Last week in blogland, a debate broke out over whether progressives should ditch President Obama because of his new Afghanistan policy. A blogger at Tapped, after chastising liberals like Garry Wills and some dude named Tristero for deciding to withdraw their support from the president, chastised progressives again for their political naivete. Wrote Jamelle at Tapped: “I think progressives are fooling themselves if they think that Obama could both withdraw from Afghanistan and pursue his domestic agenda in full.”
Is that actually true? Yes, the mysterious and invisible rules of Beltway CW say it’s true. But the thing with Beltway CW is that it’s quite malleable and the smartest leaders dictate the CW, they don’t follow it. In fact, I’d argue that the biggest and perenial weakness facing Democrats in the foreign policy arena is the fear of looking weak. This fear of looking weak makes them look weak. It also forces them to make decisions–like supporting the Iraq War, supporting the Patriot Act, and now supporting escalation in Afghganistan etc–that they later have to back peddle from and recant and dissemble, thus making them look even weaker. (“I voted for the war before I voted against it.”)
Another line from the Tapped post: “Indeed, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that escalating in Afghanistan is the price the administration pays for having a broad domestic agenda.”
This line says a lot about how we treat war in our public debate. War is an issue, interchangeable with health care and the economic stimulus and battery powered cars. It is an abstraction, a polling question. Since only the tiniest fraction of the country is effected in any real, day to day, way by the wars we are fighting, the ‘war issue’ becomes another chit on the bargaining table. (We’ve seen this on the left with MoveOn.org’s failure to mount a campaign against the Afghan War. Until, that is, Obama already made the decision to escalate. Then MoveOn was quick to send out a mass email–which they did the day after his speech–asking for money while not having to do anything about the war.)
Viewing the war primarily as political–an issue that “the administration” has to “sacrifice” on–also misses the larger moral point. It’s not the adminsitration that will suffer the consequences from our escalation in Afghanistan. It’s the people who are going to be killed–the Afghans and the Americans. So it’s easy for us to shrug it off in a throwaway line–‘Sure, thousands of people are going to be killed, but at least in 20 years we’re going to have a watered down version of universal healthcare.’ (Also, the above line assumes a difference between Dem and Republican foreign policy, but as the last 8 years have shown us, the two sides seem to line up pretty close together on most foreign policy questions. The difference seems mainly to be in style, not substance.)
Then there is the money that’s going to be wasted. Money that would be better spent on social programs like health care, right? Because if progessives want all these big government programs, the way to get get them is not by endorsing trillion dollar expenditures in Central Asia and the Middle East. When the budget cuts come, they ain’t going to be coming from the defense budget. (That would look weak, too.)
I never really answered the question in this post. Here it goes, with another question. If a political leader does things that are in complete opposition to what you believe in, and what you believed he was going to do when you elected him, then why would you support him again? If the best answer is: ‘Well, George W. Bush’, then the Left can expect to have another round of Nader versus Gore type infighting in 2012, and certainly in 2016.