Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Real debate possible over Afghanistan

I think it's important that conservative columnist George Will has come out against the Afghan war, and making essentially the same recommendations I made back in December and subsequently, though I seriously doubt I had anything to do with his conclusions. I'm not sure just what kind of influence Will has anymore. The times I've met and talked with him -- a couple, we're hardly close friends -- he has been extremely cordial and interesting. But in today's rightward political world, I get the impression he's sort of a lone wolf, and would be happy to be considered such. He doesn't seem closely associated with the NR crowd any more, and he figured out long before most conservatives would admit it that the Iraq war was a huge mistake and that George W. was not very -- let's say informed or insightful to be kind. So he may not carry a lot of conservatives with him. But he's still got to have some influence.

Will's column may be, I hope, a harbinger that we just might have a serious debate about Afghanistan, perhaps even before Obama commits a lot more troops there. The polls show more Americans believing the war is not worth fighting than believing it is -- and 70 percent of Democrats ready to wind down the war. Obama may have taken office without owing much to the the Democratic establishment, but a president whose own party opposes his signature foreign-policy promise and initiative at such a level is in a ticklish position. We may see, as Congress returns, discover whether that rank-and-file opposition gets translated into a willingness among congresscritters to ask pertinent and impertinent questions.

Presidents can act almost unilaterally and without much oversight in foreign affairs, as Bush did so often, but while I can't imagine a serious threat to cut off funds, which Congress could do constitutionally if it wanted, I can imagine hearings, sharp questions to guys like Gates McChrystal and perhaps even Petraeus. After a period of dormancy the antiwar left is stirring a bit. Escalating the war could create a serious rift in the Democratic party, and it's tough to imagine, after 8 years already, that many Americans will approve of another 10 years, what McChrystal reportedly estimates it would take for Afghanistan to have a "proper" set of thugs and enforcers -- er, police and army security forces at our expense, in a country that has never had a strong central government and doesn't seem to want one.

There really ought to be a debate before another escalation, a debate that includes the serious option of ending military activity on the ground in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida isn't in Afghanistan now. Let's declare victory and get out.

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