When Republican chairman Michael Steele popped off earlier this month and warned that America’s war in Afghanistan is “a losing proposition,” he was nearly drummed out of his job for breaking with the party’s official line. But with every passing day there’s more evidence of unrest over the war among Republican elder statesmen. The freshest data point comes in the form of a Financial Times op-ed by Robert Blackwill, a GOP foreign policy veteran whom Condi Rice tasked with helping to salvage Iraq. Blackwill says the Afghanistan battle can’t be won at a bearable cost, and that America must resign itself to yielding control of the Pashtun south to the Taliban while maintaining control of the restive north and east with a substantially reduced military force–even if it means, as he admits, “a profoundly disappointing outcome to America’s 10 years in Afghanistan.” Likewise, Richard Haas, another longtime Republican foreign policy hand and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, writes in the latest Newsweek that “it is time to scale down our ambitions [in Afghanistan] and both reduce and redirect what we do.” And then there’s Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an early foreign policy mentor for Barack Obama, whom the New York Times notes today has been fretting about a “lack of clarity” around the American mission.
These men all represent the GOP’s embattled realist wing, which recognizes the limits on American power and is far more wary of military action than are the party’s neocon hawks. But while the realists once had enormous sway over Republican elected officials, it’s hawks who are setting the party’s agenda. On Capitol Hill, you can almost count on one hand the Republicans freely expressing concerns about the war’s winnability, and the loudest GOP voices in the media tend to belong to the militaristic likes of Bill Kristol, Liz Cheney and Charles Krauthammer. Meanwhile, the party’s most ambitious political figures are fighting to out-hawk one another: Consider Sarah Palin’s pugilistic foreign policy vision, along with the way Mitt Romney has broken with his party’s wise men to attack Barack Obama’s START nuclear arms treaty with the Russians. Jacob Heilbrunn tracks the decline of the party’s old national security establishment in an important new Foreign Policy essay:
[T]hese moderate conservatives all have one big thing in common: They’re in their dotage. Nor is there a successor generation in sight to uphold their legacy. The result is that despite the bungled Iraq war, the right remains on the offensive. An insurrectionist movement, it not only opposes liberal elites, but also the quisling patricians in its own ranks…. Add the welter of other conservative and neoconservative organizations dedicated to propagating the message that only a return to the principles enunciated by Ronald Reagan can restore American security and, by extension, the GOP’s electoral dominance, and it becomes clear that the traditional Republican establishment isn’t on the defensive; it’s in danger of extinction.
There is a potentially important current running against this phenomenon, namely the budding isolationism apparent in the Tea Party movement. After all, both the de facto godfather of the Tea Party, Ron Paul, and his son, Rand, apparently think the U.S. should get out of Afghanistan; while the conservative-populist hero Pat Buchanan has railed against “the hubris of the nation-builders.” But for now a clear majority of Republicans–57 percent, according to a July ABC News polls–still support the war in Afghanistan. (Broader public opinion is more mixed; most Americans believe fighting in Afghanistan is the right thing to do. But also that our commitment shouldn’t extend much longer.)
With the Times noting signs of unease about the war within the White House, it’s possible that Barack Obama could lower America’s ambitions there, much as the likes of Blackwill and Haas suggest, with the support of anti-war elements on the left and the right. Some influential Washington Democrats are already discussing such a scenario. But for now, Obama remains in a political box. The Republican Party’s political leadership isn’t listening to their aging wise men or the Tea Party’s war-weary activists. GOP figures like Palin, Romney and John McCain appear ready to defend the war as ardently as they did the Iraq campaign through its darkest days–and are likely to attack Barack Obama over any signs of American “retreat.” For Obama, cutting a deal with the Taliban could be a piece of cake compared to navigating the politics of war back home.