Norquist: It’s time to consider leaving Afghanistan

Republican activist Grover Norquist is calling for a “conversation” among conservatives on the possibility of withdrawing from Afghanistan. Norquist, the influential founder of Americans for Tax Reform, told attendees at a dinner hosted by the New America Foundation’s Steve Clemons last week that, given the war’s enormous price tag, it was time to consider leaving.

“The benefits have to be looked at in comparison with the costs and vice versa,” Norquist said in an interview with The Daily Caller. “What’s [the Afghan war’s] cost, what’s it do for us. And that conversation, both sides of that conversation need to be in the mouth of everybody who discusses this, either by saying ‘good idea let’s keep going’ or ‘it’s a bad idea and let’s change our policy’, they need to look at both the costs and the benefits.”

Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, called Norquist’s position “laughable.” In an article for Commentary magazine, Boot wrote that Norquist is advocating “a line of argument, which if followed to its natural conclusion, should also have led us to pull out of World War II while Hitler or Tojo were still in power or to end the Civil War while Jefferson Davis still ruled the South.”

Norquist said Boot’s comments underscore the need for a real debate on America’s strategy in the Af-Pak theatre. “Ok, people for whom everything is World War II haven’t read much history. Because they have no other analogies other than things they have seen from World War II movies,” he told me. “There’s got to be a better case for what we’re doing in Afghanistan than Max Boot’s. Somewhere. ‘Shut up’, he argued. It’s, you know, it’s embarrassing.”

At the same time, Norquist insisted that he is not calling for America to pull out of the war – at least not yet. “I see enough to say that I think about it, and that’s what I’ve tossed out there,” he said. “There are guys who do this for a living, and they’re focused on it, who have strong criticisms of the status quo in different places. I’m very comfortable saying this is not for free and that the benefits are not clear to me. Could we have a conversation about the cost, and please make the benefits clear to me and others?”

“When somebody says ‘I don’t want to have a conversation about this costs, I don’t want to have a conversation about what the benefits are, I surely don’t want to be asked what the point of this is’…I think they have a weak case, because I do other things in life, right? But [proponents of the war] are focused on this all day. They think they have a weak case, and that’s scary, that’s frightening. I just think we ought to have a conversation.”

Norquist said he believes conservatives are sympathetic to his point of view. He points to a poll commissioned by Clemons’ Afghanistan Study Group, which states that 71 percent of self-identified conservative voters are worried about the war’s cost, including 67 percent of Tea Party supporters. When asked if they agreed with the statement “The United States can dramatically lower the number of troops in Afghanistan without putting America at risk,” 57 percent of conservatives answered in the affirmative, versus only 34 percent who disagreed.

That apparent grassroots support for re-thinking our Afghan strategy has not changed the minds of the new class of Republican and Tea Party backed senators. According to The Weekly Standard’s John McCormack, newly elected Senators Marco Rubio, Ron Johnson, Kelly Ayotte, and Pat Toomey are voicing their support for an extended U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. With that bi-partisan support, President Obama has all the political cover he needs to continue the war for years to come.

“Notwithstanding the fact that every poll says the majority of Americans have the same questions that I have [about Afghanistan],” Pennsylvania’s outgoing Democratic Governor Ed Rendell, an outspoken opponent of the war, told Salon last year. “The reason I don’t think it can become a huge liability for the president is the opposition supports the actions of the president and may actually want a more stepped up or prolonged presence.”