Republicans say they aren’t itching for a political fight with President Barack Obama on the increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan but are prepared for one nonetheless if the president does not quickly approve the surge of 40,000 or more troops requested by Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
On most issues this year — from health care to climate change to the stimulus package — Republicans have waged maximum political warfare against Obama and Congressional Democrats, but the GOP for months has been bending over backward to offer its support for the administration on the war in Afghanistan, even as public support has slipped.
This issue, Republicans say, isn’t about politics. But they acknowledge that their patience is wearing thin.
And the war may be the one area where Obama truly needs GOP support, particularly in the House, where a growing number of Democrats want to see an exit strategy for Afghanistan.
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) last week reiterated his support for Obama’s counterinsurgency strategy in a memo to his Members, while alluding to the difficult decision to support the Iraq surge just a few years earlier.
“We must not feed into al Qaeda’s propaganda that America will walk away when things get hard,— Boehner said. “It is in our national security interests to work effectively and pro-actively with the Afghan population to root out the networks of insurgents and terrorists operating in their homeland, and to give them an active reason to keep them away. They will not do so if they believe we will leave them in a security vacuum, subject to cruel and violent retribution from the Taliban.—
In early 2007, when support for the war in Iraq was collapsing even as President George W. Bush was announcing a plan for a massive deployment of troops, Boehner managed to keep his Conference in line behind Bush and the politically unpopular war, losing just two votes on funding the surge.
Boehner’s stand, which included multiple passionate, teary-eyed speeches on the House floor, had no obvious political benefits, especially after the GOP had already lost the House majority.
But Boehner made the stand nonetheless and is stepping up to do the same for a similarly unpopular troop increase in Afghanistan.
Boehner has also privately conveyed his support to Obama, while publicly prodding him to come to a decision quickly and to allow McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, to testify to Congress on his recommendations, as Gen. David Petraeus did on the Iraq surge.
But after White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) suggested on the Sunday talk shows that it would be irresponsible for Obama to make a decision until after the chaotic political situation in Afghanistan was resolved, Republicans sharpened their rhetoric.
“Now is the time for the commander in chief to lead,— said Rep. Howard McKeon (R-Calif.), ranking member of the Armed Services Committee. “A strategy that remains in limbo is a disservice to the nearly 70,000 American sons and daughters currently serving in Afghanistan.—
Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, said he fears Obama is losing his nerve.
“It appears he’s unwilling to go and make the decision to win,— he said. “We’ve seen it before that when you are in war, our troops will go in and do what’s asked of them when there is a clarity of message.—
Hoekstra said Obama needs to decide whether to pull the troops out or do what the commanders say is needed to win.
“Where the president is right now is absolutely the worst place for our troops to be,— he said. “The president needs to make a call. The president needs to lead.—
The sentiment in the Senate has been similar.
“We’d be a whole lot better off working with their leadership … whomever they are, rather than the Taliban. And that’s what’s going to happen if we wait too long,— Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said.
Kyl and other Republicans also criticized the apparent disconnect between the administration and its military leaders, pointing to Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ comments this week that further delays are ill-advised.
“Understandably people are very disturbed,— Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) said. McCain also warned the delays are having an effect on how U.S. allies are reacting to Afghanistan, particularly since Obama had seemed to commit the U.S. to a counterinsurgency strategy this spring. “It’s very clear that our allies are very uneasy,— McCain said. “This was a strategy that was announced in March.—
Democratic leaders, however, have been quick to defend Obama’s consideration of the issue.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday snapped back at Republicans who are beginning to lose patience, accusing them of losing their focus on Afghanistan and diverting attention to Iraq for years when they were in charge. Obama, Hoyer noted, has already sent an increase of troops to Afghanistan this year.
“We are doing much more than they did,— Hoyer said. But Hoyer, who has generally been among the most hawkish of Democrats and supported war funding in Iraq, hasn’t yet committed to supporting another troop increase.
“I don’t know that we have a lack of resources right now,— Hoyer said. “We have more people in Afghanistan today than we did under George Bush, and we are taking the fight more vigorously to the Taliban and to al-Qaida.—
John Stanton contributed to this report.