The Republican reaction to the President’s Afghanistan speech was predictable enough, centering their negative spin on Obama’s setting an 18-month time frame for beginning de-escalation. A key challenge for Democrats, however, is to allow room for the skepticism of many anti-interventionist Dems, while tweaking the policy as needed to build a broader consensus. As The Washington Post‘s editorial on the President’s speech said, “he is embarking on a difficult and costly mission that is opposed by a large part of his own party.”
The skepticism was well-presented by Senator Barbara Boxer, who is quoted in Carl Hulse’s New York Times reaction round-up: “I support the president’s mission and exit strategy for Afghanistan, but I do not support adding more troops because there are now 200,000 American, NATO and Afghan forces fighting roughly 20,000 Taliban and less than 100 al Qaeda.”
In WaPo‘s ‘Topic A’ wrap-up of the views of selected foreign affairs scholars, opinion analysts and leaders, Rep. Dennis Kucinich voiced the left-progressive critique:
Why are we still in Afghanistan? Al-Qaeda has been routed. Our occupation fuels a Taliban insurgency. The more troops we send, the more resistance we meet. The people of Afghanistan don’t want to be saved by us; they want to be saved from us. Our presence and our Predator drones kill countless innocents and destabilize Pakistan. The U.S.-created Karzai government is hopelessly corrupt and despised by the Afghan people…We’ve played all sides in Afghanistan, and all the sides want us out. They do not want our presence, our control, our troops, our drones, our way of life
Even some moderate Dems have reservations, including Sen. Arlen Specter, who asks,“If Al Qaeda can operate out of Yemen or Somalia, why fight in Afghanistan where no one has succeeded?”
Maria Newman reports in her blog at ‘The Caucus’ in The New York Times that MyDD‘s Jerome Armstrong predicted that Obama’s Af-Pak policy is “going to drive a deep division into the Democratic Party” that will make “the current healthcare reform debate look like patty-cake play.”
Harold Meyerson observes from his post “The Right Anthem for this War” at WaPo’s ‘Post-Partisan’ WaPo blog,
Every American war has its distinctive anthems, and on due consideration, the one that seems most appropriate for our almost simultaneous escalation and withdrawal in Afghanistan is Groucho Marx’s entrance song in Animal Crackers: “Hello, I Must Be Going.”…In a sense, “Hello, I Must Be Going” is the appropriate song for an empire in decline. Like imperial Rome and Churchillian Britain, the United States can no longer afford to fight the wars it once took on with reckless abandon, even when it concludes it can’t quite abandon the battlefield, either.
Some influential Democratic leaders were more cautious in their assessment. Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a noncommittal statement on the speech, saying “the American people and the Congress will now have an opportunity to fully examine this strategy.” Senator Durbin said “I am going to take some time to think through the proposal he presented tonight.”
Others were more supportive. Bill Nelson said the President had “a sensible plan.” Evan Bayh argued We must do what it takes to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a platform for attacks on the United States.” Majority Leader Harry Reid said President Obama made a “convincing case” that the deployment serves our national security.
As I go to press there are no reports of polls or focus group reaction to the President’s speech. A USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted before the speech, from 11/20-22, found that 35 percent of adult respondents approved of “the way Barack Obama is handling the situation in Afghanistan,” with 55 percent disapproving. Asked if they would support an increase of 40K troops sent to Afghanistan, 37 percent supported the increase, with 39 percent prefering to “reduce the number” of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and 10 percent wanting to increase troop strength by less than 40K. The poll also found that “a slim majority of Obama’s fellow Democrats approve of his handling of the issue.” Given President Obama’s formidable powers of oratorical persuasion, so ably demonstrated in his speech, I expect this percentage to increase shortly.
But many Democratic doves (myself included) will continue to view large-scale military occupation of Afghanistan with skepticism regarding its prospects for creating lasting security, even while recognizing that we have legitimate security concerns in that nation. If the President can figure out how to begin withdrawing troops even sooner than his suggested timetable, he — along with other Democratic candidates — should benefit substantially in 2012.