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07.01.11

The New Antiwar Republicans

Three presidential candidates want a faster exit from Afghanistan, and so does much of the public. Jill Lawrence on why their 2012 rhetoric will boost the pressure on Obama.

Say you’re among the growing number of Americans who want U.S. troops to come home from Afghanistan soon. There are at least three candidates in the 2012 presidential race who are on your wavelength, and President Obama isn’t one of them.

Leading liberals and grassroots activists have made no secret of their disappointment over Obama’s measured withdrawal timetable. What’s striking is the similarity between their views and those of three Republicans: Ron Paul, a libertarian with isolationist tendencies; former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, a fiscal conservative with libertarian tendencies; and Jon Huntsman, an internationalist who speaks of “asymmetry” and “generational opportunities.”

It’s a rare Democrat who would vote for Paul, Johnson, or Huntsman in order to send Obama a message on the Afghan War. Their positions on social and economic issues are light-years from the Democratic mainstream. Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate the impact of the antiwar message from the right. It will help Huntsman with moderates and independents in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, and it will certainly help liberals ramp up pressure on Obama.

“It’ll keep this thing in front of him,” Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America, told me. “The Republican primary will be competitive and this is going to be discussed a lot. That may help a promote a feeling among most Americans that we should get out of there sooner rather than later.”

Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, agreed that the Republican campaign dialogue will fuel the shifting consensus on the war. “The more people who are out there saying there are better approaches to both protecting our interests and fighting our enemies, that’s a good thing for America and a good thing for anybody who wants to wind down the wars,” he says.

Most of Huntsman’s rivals won’t be seeking the get-out-of-Afghanistan vote.

The public already appears to be less in step with Obama than with the GOP candidates who want to get out of Afghanistan fast. Several national polls show that huge majorities  of Americans favor the president’s pullout plan, but at the same time, they are getting impatient. An all-time high of 56 percent in a recent Pew Research Center poll said they wanted the troops out as soon as possible, while 58 percent in a new CBS/New York Times poll said Obama’s pace was too slow. Democrats and independents are the bulk of those wanting a faster drawdown.

That was reflected on TV, online and on Capitol Hill after Obama’s speech, in which he said he would bring 33,000 of some 100,000 troops home by the end of 2012 and the rest by 2014. “I’m in favor of trying to go after al Qaeda, but it doesn’t take 100,000 troops to do that,” Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank said on MSNBC. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said many had hoped U.S. forces would leave “sooner than the president laid out.” Then there was OhioGringo on Firedoglake.com, who erupted into all caps when Obama described the drawdown as “the beginning” of his effort to wind down the war. “This is the BEGINNING? After 10 freaking years?”

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From left: Ethan Miller / Getty Images; Rich Schultz / AP Photos; Jim Cole / AP Photos

The GOP’s out-now trio offered the same critiques, minus the CAPS. Paul called Obama’s plan “too little, too late.” Johnson called it “not much more than lip-service to his pledge to begin withdrawing by this summer.” Huntsman said it was time to shift to “a focused counterterror effort which requires significantly fewer boots on the ground than the president discussed.” The former Utah governor urged “a safe but rapid withdrawal.”

Huntsman, who was Obama’s ambassador to China until April, has credibility when he says our foreign-policy priority ought to be fixing a weak domestic economy that jeopardizes the country’s ability to project power and achieve its objectives. He is backed up by a long foreign-policy resume when he suggests it’s time to shift from a counterinsurgency strategy (fighting the Taliban and other groups trying to overthrow the Afghan government) to a counterterrorism strategy (preventing terrorist attacks).

In a video on his campaign website, Huntsman says the war on terror is fought against “groups who are on the move and who don’t necessarily call any nation home. We have to be fast on our feet and ready to deploy on a moment’s notice when we find these affiliates are prepared to strike us.” What that means, he says, is that we need “Special Forces capabilities like never before”—not 100,000 boots on the ground.

Obama doesn’t disagree with any of this. In his Afghanistan speech he said that “it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.” A few days later he announced a new counterterrorism strategy designed to prevent terrorist attacks, protect U.S. interests and ensure the demise of al Qaeda. But his actual policies send a “not yet” message on both those fronts, since he plans to keep large numbers of troops there, spending billions each month, until at least 2014.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not the most pressing concerns to New Hampshire voters, by a long shot. In a recent Suffolk University poll, nearly half picked jobs and the economy as the top issue facing the country. But 15 percent said the second most important issue was the wars—an opportunity for Huntsman, assuming that by then he has climbed from single digits to viability.

That’s because independents in New Hampshire can vote in either party’s primary. Called “undeclareds,” they make up 42 percent of the state’s electorate. And history shows they vote in droves in contested primaries, especially when there’s an uncontested race on the other side, as will be the case with Obama running for reelection.

The most recent example is 2004, when George W. Bush was seeking a second term and several Democrats were competing to take him on. According to New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a paltry 7,702 undeclared voters declared themselves Republicans on primary day (11 percent of total GOP turnout). The Democrats—with an exciting race that featured John Kerry, Howard Dean, John Edwards, Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman—drew 95,634 undeclared voters. That was 43 percent of the Democratic primary electorate that year.

Most of Huntsman’s rivals won’t be seeking the get-out-of-Afghanistan vote. Tim Pawlenty is fashioning himself as an aggressive interventionist in the Bush tradition. He accused Obama of “overruling the best judgment of our military commanders in the field” and said he would draw down troops in Afghanistan “as circumstances warrant”—not a comfort to those who believe we should move on.

Mitt Romney has sounded somewhat interested in a quick exit, but he responded to Obama’s speech by rejecting “arbitrary timetables” and expressing eagerness to listen to “our military commanders.” For the most part, that’s what Obama has done. The result is the longest war in U.S. history, a war that most Americans already want to end, a war that can only become less popular as Huntsman and other Republican primary candidates question its rationale and strategy over the next six months.