President Obama's slow, weeks-long review of the conflict in Afghanistan appears to be fueling a growing conservative opposition to the war.
While the GOP mainstream remains firmly behind Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for more troops, many other conservatives are beginning to question the wisdom of risking American lives on foreign soil when the president himself appears uncertain which tactics to employ.
It was precisely seven months ago, on March 27, that Obama stated: "Today, I am announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. This marks the conclusion of a careful policy review … that I ordered as soon as I took office."
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Opposition from conservatives has grown steadily since Washington Post columnist George F. Will penned a September column headlined "Time to Get Out of Afghanistan." Another conservative stalwart, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, has called Obama a "young Hamlet" for his rumination over the right course of action. Krauthammer favors providing U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan with the troops they have requested.
Rising conservative opposition to Obama's conduct of the conflict, combined with the anti-war sentiments from his party's left, could suggest the administration has much less time to work with than expected before public opposition to the war escalates.
The death toll in Afghanistan appears to be climbing at an alarming rate. Eight American soldiers died in multiple bomb attacks in Southern Afghanistan Tuesday. That followed the tragic deaths of 14 persons on Monday due to helicopter crashes. The casualties bring to 55 the number American lives lost this month, making October the deadliest single month for U.S. forces since the war in Afghanistan began.
Will got conservatives' attention when wrote that the war in Afghanistan "already is nearly 50 percent longer than the combined U.S. involvements in two world wars, and NATO assistance is reluctant and often risible."
He added that never in history has Afghanistan had an effective central government – a requisite lynchpin of Gen. McChrystal's proposed counter-insurgency policy.
Conservatives' reasons for opposing the war, and the alternative approaches they advocate, vary widely. Some opposition appears rooted in traditional isolationism. Some stems from a conviction that Afghanistan, the so-called "graveyard of empires," may be a lost cause unfit for nation-building. And a growing number of conservatives appear to have lost confidence in the president's ability to achieve victory there.
Howard Phillips, founder and chairman of Vienna, Va.-based The Conservative Caucus, tells Newsmax that he just returned from a Constitution Party event in Phoenix, Ariz.
"We had nearly 200 people," Phillips, who says he opposed the war from the beginning, tells Newsmax. "If you took a headcount, I think nearly everyone there would say we should get out of Afghanistan immediately."
He adds: "I don't see any way in which the security of the United States is involved, or strengthened, by the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Obviously, I applaud the courage and sacrifice of the people we've sent over, and the military leaders are doing the best they can in a difficult situation. But it's a policy question, and as a matter of policy we shouldn't be there. It's ironic that Obama is continuing all of the bad policies of President George W. Bush, to which he expressed opposition."
The irony of an emerging left-right coalition on Afghanistan isn't lost on conservative-marketing guru and author Richard Viguerie.
"Notably quiet in the debate since Obama took office has been the far left," Viguerie tells Newsmax. "The situation in Afghanistan, however, may be one area where the far left and conservatives may join in agreeing that American interests are best served by withdrawing American troops."
Viguerie calls Afghanistan a "medieval country," and says "nation building" – the plan to build up Afghanistan's civil institutions to help the central government become self-sustaining – is "in violation of the U.S. Constitution."
Viguerie favors withdrawing U.S. troops "as soon as possible," while reserving the "unilateral right" to send troops back in should a threat to the United States emerge.
Such sentiments differ markedly from the views expressed by most Republican leaders, who have urged the president to provide Gen. McChrystal will the full complement of troops he has requested -- up to 60,000 soldiers by some accounts.
Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain, Oklahoma GOP Sen. James Inhofe, and GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have all spoken out strongly in favor of granting the additional troops requested by McChrystal.
Weekly Standard editor and neoconservative icon William Kristol charges that Will "is urging retreat, and accepting defeat." He adds: "The right way to keep faith with our soldiers and Marines is for our national leaders now to support a strategy, and to provide the necessary resources, for victory."
Even McCain, however, a champion of the successful surge in Iraq, has voiced uneasiness with the notion that the president may be trying to triangulate a politically palatable middle ground. That approach, some say, could keep American tied up in Afghanistan without providing the resources needed to win the war.
