The pundits are offering all kinds of explanations for the emergence of a vocal antiwar faction in the Republican Party.
Here’s one they’re missing: The turnover in the White House.
If George Bush were still president—or if John McCain had managed to succeed him—most, by not all, of the GOP voices expressing qualms about Afghanistan and Libya would be muted or silent.
The New York Times says Republicans are developing “a more nuanced view,” with candidates such as Jon Huntsman saying we have to consider the cost of remaining in Afghanistan and Michele Bachmann questioning whether we should have intervened in Libya. Well, maybe.
But prosecuting unpopular wars is like raising the debt ceiling: You hold your nose and do it when your party controls the White House, and you have a free shot to oppose it—or at least criticize it—when the president is from the other party. The applause lines write themselves: We should be spending that money in Kansas, not Kabul, and so on.
During the Bush years, Democrats who dared suggest that we get out of Iraq—especially considering the false premise on which we got in--were accused of cutting and running in the fight against terrorism. If Bush were still in office, Afghanistan would still be his war and most Republicans would be reluctant to stray from the party line. (The Democrats, as a more fractious party, don’t do lockstep unity very well, and many would love an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan even though their guy is in the Oval Office.)
To be sure, the strains of propping up the Karzai regime after a decade are taking a toll on the public and both political parties. Since Obama’s surge was supposed to lead to a withdrawal starting next month, it’s natural there would be a vigorous debate over whether more than a token number of troops will come home.
In similar fashion, Obama casually inserted the U.S. military into the war in Libya, delaying a televised speech for more than a week, and even though other NATO countries have taken the lead in the bombing campaign, it’s fair to ask whether America’s vital interests are at stake.
But let’s admit the obvious: It’s a lot easier for some Republicans to break with the Bush orthodoxy now that America’s military conflicts are Obama’s wars.