaper and more effective to let leaders emerge then simply kill them if they act against the interest of their citizens.

    The military, by its nature, is and always will be, a conservative tool, following a conservative methodology.

    That’s what it means to be conservative. Everything else is political pragmatism. Conservativism isn’t about consensus. It’s about the limits of what we can achieve by intentions. It’s about understanding our limits. In other words, it’s political guard against Hubris. Hubris is the primarily lesson of the greek myths. And it’s corollary, Skepticism, is its institutional philosophy. Skepticism is the study of limits. Conservativeism is a political philosophy of skepticism for the prevention of hubris.

  14. Shawn Dudley says:

    Current difficlties in Afghanistan originate from these points:

    1) Afghanistan has been primarily a European-led mission since about 2004, when the US really started to focus on Iraq. NATO put troops in Afghanistan, but many such as the French and Germans were under very restrictive Rules of Engagement (ROE), or were very unsupported like the British. There was a robust US presence but not huge, and it was primarily focused on Al Qaeda. Once the Talilban figured out that many of the NATO forces wouldn’t fight back hard if attacked they began to make efforts to take advantge of the European reluctance and recaptured a lot of previously safe territory, especially within the last 2 years.

    2) Afghans don’t like outsiders, and piling on the foreign troops doesn’t help you there in gaining support with the locals. We have as many units now in Afghanistan as the Russians had during their occupation. There’s a level of dimishing returns on manpower that you run into in this particular theatre. Better to keep your footprint low.

    3) Obama, once in office, immediately restricted ROE very, very tightly in Afghanistan. Without the reliance on robust air and fire support, US troops are faced with more close combat and are dying in larger numbers. Much of the GOP “Anti-War” argument is really about ROE and forgetting the lesson that we also had very restrictive ROE In Vietnam and it got us nowhere.

    4) There’s a cultural gap between what we consider “corruption” (which is mostly bribery) and an Eastern concept of paying favors, which is considered “business.” Paying off your friends and your enemies is how business has been done in Central Asia for 3,000+ years. Yelping about it now like the Afghan goverment is the foreign policy equivelant of Teapot Dome is foolish and counter-productive.

    5) Al Qaeda’s center of gravity is in Pakistan, especially in North Wazaristan. The total focus of US efforts should be to eliminate them within that area, irregardless if Pakistan itself wants us in there or not. All parties should understand that we if we can knock out AQ permanently, we leave (for most part) and that benefits just about everyone.

    I’m all for keeping us in Afghanstan/Pakistan, but it’s better to keep the mission tightly focused, and be absoultely RUTHLESS in engaging AQ, even if it means pissing off Pakistan. We will get the actual results we want (meaning eliminating AQ hiding in Pak and making it clear to the locals they’ll live a lot longer if they dont’ make their region a safe haven for people who want to kill American civilans in large numbers) at a much more efficient cost in manpower and funds.

  15. ggr says:

    Funny how democrat and republican views on what’s a good war switch depending upon who’s in power. You’d almost get the idea that it has more to do with team sports than any principles on either side …

  16. Funny how democrat and republican views on what’s a good war switch depending upon who’s in power.

    I never really liked either war, though I thought Afghanistan was justified. The thing is, before those wars I was willing to call myself a Republican. I call myself independent now, and I don’t think I’m unique in having made the move.

  17. Jim says:

    The Jacksonian approach to war changed after 9.11 because many people realized that its long term implications may well end in the same place as intervention and nation building now. That’s what I believe Bush believes.

    But nation building is impossible without occupation. It took Bush and Rumsfeld years to figure that out. And it takes decades and generations for cultures to adopt western ideals (look at immigration integration for instance).

    Ultimately the Jacksonian approach wins because we are unready to choose the alternative. But we can refrain from considering our enemies’ enemy our friend. And supporting immoral regimes as an extension of foreign trade policy. BTW, dictatorships are not necessarily immoral, anymore than corrupt democracies are moral.

  18. Gus says:

    Reihan is full of shit. Conservative instincts my ass. Reflexive partisanship wins the day. All it takes to reclaim “conservative instincts” of non-intervention is an interventionist Democratic president.