Leaving Afghanistan with all deliberate speed has become such a popular stance that even the usually hawkish Republican party is looking for the exit sign.
This is a healthy domestic development. Long before the most recent awful incidents (American soldiers urinating on the dead, soldiers inadvertently burning the Koran, and, now, an unhinged Army sergeant killing 16 Afghan civilians), it had become increasingly clear that we were fighting a no-win war of diminishing returns. Moreover, we appeared to have lost our original rationale; U.S. intelligence officials reportedly determined last winter that only about 100 al Qaeda fighters were still operating in Afghanistan.The massacre of sleeping civilians, allegedly triggered by a soldier on his fourth tour of duty overseas, will surely prompt more discussion about the strain on American troops fighting the global war on terror, and more debate on how best to make that fight. In the short run, however, the massacre is already prompting more calls for a speedier American withdrawal – superseding President Obama’s current exit timetable, which envisions a phased departure of our 90,000 troops until the scheduled handover to Afghan security forces in 2014.But what’s fascinating, politically, is that if Obama accedes to a speedier pullout (one long advocated by his vice president), or if he ratchets up his rhetoric about pulling out, he won’t get tagged as a cut-and-run wimp by the GOP. Because, at least with respect to Afghanistan, the GOP is more dovish than ever before.Granted, the party still has a robust interventionist wing – led by John McCain, along with his Senate pal and perpetual echo, Lindsey Graham. Over the weekend, Graham shrugged off the massacre (“These things happen in war”), and waxed bellicose (“We can win this thing”), but militarist sentiment no longer dominates. According to the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll, conducted prior to the massacre, only 47 percent of Republicans believe the war is still worth fighting – and an equal share says it is not. When the same question was asked of Republicans five years ago, 85 percent said the war was worth fighting.On the Fox News website over the weekend, GOP strategist Chip Saltsman said: “There is a growing voice in the Republican party that it’s time to get out and come home.” Newt Gingrich ehoed that sentiment during several gigs on the Sunday shows: “We need to understand that our being in the middle of countries like Afghanistan is probably counterproductive,” and that, because we’re “clearly an alien presence,” the mission “is not doable.” Even Rick Santorum, normally a knee-jerk neoconservative, opened the door to a speedy pullout, contending yesterday that we may “have to decide to get out, and probably get out sooner” than Obama envisions.Mitt Romney has been more reticent since the news broke about the massacre, but, in a debate nine months ago, he did briefly align himself with the new Republican thinking. Referring to Afghanistan, he said: “We’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation.” He naturally walked back his statement after he took heat from the interventionist wing, but there was no mistaking the fact that he had sought to echo the growing war weariness within his own party. (Only Ron Paul has voiced skepticism about Afghanistan all along. Like a stopped clock that’s right twice a day, Paul did manage to nail that one.)The bottom line, politically, is that Obama has some rare freedom to maneuver. If he stands firm on his incremental troop withdrawal, pegged to a 2014 handover, his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill will go along, as will roughly half the Republican party. If he decides to speed up withdrawal, his Democratic allies will go along, as will roughly the other half of the Republican party. And if the growing non-interventionist wing of the GOP wants to join a broader debate on whether it’s strategically and fiscally smart to play world cop via military action, then all the better for America.——-There’s a pair of primaries in Dixie tonight. Republicans will flock (or trudge) to the voting booths in Mississippi and Alabama. Here’s one way to measure the mental caliber of those folks: a new poll reports that 52 percent of Mississippi Republicans, and 45 percent of their Alabama counterparts, believe that Obama is a Muslim. As commentator Cynthia Tucker, a native Alabaman, remarked last night, “My home region remains a hotbed of bigotry and ignorance.” Which means, of course, that whoever faces Obama will win those states in November.But whom do those voters prefer? If Romney manages to eke out a win in either state, he’ll get a big PR boost because Dixie has long been the region where he fares worst. On the other hand, he’ll finish on top only if Gingrich and Santorum split the not-Mitt bloc. So would it truly be a PR boost if Mitt wins with roughly two-thirds of the Dixie voters going against him? Tune in tomorrow.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1