Barack Obama is poised to expand America's military commitment in Afghanistan, a troop-increase decision that is likely to enrage his liberal Democratic base. This strikes me as a political problem that could seriously undermine his presidency.
The first task of any chief executive is to secure the support of his followers; this is especially true if he's waging a war. That's what George W. Bush did. Six years ago, he went into Iraq to thunderous applause from his conservative Republican base — which stuck with him for years, long after it became clear that he had hyped the rationale for invasion and failed to win the peace.
By contrast, Obama's imminent dispatch of roughly 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan comes at a time when two-thirds of all Democrats are telling pollsters that the war is not worth fighting. The anti-war liberals who propelled Obama's nascent candidacy are worried that an expanded, costly war will wind up sinking his domestic agenda. Democratic strategists are worried that if the war continues to go badly even with the increase in troops (a distinct possibility), liberals might register their disgust by skipping the 2010 congressional elections, thus trimming or imperiling the Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill.
The irony for Obama is that, in the absence of Democratic support, his decision to expand the war will be applauded primarily by the Republicans; nationwide, 60 percent of Republicans are telling pollsters that the war is worth fighting. GOP leaders will probably praise Obama for giving Gen. Stanley McChrystal most of what he wanted.
Lest we forget, however, these people are not Obama's friends. Six months from now, if his benchmarks for success come up short, or if he starts talking about exit strategies, they'll quickly morph him into Jimmy Carter and deride him as a wimp incapable of command. Granted, Bush was the president who invaded the wrong country after Sept. 11 and put Afghanistan on the back burner, thus bequeathing Obama a mess with few cleanup options — but, hey, that's politics.
All the more reason why Obama needs support from his own party. Yet congressional Democrats are recoiling at the cost of an escalated conflict — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., remarked the other day that there is "serious unrest in our caucus" about whether the nation can afford this war — particularly in the wake of reports that the price tag per soldier is $1 million a year. They don't want to pay for Afghanistan if it means shelving the party's domestic agenda, so some have suggested a solution: a new tax — or "surcharge" — to help finance the wider war.
A new tax on recession-burdened Americans? To pay for a war that at this point barely musters 50 percent support in the national polls? That's a synonym for political suicide, and thus not likely to happen. But the fact that high-ranking Democrats have even floated the idea is proof of the party's restiveness. (The pro-war Republicans would never support such a move, of course. They preferred to finance Iraq in part by borrowing heavily from China.)
Obama is surely trying to chart a pragmatic, nonideological course — signaling that Afghanistan (and, most important, its impact on Pakistan) is a vital security interest, while also stressing that the wider war will not be open-ended. But he will need political strength at home to sustain his daunting mission abroad, and I question whether he can succeed if the liberal base begins to wonder whatever happened to hope and change.