The Magazine

A War President and His Party

Will Democrats be able to keep from criticizing Obama on Afghanistan?

Dec 14, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 13 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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The attacks of 9/11 opened a new phase. As with the assault on Pearl Harbor, Democrats and Republicans joined together almost unanimously in support of military action. The Democrats' backing of the Afghan war resolution must be taken at face value; at the same time, given the party's history, it is impossible not to wonder whether Democrats would have "stayed the course" under a Republican president if the Afghan war had proven to be as hard and as bloody as many predicted. In the event, a quick initial victory in Afghanistan mooted this point. President Bush followed the success in Afghanistan with a policy designed to eliminate the threat posed by Iraq, which led to the fateful decision to launch a second war in the region. Republicans supported the president, while Democrats were split, with a majority of Democrats in the House opposing war and a majority in the Senate in favor.

When the Iraq war turned out to be far more difficult than expected, another peace movement emerged with strong roots inside the Democratic party. Just as the presidential nomination campaign of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 showed where the heart of the Democratic party resided, so the campaign of Howard Dean in 2004 did the same thing. Under the pressure of this campaign, Democrats who had supported the Iraq war began to peel away. Some, like John Edwards, asked for penance, while others, like John Kerry, the eventual nominee, adopted the undignified pose of claiming that they had never really voted for war. Only a few, like Joe Lieberman, stayed the course, the penalty for which in Lieberman's case was being chased from his party.

Today the character of the Democrats is again being put to the test. The party nominated a candidate who, though he ran as a dove in regard to Iraq, must be described as a hawk in regard to Afghanistan. Whatever Democrats themselves have thought of the Afghanistan war, or whatever some may have cynically surmised that Obama really thought about it, the party gave Barack Obama its nomination and backed him overwhelmingly in the election. Is it possible even to imagine that Democrats would, in large numbers, turn once again on their own president? Obama may not think so, but he undoubtedly knows enough about the character of the peace movement--many of its members are, or soon will have been, his closest friends and most ardent supporters--to have his doubts. Perhaps with this thought partly in mind, he offered a strategy in his address that looked more like the artful threading of a needle than a preparation for the rough and tumble of history: enough force to win a quick war coupled with a public deadline (subject to revision) for pulling out.

Will Democrats in fact "hold" if events prove to be more difficult than the best estimates now expect? Obama could of course try to fight the war by relying mainly on Republican support, with a part of his own party added on to make up a majority. It would be a cross-party coalition similar to the one President Clinton put together for some of his greatest achievements, including the passage of NAFTA. But no president in American history has ever fought a war on this basis, and if Obama ends by going this route, it will entail some serious changes. The president cannot expect to dismiss a party whose support he will desperately need, and Republicans will rightly demand a greater voice in setting the nation's affairs, which they may earn in any case over the next year. But with this challenge might also come an opportunity for Obama to become by necessity what he promised he would be by choice: a -postpartisan president.

During the last administration many in the media adopted the peace movement's rhetorical ploy of referring to the Iraq war as "Bush's war," despite its full legal sanction by a vote of Congress. For consistency's sake, a few newspapers--the Washington Post among them--began this spring to refer to Afghanistan as "Obama's war." This is a most unfortunate, and inaccurate, characterization. It is time to call the war what it is: America's war.

James W. Ceaser is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of politics at the University of Virginia.