Growing US war-weariness defies traditional partisan divide

(By Deutsche Welle) Conservatives and progressives in the US have become odd bedfellows as they begin to question America’s costly military interventions in the Muslim world. But Congress remains unlikely to force an end to the conflicts.

For 10 years, the United States has waged war in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq without a conclusive victory. The military interventions in Central Asia and the Middle East have cost America nearly $4 trillion (2.8 trillion euros) and the lives of over 6,000 troops. Around 225,000 people have died directly from the wars, according to a recent study by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies.

The high cost and low return on these conflicts has worn down the political will among many members of Congress who represent an increasingly war-weary public. In May, a congressional resolution calling for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan narrowly failed in the House of Representatives in a 204 – 215 vote.

The House also recently refused to authorize President Obama’s intervention in Libya for one year, although representatives shied away from defunding the operation. The vote was the first such congressional rebuff of a president since the House refused to authorize the military action in Kosovo in 1999.

And for the first time since the Vietnam War, the US Conference of Mayors – which represents more than 1,000 cities with populations over 30,000 – passed a resolution calling on Washington to “end the wars as soon as strategically possible and bring war dollars home to meet vital human needs.”

A war skepticism originally anchored in the respective poles of the American political spectrum is increasingly gaining ground in the moderate center.

“Support for the war is strongest in the middle and weakest on either extreme,” Stephen Biddle, an expert on US national security policy with the Council on Foreign Relatins, told Deutsche Welle.

“Left-wing Democrats are strongly against the war and so are right-wing Republicans. What’s taking shape is a left-right coalition against the center on the war.”

Bi-partisan frustration

As a presidential candidate, then-senator Barack Obama campaigned on the promise to end the “war of choice” in Iraq and reallocate freed-up resources to the “war of necessity” in Afghanistan.

President Obama subsequently deployed 30,000 additional troops to war-torn Afghanistan in a bid to turn the tide against a resurgent Taliban, a policy that angered many anti-war activists within his own progressive milieu.

Although historically skeptical of nation-building, traditional conservative Republicans had largely remained silent during the neo-conservative presidency of George W. Bush for fear of undermining the political health of their own party. But with Obama in office, conservative skeptics of foreign interventionism have begun to raise their voices with a new confidence.

“For many conservative Republicans Afghanistan is counterinsurgency, counterinsurgency is nation-building, nation-building is social engineering and social engineering is beyond the capacity of the state,” Biddle said.

For Republicans and Democrats across the political spectrum, the wars seemed to lose their underlying rationale with the death of al Qaeda’s leader.

“They killed Osama bin Laden and this was one of the main rationales in the War on Terrorism,” Christian Lammert, an expert on US domestic politics with the John F. Kennedy Institute at the Free University of Berlin, told Deutsche Welle.

“After killing him, this was a boost in public approval for the Obama administration. But now it’s not quite clear what’s the goal of the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in Libya.”

Libya backlash

This building frustration from the inconclusive situations in Afghanistan and Iraq boiled over into outright anger when President Obama decided to bomb Libya without congressional authorization.

The loose bi-partisan coalition that had raised reservations about nation-building in Central Asia and the Middle East now criticized Obama for violating the War Powers Act in Libya. The act is a Vietnam-era law that requires the executive branch to consult Congress 60 days after the start of armed hostilities.

The House of Representatives took the unusual step of publicly confronting the president over the intervention. An overwhelming majority of House Republicans voted against authorizing US involvement in the NATO-led Libya campaign for one year.

A staggering 70 Democrats broke rank with the White House and joined their Republican colleagues to express their reservations over America’s third intervention in a Muslim country in a decade.

Low salience

The war-weariness within the political class also resonates among the broader American public. According to recent polling data by Gallup, 46 percent of Americans disapprove of the Libya campaign, 59 percent want to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and 55 percent say it was a mistake to invade Iraq.

Negative polling and a skeptical Congress, however, are unlikely to accelerate the conclusion of America’s three wars.

“Preference and salience are divorced,” Biddle said. “The general public is increasingly skeptical that the war is a good idea but they’re not particularly engaged on Afghanistan. The war has very low salience as an issue in American politics.”

At a time when the United States faces nine percent unemployment, a $1 trillion (699 billion euros) budget deficit and a $14 trillion national debt, foreign policy is unlikely to play a significant role when voters cast their ballots.

“The truism holds true that it’s the economy stupid and this is going to be the major issue in the next election more than foreign interventions,” Johannes Thimm, an expert on US foreign policy with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Deutsche Welle.

Business as usual

According to Thimm, Congress may continue to make strong rhetorical statements against the president’s war policy, but it is unlikely to take the concrete step of assuming political responsibility by cutting funds.

“If Obama wants to continue with one or the other of these engagements, we’re not going to see Republicans or the left-wing of the Democrats force Obama to end them by not approving funds for them anymore,” Thimm said. “That has almost never happened and that’s not going to happen because it opens you up to criticism of being unpatriotic or undermining the troops.”

With the 2012 presidential elections rapidly approaching, however, the Republican candidate may seek to reinforce frustration over a gloomy economy by tapping into growing anti-war sentiment, bringing both to bear in a bid to sink President Obama’s reelection campaign.

“If a change in policy happens, it will be because a Republican nominee gets the nomination and is elected president, who has campaigned against the war,” Biddle said.

 

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