Amid a series of bloody and troubling episodes in Afghanistan that have inflamed Afghan opinion against the United States, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are now calling for a reassessment of American policy there — suggesting that it may be time to withdraw troops sooner than the Obama administration has planned....
Mr. Romney has said he would rely on advice from military commanders for his Afghanistan policy, adding last summer that it was “time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, as soon as our generals think it’s O.K.” He has also said he would not negotiate with the Taliban.
“He’s definitely given himself wiggle room,” Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, said of Mr. Romney’s policy toward the country.
What’s more clear, Mr. Drezner added, is growing public opposition to a conflict some once described as “the good war.”
“There’s no question that there has been a rising tide of, ‘Why are we in this conflict now,’ ” he said. “And so as much as Republicans might want to sound hawkish, it’s tough to sound hawkish on a conflict where your rationale for being there has evaporated.”
“That said,” he added, “remember that these guys are fighting for hard-core G.O.P. primary voters,” some of whom believe the United States should fight until victory. (emphasis added)
To elaborate on my point here -- American public opinion on wars is a fickle thing when it comes to war. By and large, the primary metric that Americans use to gauge their support for military statecraft is whether the operation appears to be successful. There's a "halo effect" comes from successful uses of force - they are deemed successful regardless of public attitudes prior to and during the conflict. In the case of the 2011 Libyan intervention, for example, A July 2011 CNN poll found 35% support for U.S. military action, with 60% opposed. A month later, with the fall of Tripoli, 54% supported the operation and 43% opposed it. Military victory can create its own supporters.
So, when a conflict drags on, Americans tend to split into two camps -- those that write off the possibility of victory and demand an immediate termination to the conflict, and those that want to double down to achieve victory -- but will favor withdrawal if a "surge" or other strategy to fight the war more aggressively is off the table. This split was observed in Vietnam, in Iraq, and Afghanistan. What's happening in Afghanistan right now is that the hawkish camp is starting to conclude that the gloves aren't coming off -- and therefore withdrawal is better than the status quo. Gingrich and Santorum are just following that shift in public opinion.
Since they're not gonna win, they have that luxury. Presidents and possible future presidents have additional constraints. Even if withdrawal is the right political and strategic move, there are other considerations -- alliance politics, exiting in as non-chaotic a manner as possible, and so forth. This is why Romney, who will likely get the GOP nomination, issued his wiggle-room-statement.
The same goes for the Obama administration's response, as today's broadsheets are a bit unclear about next steps. The New York Times story is headlined, "U.S. Officials Debate Speeding Afghan Pullout," while the Washington Post goes with "Despite challenges in Afghanistan, U.S. determined to stick to exit strategy."
Bear all of this in mind, by the way, as the debate about what to do on Iran continues. I know the polling appears to show majority support for military action against that country's nuclear program, but there are some significant caveats:
1) It's a bare majority;
2) The moment a "diplomatic and economic action" option is introduced, support for force collapses down to the teens;
3) The polls are based on Iran going balls out to develop a nuclear weapon -- which, according to U.S. intelligence, is not necessarily occurring; and
4) It's not going to be hard for doves to bring up Afghanistan and Iraq as a way to blunt any enthusiasm/expectation for a quick strike.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.