Tonight Obama announced the beginning of a gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan. Many people with more expertise in military and foreign affairs are writing about the policy issues at play with Obama's Afghanistan decision, but true to my theme I'd like to take a minute to look at the politics. In particular, I want to pose the question of whether the Republican's position on Libya has cut off their ability to oppose Obama's decision on Afghanistan because of their opposition to the Libyan campaign.
The first step in this analysis, of course, is to consider the ideal course for Republicans. What would they do if they could wipe the slate clean and obtain the complete political maneuverability to attack Obama's decision in any way they want. In such a case, what might they argue? The most likely argument they would make, I believe, is one from the hawkish position as that has been the predominant foreign policy position for Republicans since Reagan. Republicans made no apologies about supporting the war in Iraq as well as interventions throughout the world and even criticized Obama for not approving a surge in Afghanistan quickly enough (remember Cheney's "dithering" accusation, anyone?).
I do not think that my theory is altered by the fact that the Afghan war is unpopular. The Iraq war was also very unpopular in 2006 but Republicans stuck with it with disastrous consequences in 2006 and 2008. The most recent Pew poll shows 56% of people favoring a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan. That's a lot, but not overwhelming, and in my opinion not enough to affect the basic calculus that Republicans would attack Obama from the hawkish position if they could.
So now the question is, can they pull it off? Can they attack the Afghanistan withdrawal effectively? I don't think so, and here's why.
In an effort to attack the action in Libya, the Republicans, even the Presidential candidates, have adopted a new-found skepticism towards military interventions and what some are calling an isolationist attitude. (I would argue this position is unprincipled and a partisan attempt to attack Obama, but that's another matter.) No less than Michele Bachmann has attacked the Libya operation as an intervention with no vital national interest at stake. In their rush to attack Obama they have made it very hard for themselves to now pivot and come at Obama from the hawkish position.
The problems for Republicans are compounded by the fact the Obama is largely credited with killing bin Laden. Because bin Laden is dead, a primary justification for distinguishing Afghanistan and Libya, the vital national interest in dismantling Al Qaeda, is lost. The further degradation of Al Qaeda globally (a fact highlighted in the President's speech) has a similar effect as the death of bin Laden on the politics of the issue.
So now, the Republicans are in a predicament. With every passing day and every degradation of Al Qaeda Afghanistan becomes less and less vital to America's interests and the "war on terrorism." While Republicans might like to attack Obama for not aggressively pursuing a war in a country which has less relevance to America's vital interests every day, they prematurely staked out a position against interventions in any nation without a clear vital interest at stake. They have effectively boxed themselves in, even the Presidential candidates.
I'm not a boxing expert, but this sounds like a classic rope-a-dope. The rope-a-dope is a boxing strategy in which one pretends to be vulnerable in order to lure the opponent into opening themselves to an attack. I don't think Obama did it on purpose, but in attacking a perceived weakness on Obama's part with respect to Libya the Republicans have made it extremely difficult for themselves to take on Obama's Afghanistan policy. Not only that they have made themselves vulnerable to criticism if they were to make such a dramatic shift in such a short time span. (Not like this would stop all of them from trying, i.e. Newt Gingrich).
If you think Obama's policy is the right one then the politics are on your side. Because Republicans prematurely rushed to attack Obama on Libya, Obama now has political cover to begin the Afghanistan withdrawal without worrying about an attack of the hawks.
So what do you think? Can the Republicans effectively take on Obama from the hawkish position? Is my initial premise correct? Feel free to comment and let me know.