Reihan Salam in the Daily Beast:
Last month, a CBS News poll found that just 23 percent of Democrats believe that an increase in the number of U.S. troops will improve the situation, and some of the party’s 2010 candidates are already on record as opponents of the surge, including Arlen Specter and would-be Ted Kennedy successor Martha Coakley. Throughout the long presidential campaign, Barack Obama called for winding down the American presence in Iraq to focus on the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, so there is no sense the president is pulling a foreign policy bait-and-switch. But among Democrats, and particularly left-of-center Democrats, there is a pervasive sense that the Obama administration has proved too cautious and centrist on domestic issues. That means there is less willingness to give the president the benefit of the doubt on waging an expensive counterinsurgency, particularly as many of the left’s domestic priorities could well be sacrificed on the altar of deficit reduction.
And so the president is caught in an extremely awkward position. Abandoned by the Democrats, he is relying on the support of a shrinking centrist foreign-policy establishment that, to put it bluntly, has zero political muscle. The conservatives who back the troop surge don’t think the president is going far enough, and most expect that his effort to craft a compromise counterinsurgency will fail. Among grassroots conservatives, there is a growing sense that the U.S. military is too hamstrung by concern about civilian casualties and political correctness to wage an effective military campaign under Obama, which implies that there is little point in offering him political support.
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.
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.
I already told you what is going to happen. There will be a growing right flank that opposes the escalation in Afghanistan that will become more vocal in the next couple of months. And then, after the “surge,” when Obama starts to draw down forces in Afghanistan, this right flank will become noticeably quieter and then start to yell “defeatist” and “soft on national security” and “Obama wants to lose” along with the rank and file.
We all know what is going on here. Chaffetz might be an outlier, and may honestly believe in bringing home the troops, but anyone who thinks there is a growing legitimate “dove” movement in the GOP is smoking crack rock.
One problem with this is that “vanquishing enemies” in a war against a domestic insurgency is a goal that cannot really be achieved without strict rules of engagement and respect for the civilian population. To a large degree, the enemy is “vanquished” by not adding to his numbers with tactics that harm the civilian population. 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. This will not only ensure the alienation of the population from any allied government that might still be in power, but it will contribute to the very radicalization and militancy that Chaffetz presumably would like to see weakened. If the Iraq “surge” failed in its political objectives, and it did, Chaffetz’s proposal would simply ignore the importance of creating conditions for any possible political settlement that is the prerequisite of any withdrawal from Afghanistan that will not lead to greater regional instability.
Critics of the Afghanistan plan such as Chaffetz want to make Afghanistan into a shooting gallery and call it peace. In this way, they can still pretend that they take national security and strategy questions seriously, when they are just reverting to a default position of advocating less restraint, more force and greater indifference to the moral and strategic consequences of our actions. As Chaffetz’s later remarks on Iran make clear, this is not someone interested in reducing the strain on our military or reducing unnecessary risks to American soldiers, as he actively calls for military action that will greatly strain and endanger all of our forces in the Gulf and central Asia. Neither does he give any hint of thinking strategically about how distastrous an Iranian war would be for U.S. and allied interests.
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 sustainable 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.
UPDATE: More Larison