Afghanistan is now President Obama's war, and the immediate question in Washington is whether his military escalation will succeed. But beyond that, it's very possible that Obama's controversial new plan may have the unintended effects of jeopardizing his domestic priorities and making coalition-building in Congress more difficult than ever.
Historians such as Robert Dallek and Julian Zelizer point out that wars tend to disrupt and often shatter presidential agendas at home. It happened to Woodrow Wilson in World War I and to Harry Truman in Korea. Perhaps most relevant, it happened to Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam during the 1960s.
White House strategists dispute the notion that Afghanistan will be Obama's Vietnam because the commitment of U.S. troops is much less than it was in Indo-china, there is no superpower conflict to complicate matters, and it's not a civil war. But, as Dallek argues, if Obama's engagement in Afghanistan turns into an unwinnable, uncontrollable, costly morass, as Vietnam was, it will be a disaster. The result could be lasting damage to Obama's ability to win congressional approval for many of his long-term priorities, including legislation on climate change and immigration. Zelizer says presidents who become involved in protracted ground wars find that their presidencies are "defined" by their military commitments, not their domestic agendas.
The events in recent weeks have bolstered this argument, as Obama's announcement on Afghanistan crowded out his much-ballyhooed "jobs forum" at the White House two days later. At that event, the president hosted a lengthy public discussion with business, labor, academic, and political leaders on how to reduce unemployment, now at 10 percent. But compared with the Afghanistan decision, the media paid little attention.
One big challenge will be for Obama to keep core Democratic supporters in line behind funding the escalation, which is expected to cost at least $30 billion a year for the additional troops alone. Some antiwar liberals are so upset that they are threatening to withhold support, which means Obama may have to make up for their defections with conservatives who endorse his military surge. This won't be easy because there is so much bad blood between the GOP and the White House.
In addition, strategists of both parties say liberal patience may wear out on other tough issues, including the imminent votes on healthcare legislation. Some strategists predict that liberals won't be able to swallow the kind of compromises that Obama will be asking them to make across the board, such as backing away from a full-fledged government role in providing health insurance, offering concessions to centrists in limiting climate change, setting a new immigration policy, and making tough decisions to stanch the flow of red ink. So they will draw lines in the sand to keep faith with their liberal constituents back home.
Already, there are ominous rumbles on the left. Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is calling for a new tax to finance the war. The proposal stands little chance of approval, but Obey told ABC News that "if we don't pay for it, then the cost of the Afghan war will wipe out every other initiative that we have to try to rebuild our own economy."
There is an ironclad rule in politics: Americans assess wars mostly in terms of U.S. casualties. The higher the rate of death and injury, the less patience Americans have with foreign military engagements. And Afghanistan promises to be a very long and costly engagement. More than 900 Americans have died there so far, and public support for Obama's handling of the conflict has been sliding.
"I won't say this is Obama's war because it's not," says Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a prominent GOP strategist. "It's America's war—just as Iraq was not Bush's war; it was also America's war. But his imprimatur is on it as commander in chief now." Afghanistan will be "definitional" for the Obama presidency, Gillespie says.