Monday, February 8, 2016

Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't

Obama and the domestic political risks of Afghanistan

Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't

Many Democrats oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan, while 60 percent of Republicans support such a move. (Richard Drew/AP)
Many Democrats oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan, while 60 percent of Republicans support such a move. (Richard Drew/AP)



As I've noted twice here recently, President Obama's biggest political challenge is not health care reform. It is Afghanistan. And now that he's reportedly deliberating whether to OK the military's impending request for a sizeable troop hike, apparently with a fair degree of skepticism as to the value of such a move, his potential domestic quandary is coming into sharper focus.

The prime political task of any president is to secure the strong support of his party base. But the Democratic base is strongly opposed to a troop hike in Afghanistan; the new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll reports that two-thirds of all Democrats are saying no. So if Obama says yes to the military, and the troop hike fails to improve our prospects for success (which would not be a shock, given the current prowess of the insurgents, and the corruption and perceived illegitimacy of the Karzai government), he risks splitting his own party in ways reminiscient of what doomed LBJ 40 years ago in the wake of Vietnam.

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Yet if Obama essentially says no to the military's recommendation, and that decision also fails to improve our prospects for success, the Republicans - 60 percent of whom support a troop hike, according to the aforementioned poll - will work overtime to morph Obama into Jimmy Carter, to roll out the traditional rhetoric about how Democrats are timid and weak on national security, and to complain that this president is losing a war he only recently described as crucial ("a war of necessity") and specifically vowed to win ("to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: we will defeat you").

Of course, the Republicans will do all this (actually, they're doing it already; Newt Gingrich this week referred to the Obama team as "the second Carter administration") while conveniently ignoring the fact that George W. Bush screwed up Afghanistan and thus bequeathed to Obama a steaming pile of dung with few cleanup options. But hey, that's politics.

I talked about the politics of Afghanistan, and the other potential domestic ramifications of Obama's foreign policy agenda, during a guest gig on Philadelphia's National Public Radio this morning, with foreign affairs columnist Trudy Rubin doing the heavy lifting on policy. Not that people care about the international realm; over the span of an hour, a grand total of one person phoned into the show. Nevertheless, you can listen to it here.


With respect to this blog's comment section, there was a disturbance in the force earlier today. For technical reasons, comments were blocked. Full venting rights have now been restored.


Inquirer National Political Columnist
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About this blog

Cited by the Columbia Journalism Review as one of the nation's top political reporters, and lauded by the ABC News political website as "one of the finest political journalists of his generation," Dick Polman is a national political columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is on the full-time faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, as "writer in residence." Dick has been a frequent guest on C-Span, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and the BBC. He covered the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential campaigns.


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