The Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

News that a clear majority of conservatives want to reduce the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, plus reports of an emerging right-left coalition against the war, have served as hopeful signs in the heretofore quixotic pursuit to arrest the giant gears of the American war machine.

Indeed, the uber-establishment Afghanistan Study Group recently released a poll that found no less than 71 percent of conservatives are worried about the price tag of war operations, and 57 percent (including 55 percent of self described Tea Party voters) say reducing troop levels in Afghanistan could be accomplished “without putting America at risk” – a seeming 180-degree turn from most conservatives’ previous point of view on war and defense spending (most readers here recall how difficult it has been to be a conservative-libertarian minded American in the era of George W. Bush).

Meanwhile, just as Justin Raimondo was asserting in his Jan. 12 column, that “the ideological tables are turning, and today it is on the right, not the left, where the action is, where the ferment is, where the challenge to the conventional wisdom dares raise its head,” influential conservative operative Grover Norquist was talking about building a right-left coalition against further war spending, and invoking Ronald Reagan as the picture of restraint.

Nothing in Washington is exactly what it seems of course, and it would be wise to keep in mind that at the very beginning of the Iraq War, when Republicans were declaring “victory,” and “shock and awe” was still being used as a serious tactical term, Norquist was gloating how antiwar Democrats, “were on the wrong side of the Civil War, the Cold War and now the Iraq War – their batting average on these things is right up there with France.” In the spirit of keeping eyes wide open we should be aware of other telling signs that the war machine, i.e., the military industrial complex – including co-opted congressional leaders and hawks among the foreign policy elite – plans to wage a serious fight to maintain its sway not only over Washington’s conservatives, but over the controlling Republican leadership, and the congressional purse strings too.

1. Tea Party vs. the In-Crowd. Perhaps the first shot across the bow was this month’s CODEL (congressional delegation) to Afghanistan, led by Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. As I have said before, the infamous CODEL is akin to sending members of congress into the Stepford Men’s Association – they never come out the same, invariably regurgitating Pentagon power-point presentations and robotically warning against “precipitous” withdrawals and “timelines.”

The very best example of this was last year, shortly after the President ordered Surge II, an infusion of 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan under Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Believe it or not, there were vocal skeptics among the Democrats, including then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI). But after two whole days in Afghanistan (and one in Pakistan), Levin was suddenly a convert, saying things like, “We went to places away from Kabul today. We saw real partnering with Afghans … it’s reassuring to see that happening … our counterinsurgency strategy may be taking hold … we are offering [the Afghans] terms of security better than the false security offered by the Taliban.”

Levin’s comments were echoed by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and a score of Republicans who traveled on other CODELs throughout January 2010. Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) probably took the award for the dopiest post-CODEL comment: “I came here with a healthy skepticism about sending more troops to Afghanistan,” said Israel. “But after two days here, my comfort level with General McChrystal’s plan has increased immeasurably.”

Right. So when Sen. McConnell brought “a number of Tea Party senators” to Afghanistan last week, the mission was clear: get the budding skeptics before the Svengali-in-fatigues, Gen. David Petraeus, reminding them of their core responsibility to “national security,” far away from the tedious Beltway court antics and into the testosterone-fueled war zone, where they are made to feel very small, but very necessary at the same time.

Leader McConnell needed no such converting of course – this is his fourth CODEL to Afghanistan (though combined, his days “in country” probably don’t add up a fortnight). This time he came back with talking points that defied nearly every single account of reality on the ground in Afghanistan including, ironically, the Pentagon’s own required assessment to Congress in November. He said the Taliban’s “momentum” in Helmand province has been “completely reversed” by the U.S.-led counterinsurgency, and he thinks, “there’s an overwhelming likelihood of success” in Afghanistan.’s Jason Ditz noted that McConnell invited Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Ron Johnson (-WI) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), “but did not invite two of the more staunchly Tea Party members, Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT).”

“This is because consummate hawk and status quo Republican McConnell is keen to drive a wedge between Senate Republicans with ties to the Tea Party, particularly as so many of them believed they were elected to change policy and rein in deficit spending,” wrote Ditz.

If indeed this is the plan set into motion, it seems to have had a desired effect. Toomey, who beat back popular Democrat and war policy skeptic Rep. Joe Sestak in the November election, told reporters upon his return, “I do think we can achieve success in Afghanistan, but we’ll have some presence on the ground here for quite some time.”

Last year at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), conservatives were gushing that Tea Party favorite Rubio could someday run for president. After the CODEL, he came back speaking fluent Stepford, sounding no different from the aforementioned Democrats, or even President Barack Obama.

“Our goal is to leave a functional state, or to help the Afghan people create for themselves a functional state,” he said in a conference call with reporters from Kabul. He added that he thinks the U.S. forces are moving in the right direction but, “there’s a long ways to go, no way to overestimate how serious the challenge is.” He said people in the region warned against a timeline for withdrawal: “There is a sense that the Taliban and even Al Qaeda is just waiting for us to leave before moving back in.” One wonders how, in a weekend, Rubio got “a sense” of anything outside of the dog and pony show proscribed for him.

Now Rubio might very well be confronted with new conservative hostilities against the war in Afghanistan, but let’s be frank, there is a huge military constituency in Florida – in fact, there are similar constituencies across the Tea Party’s greatest strongholds. Republicans like McConnell have been superb at conflating patriotism and support for the war with support for the military, mostly because they know where their bread is buttered.

