Out of Touch on the Flanks

Out of Touch on the Flanks

By Ruben Navarrette - December 9, 2009

SAN DIEGO -- President Obama is absolutely correct to respond to the conflict in Afghanistan by sending more troops. Yet in light of the reaction of lawmakers in both parties, what this debate really screams out for is something that could be harder to come by: more honesty.

If conservative Republicans who vehemently disagree with Obama on everything from health care to global warming to his promise to tackle comprehensive immigration reform just can't bring themselves to support him even when he does pretty much what they wanted him to do, then why not admit it? And if they oppose an 18-month deadline to begin troop withdrawal because they'd prefer the commitment be more or less open-ended, then why not own up to that?

Answer: Because they know such pettiness won't play well with voters.

Likewise, if liberal Democrats who have tried to convince us that they weren't really anti-war as much as they were critical of President George W. Bush's management of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan really are opposed to the use of U.S. military force across the board, then why not say so? And if they are now so embedded with the anti-war movement to the point where they've joined a permanent state of "dove-dom," then why not stand up and acknowledge what they've become?

Answer: See above.

In the end, it's likely that Obama will be able to win over just enough Republican votes to fund the mission to offset what will probably be a hemorrhaging of support from Democrats. Conservatives must take comfort in recent statements by high-level administration officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and national security adviser Jim Jones, who seem to be easing off the 18-month deadline. Obama did leave himself an out, saying that the situation on the ground would have to be assessed before the pullout began.

Still, Obama can count on resistance from both sides. Just use California's congressional delegation as an example.

Democrat John Garamendi suggested that the people of Afghanistan would be "better served if we focus our efforts on improving the socioeconomic conditions of the region instead of sending more of our brave soldiers to fight in this war."

Republican Darrell Issa expressed worry that Obama's "insistence on a timetable for leaving Afghanistan before his plan has even begun casts serious doubt about his commitment to a successful mission."

Democrat Maxine Waters declared that she "cannot support a continued policy of waste and open-ended spending in Afghanistan, especially given the severe economic challenges we must confront within our own country."

And Republican Dana Rohrabacher said he much preferred "an Afghan approach -- not an American or European approach" and indicated that he would "vote against funding for the current additional troop request."

Some of this reaction is predictable, and it has less to do with the military climate in Afghanistan than it does with the political climate in the United States. Obama's best hope for selling his pragmatic, middle-of-the-road approach to the war is with moderates. Unfortunately, in too many places around the country, the politics are like they have become in the Golden State -- too polarized to allow moderates to be elected in the first place.

So what Obama has to deal with in Congress are lawmakers on the far right or the far left -- the kind of leaders who are so wedded to their partisan orthodoxy that they have a difficult time seeing past it.

Not so the constituents whom these legislators claim to represent. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released after Obama's speech at West Point indicates 64 percent of Americans support the president's decision to send more troops. About the same percentage -- 63 percent -- agrees with Obama that U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan is morally justified. And these are probably not people who were already inclined to be supportive of U.S. policy in the region. Just a few months ago, in another CNN/Opinion Research survey, only 39 percent of Americans said they supported the war in Afghanistan while 58 percent opposed it.

What happened? It's not that Obama converted a wide swath of the American electorate with one speech. A better explanation is that there are probably a lot of Americans out there who, when it comes to Afghanistan, aren't going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good -- and will give the president a chance to finish the job.

Sounds fair. Congress should give it a try.

Copyright 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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