If 2009 was the year that liberal Democrats realised that President Barack Obama was more hawkish than the man they thought they had elected, 2010 will bring a bigger political adjustment. It is likely to be the year when Democrats realise that Obama, who began his campaign for president as a critic of the war in Iraq, will probably have to stand for re-election as the commander-in-chief who doubled the US’ commitment to a failed war in Afghanistan.
The question, then, is when Republicans will realise that they have more to gain by standing against Obama’s war policy than behind it. So far, Republican officials have been more enthusiastic than many Democrats about Obama’s plans for Afghanistan. They reflexively backed Obama’s announcement in early December that he would send another 30,000 troops in 2010.
It is an accident of history that Republicans have become the Party of unending conflicts abroad. George Bush had run for president in 2000 as a critic of “nation-building”, echoing the dominant voice in his Party’s post-cold war foreign policy. Throughout the 1990s, congressional Republicans were quick to attack Bill Clinton’s foreign-policy adventurism, in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Conservatives found themselves often voting for large military budgets, but treated peace-keeping and humanitarian interventions as risky big-government programmes, prompting Madeleine Albright’s famous question: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”
The more Obama focuses on the soft part of the counterinsurgency effort – civic projects to build goodwill, training local police and military – the more Afghanistan will look like the type of government programme that Republicans reflexively distrust. Washington is making large-scale investments in infrastructure and assembling a civil service, and relying on European capitals for support. If this were occurring in Vermont or New Mexico, conservatives would be taking to the streets in protest.
Indeed, right-wing opposition to Obama’s Afghanistan strategy is more likely to emerge this year from conservative activists than Republican office-holders. Even if Bush is gone from public life, the sense of fear that he instilled this decade – that the greatest political weakness is to be soft on terror – lives on. It helps explain how Obama ended up as a booster of an Afghan troop surge. And it’s why out-of-power Republicans who became national figures in 2008, for example Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, are quick to settle on the most hawkish position available on issues such as torture and Iran.
But angry Republican populists had moved on from Bush even before he left the White House. The populists are the only source of enthusiasm in the Party, and are likely to drive candidates towards their priorities. If Republicans decide to enter the 2012 campaign as the Party skeptical of bailouts for struggling industries and a broken financial sector, why should they support a multi-decade bailout for a failed state?