Anti-War Right Unlikely, War-Skeptic Right Possible
There 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.