Just about this time last summer, a report written by Gen. Stanley McChrystal was leaked. It warned of impending "mission failure" in the war in Afghanistan and suggested more forces and a new strategy were needed. By December, President Obama had agreed—ordering 30,000 more troops, replacing counterterrorism with broader counterinsurgency as our strategy, and setting a July 2011 deadline for withdrawal. As the Afghan government seemed to grow more unstable, the mission transformed from terrorist-fighting to nation-building.
Fast forward a year. June was the deadliest month on record for both U.S. troops and NATO forces in Afghanistan. June also saw the war become the longest in American history, surpassing Vietnam and the two World Wars, despite the fact that there has never been an official declaration of war by Congress. McChrystal lost his job after a controversial interview published in June in Rolling Stone magazine, in which he and his staff insulted everyone from Obama and Vice President Biden to National Security Adviser Jim Jones and a slew of ambassadors. Buried amid all the mud was a particularly prescient comment from one of McChrystal's senior advisers, who said that if Americans "started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular."
Well, this summer they've started paying attention, and it's getting less popular. As the president's approval rating declines, especially among independents, it seems that the idea of continuing the seemingly endless war is becoming less popular as well. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, a whopping 48 percent of those surveyed said ending the war in Afghanistan is a more important goal than winning it. And while 41 percent believe it's still possible to win the war, another 59 percent either disagree and feel it's not winnable, or cannot decide.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele seems to be in the latter crowd. Speaking at a GOP fundraiser in early July, he called this a "war of Obama's choosing" and "not something the U.S. had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in." The remarks drew almost immediate reaction. Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard called for Steele's resignation; Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer said Steele had committed a "capital offense" and had to go; and Sen. John McCain, saying there was "no excuse" for the remarks, questioned whether Steele should remain in office. [See who supports McCain.]
Steele's comments exposed a growing split between two wings of the party. As Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, explained on MSNBC, neoconservatives fail to see that although the war had begun after 9/11 under George W. Bush, "that was a very different war. That was a limited action of self-defense. Since Barack Obama became president, this has morphed into a war of choice. We've tripled U.S. forces and we've changed the mission ... this is a much more ambitious policy." We are no longer going after what's left of al Qaeda (Jones said six months ago that "fewer than a hundred" al Qaeda members remain there), which was the original mission under President Bush; instead, we're fighting what Obama calls the "new way forward" against the Taliban, while spending hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild Afghan society.
Even before Steele's comments, there was a critical mass of limited-government conservatives starting to question Obama's strategy. As the president racked up trillion-dollar deficits at the same time as he escalated the war, the notion of whether we could afford Obama's new Afghan strategy—in both money and lives—began to present itself. Last fall, George Will wrote a controversial column calling for the United States to get out of Afghanistan. By last month, Peggy Noonan predicted that the right "is probably going to start to peel off, not Washington policy intellectuals but people on the ground in America." Others are starting to agree. The economic crisis, the massive deficits, and the prospect of higher taxes and drastic spending cuts are making voters wonder if we can afford to stay in Afghanistan any longer. And as the president's deficit reduction commission gears up this fall, it's going to draw even more attention to the cost of Afghanistan.
As David Walker, former U.S. comptroller general and the author of the fiscally conservative book Comeback America, argues, "The truth is, just because the money relates to defense, homeland security, or another laudable or critical area does not mean that the cost is justified. Given current and projected deficits, we must justify all of our budgets." Most Americans would agree that includes Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, not all Republicans agree. To some, you can't put a price on being the beacon of democracy, and you can't put a limit on our military's involvement in one of the poorest, most unstable nations on Earth. To them, questioning our involvement constitutes a "capital offense."
But others feel you can't be a small-government conservative and a proponent of endless war at the same time. They see a big difference between investing in a strong defense for fighting terrorism and open-ended spending on vague notions of nation-building in the name of democracy. A majority of GOP-ers—and most Americans—have long agreed that fiscal responsibility, a strong defense, and limited government are compatible.
It's a shrinking minority that is allowing unlimited war and more spending to go unquestioned. It's odd that both Obama and neoconservatives should find themselves in that minority.