When it comes to the war that has dragged on for nearly a decade, John McCain has been one of the staunchest supporters of the man who defeated him.
But his tone was markedly different Wednesday as the GOP’s leading voice on military matters ripped President Obama’s plans to withdraw 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by next summer, reversing the surge that the White House launched earlier in Obama’s term. This, the Arizona Republican said, was needlessly dangerous.
“Both Secretary Gates and General Petraeus had recommended earlier a modest withdrawal,” McCain told The Daily Beast. “I think it needs to be conditions-based. I just think it’s an unnecessary risk.” When asked if Obama’s plans amount to more than a modest withdrawal, McCain said, “Absolutely.”
But McCain is at odds with much of his own party over a war that polls show is increasingly unpopular. With Osama bin Laden dead and gone and the overall price tag for the war in Afghanistan approaching half a trillion dollars, Republicans on Capitol Hill are battling among themselves over how, when—and whether—to continue to support what is now Obama’s war.
Tensions inside the GOP caucus were on vivid display as the House prepared to debate the Pentagon’s annual war-fighting budget, which has ballooned to nearly $700 billion a year, with $2 billion per week going to prosecute the Afghan War.
While the GOP’s traditional defense hawks insisted that more American troops must remain on the ground than the president wants, a growing chorus of Republicans, many of them freshmen, rejected the GOP’s aggressive Bush-era orthodoxy and called for an outright end to the war.
McCain was echoing warnings by his friend, Lindsey Graham, another top Republican on defense policy, who said on Meet the Press that any drawdown would endanger security in the region: “It will destabilize Pakistan beyond what exists today. It will be a colossal national-security mistake.”
But as dire as these predictions were, many of McCain and Graham’s fellow Republicans say the future of the American people is equally at stake, as billions of dollars flow away from domestic projects and into Afghan coffers halfway around the world. (Indeed, Obama adopted that argument rhetorically in his televised speech when he called for “nation-building here at home.”)
Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, wants a significantly smaller American footprint in the war, which he said is suffering from unclear goals and objectives. “It is hard to argue that we are advancing our strategic interests that much to justify $2 billion a week,” he told The Daily Beast. As to whether Republicans would ever cut off funding for the war, he said, “We don’t want to have to get to there, but at some point, that will come.”
Although Flake has long been a lonely voice in calling for a smaller American commitment in the region, it was clear Wednesday that domestic budget pressures, along with questions about the long-term stability of the government in Kabul, have drawn significantly more of his fellow Republicans to Flake’s way of thinking.
Rep. Joe Walsh, a freshman Tea Party favorite from Illinois, said his view of the war has changed radically over the last year. “Nine months ago… I still would have been saying, ‘Stay to win,’ because my district was sort of on the fence,” Walsh told CNN. “But right now, they’re saying, ‘Stop, let’s bring them home.’”
Walsh’s view echoed a trio of conservative House Republicans—freshmen Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, John Duncan of Tennessee, and three-term Rep. John Campbell of California—who sent a letter last month to Obama urging him to end formal operations in the war.
“After fighting the longest war in the history of the United States of America, it’s time to redeploy our resources to address our most pressing threats,” they wrote. “It’s time to bring the formal war in Afghanistan to an end.”
In a twist that would have been unimaginable under George W. Bush, who launched the war that toppled the Taliban, the three Republicans wrote their letter with three of the Hill’s most liberal Democrats—showing just how far the debate has strayed from the traditional partisan lines that defined the discussions in the earliest days of the Afghan and Iraqi wars.
Dennis Kucinich, the famously dovish Democrat from Ohio, said he has found new and unexpected allies among the GOP freshmen in his efforts to force the White House to end America’s commitments in Afghanistan and, most recently, Libya.
“The newest class of Republicans are the products of a much more intense grassroots process. They are very close to their constituents,” Kucinich said. “The American people, by and large, oppose this. They are reflecting their constituents’ concerns.”
Kucinich says the aggressively budget-conscious freshmen shared his worries about the effect the war is having on American domestic priorities.
“Back home I’m hearing it, too,” he said. “People say, ‘what are you doing? We’ve got all these problems here and you’re not taking care of what’s happening at home.’ “
A Pew poll released last week showed far more Americans, 60 percent, blame the country’s budget crisis on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, than on increased domestic spending (24 percent) or the Bush tax cuts (19 percent).
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged the division among his Republicans on the issue Wednesday, but he said the differences of opinion are not new, just newly visible.
“I think there are clearly differences and I think a lot of our members—not having a Republican in the White House—feel more free to kind of express their reservations which might have been somewhat muted during the previous administration,” McConnell said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.
Republicans aren’t the only ones torn over the war issue. Beyond the voices of Kucinich and other liberal Democrats who have long called for a full U.S. withdrawal, Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said this week that she is increasingly uncomfortable with the support America continues to give Hamid Karzai’s government in Afghanistan.
“We’re not doing this for us, we’re doing it to stabilize this country, to get rid of al Qaeda … to help them have a decent society,” Feinstein told The Daily Beast. “If they don’t want us to do it, we ought to get out.”