Talk about strange bedfellows. The neocon godfather, who started a new policy group, loves Obama’s plan for Afghanistan. He tells The Daily Beast why Obama is a Democrat he can get behind. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
For those of you scoring at home, here’s who doesn’t like President Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy: John Murtha and Bill Ayers. Here’s who does: John McCain and Bill Kristol.
One place where President Obama has followed through on his post-partisan promise is foreign policy. With centrist national security Cabinet picks, he built on the success of the surge in Iraq and managed to depolarize the most divisive debate of our decade. Now he’s doubled down on Afghanistan, committing 21,000 new troops and extending the effort to Pakistan, all in an effort to root out al Qaeda and the resurgent Taliban. It’s a long-term commitment by a resolute new president that scrambles old political labels and brings a welcome bipartisan focus to the global conflict formerly known as “the war on terror.”
“I’m heartened by the first two and half months of the Obama administration,” Kristol said, “because I do think that some of the crazed partisanship and bitterness of the Bush years seems to have receded.”
It was in search of strange bedfellows that I went down to Washington, D.C., to attend the inaugural conference of the innocuously named Foreign Policy Initiative. In recent days, it had been targeted by the liberal netroots and their cable ditto-heads as the newest incarnation of the now infamous Project for a New American Century, a neoconservative think tank that advocated the war in Iraq. Two out of the three members of the FPI board of directors—Bill Kristol and Bob Kagan—do indeed overlap with PNAC; the third is Dan Senor, who was introduced to the world as Paul Bremmer’s spokesperson in Iraq. But in the netroots’ eagerness to re-litigate old debates, they missed the real man-bites-dog story: The founders of FPI support the Obama administration’s Afghanistan strategy.
“On Afghanistan and Iraq, I think he’s been good,” Kristol told me in a pre-conference interview. “Gates, Clinton, Jones, Obama, Biden, Holbrooke—these are serious people. They’re trying to do the right thing and they’re not being diverted much by day-to-day politics… I’m heartened by the first two and half months of the Obama administration because I do think that some of the crazed partisanship and bitterness of the Bush years seems to have receded.”
“There is a view on the left that is hostile to the mainstream Democratic tradition,” Kristol continued. “They’re entitled to be hostile—that’s their view of the world. They were hostile to Clinton’s policy in Iraq—the no-fly zones—some were hostile to the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. … The interesting thing to me is that the Obama administration has not signed on to that view. I’m not going to agree with them on some of what they do, but this is more like a traditional centrist Democratic administration than what the left-wing academics would like in terms of a radical redefinition of American foreign policy.”
This is miles from the GOP campaign party line, in which Obama was dangerously naïve and “pallin’ around with terrorists.” It’s a return to an older tradition—that of the Truman-Eisenhower-Kennedy era, in which campaign rhetoric receded in the face of Cold War responsibilities and broad policy continuity.
Inside the Foreign Policy Initiative conference at the Mayflower Hotel, policy compliments from a bipartisan cadre of speakers continued as the National Funeral Directors Association held their annual meeting down the hall.
Republican Rep. John McHugh—ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee—summed up the collective sentiment: “I can only say to the president, ‘Sounds good to me, boss.’” Neocon go-to-guy Bob Kagan weighed in: “President Obama made a gutsy and courageous decision in Afghanistan…not only has President Obama made a commitment to Afghanistan, but a commitment to a real counterinsurgency strategy—the idea of ‘clear, hold and build.’” His brother, Fred Kagan—the American Enterprise Institute scholar who co-authored the Iraq surge strategy with Gen. Jack Keane—also offered his commitment: “I fully support the president’s policy as stated—and I will work as hard to make this president’s policies a success as I worked to make the last president’s policies a success in Iraq. It is crucial that it remain a bipartisan effort, because it is so clearly in the nation’s interest.”
In the recent past, opposition parties have reverted to reflexive administration-opposition when it comes to military engagement—think W. circa-2000 criticizing Clinton’s “nation-building.” But the GOP has defined itself as the war on terror party and opportunistically changing course to call Afghanistan “Obama’s War” seems a bit cynical even for professional partisans. The greater danger is that instinctively antiwar Democrats may break ranks with their president when the going gets rough.
John McCain, who was also speaking at the conference, said as much: “The Speaker comes from a very liberal district, we know that. Harry Reid has been very nervous about troop levels in Iraq, as well as the strategy for Afghanistan... What I worry most about is that Americans haven’t been sufficiently alerted to the problems we’re going to face.” Rep. Jane Harman—a centrist Democrat who is chairwoman of the Intelligence subcommittee—also projected ahead, saying, “If the economy doesn’t improve, people are going to have no tolerance for more money—and if we have increased casualties, which we will have, it could lead to a backlash.”
Short-sighted and opportunistic Republican opposition to President Obama’s Afghanistan plan could give cover to Democrats who want to undermine the president’s position from within. But there was no evidence of that impulse to be found at this center-right conference. It was like the equivalent of a unicorn sighting in downtown D.C.: principled bipartisan commitment to help the president advance a policy goal.
Regaining momentum on the Af-Pak front will take time, blood, and treasure. By the end of this year, we will have seven combat brigades in Afghanistan, compared to 22 at the height of the Iraq surge—but the conflict is at this point open-ended and it will contentiously impact debates about cutting the defense budget. Nonetheless, it is a marker on the road to restoring a time-honored idea that has been missing in recent years: “Partisan politics ought to end at the waters’ edge.”
John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Avlon was director of speechwriting and deputy director of policy for Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign. Previously, he was a columnist for the New York Sun and served as chief speechwriter for then-Mayor Giuliani.