Sunday, August 23, 2009


I'm back, and I almost feel sheepish about posting on my own blog -- thanks, Aimai, for stirring up a firestorm. And thanks, Kevin and Phil and Bulworth. What I have to say is much more boring.

But still, I have to react to this, from a Week in Review article in The New York Times in which Peter Baker argues that Afghanistan could be Barack Obama's Vietnam:

George W. Bush ... learned first-hand how political capital can slip away when an overseas war loses popular backing. With Iraq in flames, Mr. Bush found little support for his second-term domestic agenda of overhauling Social Security and liberalizing immigration laws.

Is Baker nuts? Regarding immigration reform, George W. Bush couldn't have passed it on September 12, 2001. There was never a time when he was popular enough to get that through, for the simple reason that his base hates illegal immigrants and would never have let him get away with anything that might seem to help them.

And Social Security "reform"? Bush announced reform plans in a State of the Union address on February 2, 2005, months after he won an election; his Gallup poll approval/disapproval numbers a few days later were 57%/40%. By the end of the month his overall job approval/disapproval was 52%/45% -- but his numbers on Social Security were 35%/56%. The war didn't doom Bush on Social Security -- Bush's Social Security plan doomed him.

And I don't agree with Baker's larger point -- that Afghanistan could doom Obama's presidency the way Vietnam doomed LBJ's -- for a simple reason: He's making a serious commitment to war, and a core element of Republican rhetoric is that the evildoers (commies in the past, Islamists now) are always at the gates, which, in this case, is also his message. Nothing's going to be his Vietnam unless they're defining the terms of the attack, and they simply can't attack him for being overly committed to a war -- it would be the opposite of everything they've said about Democrats for forty years. They could attack him for being inadequately committed to killing evildoers, but not the opposite -- it would ring totally false coming from them. Democrats are sandal-wearing, "Kumbaya"-singing hippie wusses -- full stop. It's the only message Republicans have on the subject -- so he gets a free pass, even if mires us hopelessly in this conflict. They're not going to go peacenik overnight.


UPDATE: Am I being too quick to dismiss the possibility that Afghanistan could be Obama's Vietnam? The mainstream press is certainly gearing up to write the story that way -- yesterday's Times reported that Afghan soldiers just aren't that into our war, while today's big Times story on Afghanistan is "U.S. Military Says Its Force in Afghanistan Is Insufficient." The latter story is eagerly linked by ("Obama's Viet Nam looms") and by Drudge -- but there still doesn't seem to be a glib message on the right framing the issue.

The Afghanistan headline from last week's Washington Post/ABC poll was, as AP reports, that "Just over 50 percent of respondents ... said the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting" -- but if you look at the numbers, it was a huge muddle: yes, 51% said the war was not worth fighting," but 60% of respondents approve of Obama's approach to Afghanistan (barely down from 63% in April and much better than his numbers on any domestic issue), and 51% of respondents say the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan should either stay the same or be increased.

So he's got a reserve of public support. And the right, after decades of Antichrist-spotting and saber-rattling, can't oppose the war in principle (although I suppose it can send a muddy, self-contradicting message, gleefully pointing out whatever liberal, moderate, and media discontent there is regarding escalation while simultaneously declaring Obama "weak").

But I think what saves him on this, for better or worse, is that the real anger on the war will come from our side, and as we've learned this summer on health care, nobody gives a crap what we think.

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