Wednesday, September 2, 2009

New York Times: G.O.P. May Be Vital to Obama on Afghan War (Republicans, Afghanistan)


G.O.P. May Be Vital to Obama on Afghan War

WASHINGTON — As President Obama prepares to decide whether to send additional troops to Afghanistan, the political climate appears increasingly challenging for him, leaving him in the awkward position of relying on the Republican Party, and not his own, for support.

The simple political narrative of the Afghanistan war — that this was the good war, in which the United States would hunt down the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks — has faded over time, with popular support ebbing, American casualties rising and confidence in the Afghan government declining. In addition, Afghanistan’s disputed election, and the attendant fraud charges that have been lodged against President Hamid Karzai, are contributing further to the erosion of public support.

A CBS News poll released on Tuesday reports that 41 percent of those polled wanted troop levels in Afghanistan decreased, compared with 33 percent in April. Far fewer people — 25 percent — wanted troop levels increased, compared with 39 percent in April. And Mr. Obama’s approval rating for his handling of Afghanistan has dropped eight points since April, to 48 percent.

Congressional Democrats, particularly those on the left, report increasing disenchantment among constituents with the idea of a long and possibly escalating conflict in Afghanistan, especially as the American strategy comes to resemble a long-term nation-building approach rather than a counterterrorism operation.

“I and the American people cannot tolerate more troops without some commitment about when this perceived occupation will end,” Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, said Wednesday in an interview. He said he had been to 60 town hall meetings in his state so far this year. During the first half of the year, he said, there were no comments about Afghanistan or Iraq. But in the past two months, that has changed, with more people focused on troop losses in Afghanistan.

Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of international relations and history at Boston University, said, “There was a time, back in 2003 and 2004, when it was possible to drum up popular support for the war by attaching to the argument claims that the United States of America was eliminating evil and advancing democracy and women’s rights.

“But this is many years later, with the economy in shambles, 5,000 American soldiers dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those notions are no longer as compelling as they might have been. War exhaustion sets in,” said Professor Bacevich, author of “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.”

Even one strain of conservative thinking has turned negative on the war. The syndicated columnist George F. Will wrote in a column published Tuesday that the United States should substantially reduce its presence in Afghanistan.

But despite Mr. Will’s argument, national security hawks in the Republican Party — not Mr. Obama’s most natural support base — still back the president on Afghanistan.

“So far, to their credit, they’ve either remained silent or they’ve been supportive, guys like McCain and Graham,” said Matt Bennett, vice president of Third Way, a moderately left-wing think tank, referring to Senator John McCain of Arizona and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both Republicans.

At the moment, Mr. Obama appears to still have the support of Democratic leaders in the Senate and the House, including Senator Harry Reid of Nevada and the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California. Representative Howard L. Berman, a California Democrat who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, indicated on Wednesday that he was not ready to jump ship. But he was not sounding a ringing endorsement, either.

“I was O.K. with the president’s efforts and goals in Afghanistan,” he said in a phone interview. “At the same time, I’m open to hearing whether those are achievable, and as we debate that, we also need to think about what are the costs of reversing course.”

But it was the Republican National Committee, and not the Democrats, that was sounding more solidly behind the president on Afghanistan. After Mr. Will’s abdication on Tuesday, the Republican National Committee quickly sent out an e-mail message and posted a statement, “Stand Strong, Mr. President,” on its Web site to take issue with the conservative columnist.

“We agree with President Obama that ‘we have to win’ in Afghanistan and make sure that our commanders on the ground have the troops and resources they need,” the committee chairman, Michael Steele, said in the statement. He urged Mr. Obama to “stand strong and speak out for why we are fighting there,” adding that Mr. Obama has said too little so far “about why the voices of defeat are wrong.”

Similarly, Senator Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia, said he would continue to back Mr. Obama “as long as we’re making progress.”

Senator Graham, for his part, was in Afghanistan last week, putting in a stint as Colonel Graham as he served out his Air Force Reserves duty rotation. He met with military officials and soldiers, and talked to Obama administration officials in Kabul, the capital, as well, and is supporting Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan strategy.

Afghanistan, Mr. Graham said Tuesday in an interview, “is where 9/11 was planned and executed.

“This is not Vietnam.”

He said he would support a push for more troops in Afghanistan, but added that Mr. Obama would have to make a public case for it to convince wavering people on both the right and the left.

“The president needs to be more aggressive about taking ownership of this strategy, and reinforcing to this country the consequences of Afghanistan being lost and becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda,” Mr. Graham said.

The debate over Afghanistan will play out in the coming weeks, as the military decides whether to ask for more troops; commanders in Afghanistan have already said their forces are insufficient to get the job done. Mr. Obama himself must decide whether to make a more public push for a deeper United States commitment. Administration officials say privately that they believe that they have 12 months to show significant progress in Afghanistan before they totally lose public support.

One danger for Mr. Obama is that he may be forced to abandon his own party on Afghanistan for the right, which could put him in a perilous position if Republicans at any point decide they do not want to support a Democratic president on the issue.

“Some people on the right think Afghanistan is hopeless, some people think this is Obama’s war and want to do to Obama the same thing the left did to Bush with Iraq,” Mr. Graham said.

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