One of the many ironies of this political moment is that some of President Obama’s worst enemies are poised to become his best friends. Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, is widely credited with crafting the strategy that defeated Bill Clinton’s 1993 healthcare overhaul. This time around, Kristol has been an equally fierce critic of Democratic health-reform proposals. But as one of the founders of the Foreign Policy Initiative, successor to the pro-war Project for the New American Century, he has also worked to persuade Republicans to back the president on an issue of at least equal importance, one that might soon prove more politically perilous – the fighting in Afghanistan.
Over the next decade, there is very good reason to believe that the United States and China, the two pillars of the global economy, will grow at a slower rate. Though hardly anyone thinks of the 2000s as a golden age of peace and prosperity, that could very well change as a slide in global growth sharpens competition for resources. Even as the U.S. economy recovers, job growth will most likely be pathetically low. While liberals have hoped that this might spark support for an expanded welfare state, it seems just as likely that belt-tightened voters will feel less inclined towards generosity at home and abroad. We’re seeing this in the ferocious debates over taxes and spending, and we’re also seeing it in the backlash against the war in Afghanistan.
Failure in Afghanistan could jeopardize the basic stability that makes the global economy work. And failure is a very real possibility.
It’s far too early to say that the sun is setting on the American empire. The U.S. has strengths that the British and the Soviets lacked, and that the Chinese won’t have for decades or more. It is, however, very hard to imagine the country pulling off something like the invasion of Iraq in the straitened circumstances of 2009. As the war in Afghanistan enters a new phase, it looks like the capstone of America’s unilateral moment, when it seemed as though our military and economic power could bend reality. Success in Afghanistan—even a modest success, like the retreat from total disaster we’ve seen in Iraq—could represent a down payment on a more stable geopolitical environment, the kind of investment that will pay dividends for decades. Failure could jeopardize the basic stability that makes the global economy work. And failure is a very real possibility.
This week, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Congress that a serious counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan will “probably” require a sharp increase in the number of American troops. General Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, reportedly wants 30,000 to 40,000 reinforcements, raising troop levels from 68,000 at the end of this year to over 100,000. Part of the issue is that the 21,000 new troops President Obama has already agreed to send to Afghanistan won’t be enough to change the dynamics on the ground, as combat forces need to be matched by personnel dedicated to logistical support.
A new troop increase would happen against a dramatic spike in casualties, which has led to a collapse in support for the war among voters. Democrats are particularly hostile—on Tuesday, CNN/Opinion Research Corp. released a poll finding that while 62 percent of Republicans support the war, only 23 percent of Democrats agree. And support among Republicans has plummeted by 8 points over the last two weeks. As anti-Obama sentiment increases, it is easy to imagine the Republican opposition hardening.
Of course, rising antiwar sentiment can’t force the White House to abandon the military campaign in Afghanistan. Barely a third of the public has supported the Iraq war since 2005, when violence reached new and terrifying levels. Yet it’s also true that George W. Bush all but abandoned his domestic agenda after 2005 as anti-war sentiment sank his job approval ratings and the complexity of the turnaround effort absorbed virtually all of his waking hours. And the hard core of war supporters tended to be Republicans, not members of the opposition party. Now, of course, it is liberal Obama allies like Russell Feingold and Carl Levin in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi and John Murtha in the House who are opposed to what antiwar critics call an escalation in Afghanistan while hawks like John McCain are strongly in favor. But McCain, like Kristol, is an unconventional conservative, one who will always put the politics of national security first. That’s not necessarily true of the Republican mainstream.
Throughout the Bush years, many observers came to think of conservative voters as reflexively pro-war. During the Clinton administration, however, conservatives like then-House Speaker Tom DeLay were among the strongest opponents of the Kosovo campaign and other humanitarian interventions, seeing them as futile and expensive. Conservative support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has rested in large part on the sense that lawless violence in both countries represents a direct threat to American security. But after eight years, Afghanistan looks more like a hopeless mission of mercy in one of the world’s poorest, most divided societies to skeptical Republicans.
It’s impossible to tell what is going on in President Obama’s head. His domestic priorities might lead him to “play it safe”—to short-change the war effort with a wait-and-see, halfway approach that will lead to higher casualties and an even stronger drive to withdraw from Afghanistan in six months. Or he might recognize that stabilizing Afghanistan could be his great contribution to America and the world. When the president recently argued that Afghanistan is a “war of necessity,” he seemed to understand the threat posed by failure in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a real domino—if it falls, Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 180 million, risks falling with it, radiating instability across India and Iran and sparking a news arms race that the world can’t afford.
Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.