Much of the reporting about the President’s Afghanistan address to the nation Wednesday night has focused on his stubbornly centrist position – he’s moving too fast for the federal bureaucracy at the Pentagon, but too slow for anti-war liberals in Congress. Thus, the President faces attacks from both left and right as he stakes out a leadership position that only the President can really take, because he’s the only one on the political stage who’s responsible for considering the interests of all Americans when making decisions. The political shots from right and left are predictable, and they mask a couple of important realities.
First, President Obama already owns the Afghan war politically, having doubled down on the surge strategy there. His decision to stick to the drawdown timetable not only mollifies independents who are skeptical of our war effort, but makes him look like a promise-keeper to Democrats who supported him believing he would extricate us from war (even though he often repeated a pledge to stay in Afghanistan during the ’08 campaign.) The point is he doesn’t risk much politically by making it appear he wants to end our involvement. Stepping up to the mic and articulating a serious Afghan strategy last night gives him a chance to look like the strong post-partisan leader he was supposed to be. And, constant reminders of who got Bin Laden aren’t going to hurt the re-elect one bit.
Second, the Republican consensus seems to be strongly isolationist, embracing the Pat Buchanan view that America’s vital national interests very rarely involve troops on the ground. Ron Paul has said as much. Mitt Romney spoke negatively about helping other countries in their “wars of independence.” Newt Gingrich gets mired in policy as always, but comes down with a “leave it to the Generals” approach. Even Tim Pawlenty, who knows he needs to burnish his foreign policy credentials, has said we shouldn’t leave because we’re “tired of war,” which leaves wide open the door to leave for any number of other perfectly good reasons.
The only standout would appear to be Michele Bachmann, who, as Commentary magazine notes, urges the nation to “finish the job” in Afghanistan and uses terms like “win” and “victory” to describe what we’re doing there. Most of the candidates in the GOP pack aren’t providing enough of a distinction with the Obama position for independent voters to care – both parties are for getting out of Afghanistan one way or the other. Bachmann, though, as on so many other issues, is perfectly happy to march to the beat of her own drummer. Will her Tea Party supporters be put off by the hint of a continuing interventionist American foreign policy? Something to watch.