Now that support for the war may be cracking within their own ranks, and a presidential campaign looming in which Republicans will have define themselves against Obama as explicitly as possible, expect the heat to be turned up in this way even hotter.

2. Sarah Palin: “Tea Party Hawk.” Ex-Alaska governor, reality TV star and king/queen maker Palin seems to get this. Aside from the fact she has surrounded herself with neoconservative hawks who have no intention of supporting deep cuts in the Pentagon’s budget, much less shying away from the prospect of an indefinite stay in Afghanistan, drone attacks on Pakistan or extending the GWOT to Yemen and elsewhere, Palin’s greatest asset is she knows what her audience instinctively wants, sometimes before they even know they want it. She knows what buttons to push to elicit the right emotional responses, and she knows that the perfected appeal to lizard-brained fear and unmediated patriotism drives the base to the polls every time.

Her speeches, from the National Tea Party Convention last February to the Freedom Fest in June to Glenn Beck’s rally in September, have displayed an unmatched ability to suffuse national pride with waging war. She has said it’s a mother’s duty to send her sons off to war, and that soldiers are better people than the rest of us. More importantly, she has warned that scaling back war spending could “risk all that makes America great.”

In other areas of foreign policy, her prescriptions are maddeningly over-simplified. In 2009, she told interview diva Barbara Walters that Israel should be able to expand Jewish settlements in disputed Palestinian territories “because that population of Israel is, is going to grow. More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead. And I don’t think that the Obama administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand.”

In a rebuke of Secretary of Defense Bob Gates having the gall to suggest in May “new ways of thinking about the portfolio of weapons we buy,” asking, “whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3 [billion] to $6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines and $11 billion carriers,” Palin retorted, “my answer is pretty simple: Yes we can and yes, we do, because we must.”

Of course the neoconservatives love Palin and recognize her as the bulwark against growing war skepticism among conservatives. “She’s really quite a crucial piece in this puzzle,” said Tom Donnelly, defense fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, in a July piece entitled “The Tea Party’s Hawk,” by Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy. “She’s got both political and Tea Party/small government bona fides, but she also has a lot of credibility in advocating for military strength.”

Meanwhile, former Commentary editor Norman “World War IV” Podhoretz wrote in her “defense” last year: “Her views are much closer to those of her conservative opponents than they are to the isolationists and protectionists on the ‘paleoconservative’ right or to the unrealistic ‘realism’ of the ‘moderate’ Republicans who inhabit the establishment center.”

Now it could be pointed out that perhaps Palin’s prospects for president might be fading – the Tucson shooting has apparently sent her approval ratings plummeting. But certainly, as of now, Palin is still the most visible, the most-talked about and oft-quoted Republican out there. Whether she is running for higher office or not, her influence on candidates within the Tea Party and among activists from coast-to-coast is undeniable. While Grover & Co. are still working out the semantics for supporting a withdrawal, she will have entire crowds draped in flags and demanding we not “let our soldiers down,” and to stay in Afghanistan until we “get the job done.” And she will have the help of savvy neoconservative pundits and courtiers to do it. She is the one to watch to see how this debate unfolds.

3. Neoconservatives at the Spear Point. Speaking of the pro-war hawks still inhabiting the Republican inner circle in Washington, its been made clear in recent weeks that the military will likely turn to the same surrogates in town to make their case for war. They will have to turn up the heat of course, in the face of building resistance, but considering the McConnell CODEL, it seems their work might not be as difficult as anticipated.

In this vein, neoconservatives Kim and Frederick Kagan are back with a new “defining success” report on Afghanistan. Unlike the Pentagon’s sobering November report, but closer to the White House whitewash in December, this one seems to encapsulate all of the military’s wishful thinking, with emphasis on a pseudo grasp of insider tribal knowledge, and the perfectly deceiving assertion that the Taliban’s influence in Afghanistan has been arrested and reversed. In fact, the two actually accuse the intelligence community, which was right about Iraq and blatantly ignored by people like the Kagans in their rush to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, of being “alarmist” about creeping Taliban control of heretofore non-Taliban areas in the north of the country. “The insurgency is not gaining strength in northern Afghanistan and is extremely unlikely to do so,” the Kagans write. This, despite, steady reports from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Refugees International, who specialize in neutral aid work on the ground, as well as other reports, including maps by the United Nations, showing clear Taliban control of these areas.

Calling it an “embarrassing mess,” Central Asian expert Joshua Faust attacks the Kagans’ recent “propaganda” project as an “unsourced assertion in support of logical fallacies and wishful thinking, but packaged as serious analysis,” noting that there were “only seven footnotes, all of which link back to the Kagans’ own work.”

Of course one report does not indicate the direction of war policy in the conservative movement. But it does remind us that the Kagans, who despite all common sense to the contrary, are routinely tapped as advisers and hagiographers for Petraeus’ inner circle, and still command a perverted level of influence and respect in the Washington foreign policy network. Their latest report is no mistake, it is a spear point for the looming fight over the hearts and minds of our policy makers and purse string holders on Capitol Hill, and just as important, the Republican presidential candidates waiting in the wings.

So, while attitudes continue to shift among formerly unreachable conservatives on the war, there are signs already that the status quo is going to be harder to budge as the stakes become higher in 2011 and 2012. Better to go into these challenging times with eyes wide open rather than eyes wide shut.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.