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Ann Coulter vs. Bill Kristol: Beginnings of a Conservative Schism?

5 years ago
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Ann Coulter's recent column "Bill Kristol Must Resign" may have officially kicked off the next great schism within the conservative movement. At issue is the war in Afghanistan -- and, more specifically, whether Republicans should support President Obama's approach to a conflict that has now lasted for Americans far longer than World War II.

Mocking neoconservatives, Coulter wrote: "Bill Kristol [editor of The Weekly Standard] and Liz Cheney have demanded that [Michael] Steele resign as head of the RNC for saying Afghanistan is now Obama's war -- and a badly thought-out one at that. (Didn't liberals warn us that neoconservatives want permanent war?)"

Coulter failed at convincing Kristol to resign -- she never says from what. In fact, channeling Michael Steele, who vows to stay on as party chief, Kristol responded: "I ain't going anywhere." But she may have succeeded at advancing a major debate.

Until now, there has been somewhat of an unspoken rule, adhered to by most on the right, that conservative Republicans would vigorously oppose Obama's liberal domestic policies while supporting his efforts to win in Afghanistan. After all, Republicans had staunchly backed George W. Bush when he made the case for fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Changing course now would seem craven -- playing politics with national security. And so, in foreign policy, Obama was criticized from the right only when he appeared to be showing weakness, not when he displayed toughness.

But recent comments from Steele have sparked a debate that was probably long overdue. Notwithstanding the fact that Steele almost immediately backtracked, some conservatives began defending the substance of Steele's comments. "Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele was absolutely right," Coulter wrote. "Afghanistan is Obama's war and, judging by other recent Democratic ventures in military affairs, isn't likely to turn out well."

This is a serious point. As Politics Daily's own David Corn recently wrote:
The war in Afghanistan is President Obama's war and partly of the president's choosing. Sure, Obama inherited the conflict. Bush initiated the military action in Afghanistan after 9/11 -- and then veered into Iraq before the war in Afghanistan was resolved. Yet Obama, after much deliberation, decided to change the nature of the Afghanistan war. In December, following many weeks of review, he announced he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and he embraced the counterinsurgency plan proposed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was then commanding U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
There was always skepticism on the left about Obama's decision to escalate the war -- perhaps even to waging war there in the first place. And if the commander in chief is losing any significant portion of the right when it comes to Afghanistan, his policies could be on perilous ground.

One of the ideas advanced by Coulter is that Bush wisely kept a relatively small footprint in Afghanistan, while choosing instead to invade Iraq -- terrain more hospitable for a traditional ground war. There is some revisionism at work here, and it must be said that prominent voices, like Liz Cheney's (not to mention Gen. David Petraeus'), were raised in support of the surge in Afghanistan. Still, it's fair to broach the question raised by Steele and Coulter: Would Bush be doing anything differently today in terms of Afghanistan?

Or is Coulter's position a less high-minded one? After a decade of defending Bush's actions, and getting beat up for it, are Republicans now saying it's time for a Democratic president to get the Bush treatment?

Coulter is not the first conservative to warn that Afghanistan could turn into a quagmire. George Will and Tony Blankley have raised that very point. But Coulter has made it in a way that directly -- and personally -- challenges conservative orthodoxy. And it's catching on. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough tweeted Coulter's column out to his followers, adding, "Thank you, Ann Coulter. She speaks out against the GOP now being for permanent war. She is right."

And if conservatives are asked to choose sides between, say, the elected leader of the Republican National Committee (Steele) and the titular head of the Democratic National Committee (Obama), how many will decide that Obama's Afghanistan policies are not worth the trouble? Maybe it was unavoidable, but it does seem as if Coulter's comments today hearken back to the 1990s -- when Bill Clinton was in the Oval Office -- and conservatives criticized his efforts in places like Bosnia and Kosovo as "nation building."

Clearly, things have changed since 2008, when candidates John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and even Mitt Romney represented the mainstream viewpoint, and when Congressman Ron Paul was essentially mocked for his isolationist tendencies and his desire for a "humble foreign policy." Today, Paul's positions are enjoying resurgence, and his son, Rand Paul, is poised to be elected to the U.S. Senate. How quickly things change.

Regardless, debating this policy is healthy, and conservatives are justified to have this discussion. There are conservative arguments to be made for -- or against -- continuing the war in Afghanistan, just as I believe a principled conservative case could have been made (and was, in some quarters) against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This is a debate that conservatives, and all Americans, should keep having. War is not something to be entered into lightly; nor should support for it ever be contingent on whether the commander in chief has a D after his name, or an R.

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