"Half-measures is what I worry about," McCain recently said.
The White House insists that neither politicians nor public sentiment will determine the president's course of action.
"The president is going to make a decision – popular or unpopular – based on what he thinks is in the best interests of the country," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs recently told reporters.
GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah has broached the possibility that Obama is delaying his decision until after the hotly contested Nov. 3 gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, to avoid a liberal backlash against an additional troop deployment that could work against the Democratic candidates.
Former top Bush administration adviser Karl Rove has aired similar suspicions.
Clearly, most conservatives are increasingly uncomfortable with the president's exceedingly thorough review, which former Vice President Dick Cheney recently described as "dithering."
Heritage Foundation defense and security policy expert Dr. James Jay Carafano, who has urged the administration to act on the troop request, recently told Newsmax that Obama appears to be "replaying all the worst decision-making of McNamara and Johnson in Vietnam."
"This is the classic prescription for failure," Carafano said. "And the military guy is sort of caught in the middle, because when president doesn't want to fight the war the right way, you have three options: You can salute and drive on, or you can resign, or you can stay but play politics and leak things. None of those are good outcomes; none of them are the way to win a war."
Other views from conservatives that reflect the diversity of the mixed feelings toward the war: Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., and Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., have cooled on the war effort. In a Washington Times op-ed they wrote: "Obama intelligence and military tactics are endangering our troops on the ground. There is no demonstrated presidential commitment to winning… Given these conditions, can we support keeping American military men and women in Afghanistan? The answer is no. If the Obama administration's priority isn't providing our troops with the tools to do the job and win, we shouldn't be there." MSNBC Morning Joe host and former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough has delivered strong broadsides in recent days, suggesting America's allies are encouraging the United States to augment its forces in Afghanistan, while shying away from putting their own troops in harm's way during combat operations. Without mentioning the war specifically, Reagan-era U.S. ambassador to Switzerland Faith Whittlesey wrote earlier this month in the Washington Times: "First, we conservatives must redefine our foreign policy in accordance with the prudence and caution of our Founding Fathers. As John Adams said, 'We do not go abroad in search for monsters to destroy.' We should reread the history of empire that lost blood and treasure in foreign wars … Most Americans do not wish to be seen by the world as empire builders." Syndicated columnist Tony Blankley has noted "We may wish to have the war in Afghanistan largely resolved in our favor within a year, but the generals think it will take at least five years." He adds: "The president has three choices: 1) Cut and run, 2) cut and walk or 3) stay and fight with enough troops. Either No. 1 or No. 3 may be justifiable based on hardheaded thinking. No. 2 is an evasion of reality and sinfully would sacrifice American troops for no good purpose." The Examiner columnist Diana West opposes the war as a distraction from the real battle facing America, which she says politicians avoid talking about due to politically correct sensitivities. That battle, she says, is the fight to stop the spread of jihad and shariah law. "In other words, nation building in the Islamic world is a distraction from nation saving in the Western one," she writes. Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations who served in both the George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations, and who has helped both Democrats and Republicans hone their foreign policies, says Afghanistan is a war of choice, not of necessity. His support for "a middle way" that would add some additional troops is highly qualified. "My judgment," he writes, "is that American interests are sufficiently important, prospects for achieving limited success are sufficiently high and the risks of alternative policies are sufficiently great to proceed, for now, with Mr. Obama’s measured strategy. But the administration, Congress and the American people (who, recent polls suggest, are turning against the war) must undertake regular, rigorous assessments of whether these efforts are bearing fruit or are likely to. If it appears they are not, the president should roll back the combat role or withdraw militarily." Andrew C. McCarthy, an author and NationalReview.com contributor, sees the nation-building proposals in Afghanistan as "the unlikeliest of social engineering experiments." McCarthy has been highly critical of McChrystal's plans to win over the Afghan population and transform Afghanistan into "something resembling a modern social democracy, complete with vibrant educational programs." He labels such plans "a delusion" and says: "If we're not up for the real thing, we should leave Afghanistan now. Those who worry that we would give al-Qaida a huge propaganda victory should consider that we're already giving them one by hamstringing our warriors and exhibiting a failure of will."
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