At West Point tonight, when Barack Obama formally announces he is sending tens of thousands more American troops to Afghanistan, he’ll be doing so against the wishes of an overwhelming majority of the Democratic Party. Sending more troops will fulfill a key Obama campaign pledge, but it will also expose a deep rift in the party — and highlight its habit of dissembling on the war.
A Gallup poll last week asked Americans about four possible options in Afghanistan. Would they prefer to see the number of U.S. troops increased by 40,000, as top military commanders proposed?
Would they prefer to see the number increased, but by some smaller amount? Would they prefer the number remain unchanged? Or would they like to see the United States begin to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan?
Fifty-seven percent of Democrats want to reduce the number of troops, and another 10 percent want to see troop levels remain the same. That’s 67 percent — two-thirds — of Democrats who want the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to go down, or at least go no higher. Which means two-thirds of Democrats likely oppose the president’s decision to send more troops.
And yet, in the 2008 presidential season, from the Democratic primaries to the general election, Democrats felt required to promise to step up the war in Afghanistan. Was it because the Democratic base that now opposes escalation supported it back then? No. A Gallup poll in August 2007 — in the midst of the Democratic primary race — found that just 41 percent of Democrats supported sending more U.S. troops to fight in Afghanistan.
If the base didn’t support it, then why did candidates promise it? Because Democratic voters and candidates were playing a complex game. Nearly all of them hated the war in Iraq and wanted to pull Americans out of that country. But they were afraid to appear soft on national security, so they pronounced the smaller conflict in Afghanistan one they could support. Many of them didn’t, really, but for political expediency they supported candidates who said they did. Thus the party base signed on to a good war-bad war strategy.
“One of the things that I think is critical, as the next president, is to make absolutely certain that we not only phase out the Iraq war but we also focus on the critical battle that we have in Afghanistan and root out al Qaeda,” Obama said at a Democratic candidates’ debate in New Hampshire in June 2007. The war in Iraq, Obama continued, “is an enormous distraction from the battle that does have to be waged in Afghanistan.”
“There isn’t any doubt that Afghanistan has been neglected,” said chief Obama rival — and now Secretary of State — Hillary Clinton at a debate in April 2008. “It has not gotten the resources that it needs.”
Other top Democrats adopted the get-tough approach, at least when it came time to campaign. In September 2006, as she was leading the effort that would result in Democrats taking over the House and her becoming speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi said George W. Bush “took his eye off the ball” in Afghanistan. “We had a presence over there the past few years, but not to the extent that we needed to get the job done,” Pelosi said. The phrase “took his eye off the ball” became a Democratic mantra about the supposed neglect of Afghanistan — a situation that would be remedied by electing ready-to-fight Democrats.
But now, with Democrats in charge of the entire U.S. government and George Bush nowhere to be found, Pelosi and others in her party are suddenly very, very worried about U.S. escalation in Afghanistan. “There is serious unrest in our caucus,” the speaker said recently. There is so much unrest that Democrats who show little concern about the tripling of already-large budget deficits say they’re worried about the rising cost of the war.
It is in that atmosphere that Obama makes his West Point speech. He had to make certain promises to get elected. Unlike some of his supporters, he has to remember those promises now that he is in office. So he is sending more troops. But he still can’t tell the truth about so many Democratic pledges to support the war in Afghanistan: They didn’t mean it.