Afghanistan

Working for peace in 2011: what we’re hearing on the Hill

 

Congressional staff gathered on the Capitol steps Monday for the moment of silence honoring the victims of the Arizona shooting.

Our political team spent a couple of days last week making the rounds of key congressional offices to strategize, feel out the new political landscape, and push for action on ending the war in Afghanistan, taking further steps to eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons, and building out the development and diplomatic tools we need to deal with conflict peacefully.

Being so early in the year, and with committee assignments not even settled yet, there was still a lot up in the air. Here are a few of the interesting questions that surfaced and that will inform our organizing and lobbying in 2011.

Where will new Republicans stand on the war in Afghanistan?

Because the war in Afghanistan received little attention in the 2010 election, there is some mystery around where the new crop of Republicans stands on the war. Thus far, there have been a handful of Republicans who have spoken out or voted in favor of antiwar measures, but the opposition has been dominated by Democrats—a dynamic that has complicated our work to pressure a Democratic president to change course. Many Democratic staffers I talked to were interested in identifying and picking off some Republicans to support measures to end the war in 2011.

There are some signs that a split on the right could be on the horizon. Prominent conservative Grover Norquist recently called for debate on the right about the war in Afghanistan, implying that the conversation would likely lead to the conclusion that we should end the war. Conservative Republican Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) had this to say late last year:

“There’s a great opportunity for a Republican to distinguish themselves by taking a strong position on bringing the troops home from Afghanistan,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a strong critic of the war who has advocated — and voted for — redeployment. “It’s a very conservative position. It will unite the right and the left, and it would certainly play well to independents.”

The Afghanistan Study Group, a bipartisan group of experts calling for a scaled down approach, just released polling showing that conservatives support troop reductions.

There’s no question of where much of the Republican leadership stands on the conflict. House Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon just released a plan to scrutinize the Afghanistan strategy, including “ensur[ing] that these requirements are not negatively affected by the president’s planned troop draw-downs starting in July 2011.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell just wooed new Republican senators on a trip to Afghanistan, and they all came back calling for an indefinite commitment.

The question now is how many new Republicans will be brought into the fold by leadership, and how many will break off and join the growing number of people speaking out against the war.

Organizers and our allies on the Hill will be looking to identify potential allies on both sides of the aisle. I also heard increased skepticism from some Democratic offices who have not been willing yet to take a strong stand on the war, so we will likely see new Democratic recruits as the unpopularity of the war continues to grow.

Will Tea Party members and deficit hawks walk the walk on cutting military spending?

A lot of staffers are looking for opportunities to take advantage of the fixation on spending and the deficit. The need to scale back dominated the election debate, and reasonable people acknowledge that you can’t address the problem seriously without taking a hard look at the bloated military budget. Many people see an opportunity to unite progressives and conservatives to push for real cuts, as opposed to the $78 billion of “cuts” (largely reprogramming) proposed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

There have been some encouraging comments, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor saying military spending is on the table. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is supposedly working up a proposal to cut $500 billion that would include as yet undefined military cuts.

I remain somewhat skeptical given the willingness Republicans have shown to create giant loopholes for spending on pet projects like tax cuts for the wealthy and health care reform repeal. It is certainly worth pursuing a possible alliance, and at the very least it gives proponents of cutting the military budget a wedge to hold Republicans accountable and make an argument in what is probably the most favorable rhetorical environment for these cuts in years.

Is the “deal” for $85 billion in nuclear weapons complex funding set in stone?

While our supporters and staff worked tirelessly to ratify New START, an amazing victory for arms control in a challenging political environment, we have been clear to our supporters and to members of Congress that we strongly oppose the $85 billion in additional funding for the nuclear weapons complex that the administration offered to appease Republicans and garner their votes for ratification. Given that the administration and its Senate allies want to be seen as people who keep their promises, we wondered how much room there is to chip away at this funding, much of which is unnecessary and counterproductive.

Going after this funding will definitely be an uphill battle, but there is room to maneuver. While more than one staffer described the funding as a “bitter pill to swallow” in exchange for New START, some on the House side think appropriators will feel less obligation to uphold a deal that was made on the Senate side. With spending cuts on the horizon across the board, some thought it possible that Republican appropriators on the Energy & Water Subcommittee might be open to cuts to the nuclear budget to make room for district water projects that get them more love from their districts than funding for nuclear facilities.

There will certainly be pressure to keep the National Nuclear Security Administration funding steadily increasing, but there are members of Congress who are appalled by the exorbitant amount of money promised in the budget, which will give us opportunities to push back and make the case for specific cuts. Our first steps will be congressional education about what this funding really means, followed by grassroots pressure to spend money on priorities most beneficial to the American people.

What does the July 2011 Afghanistan transition date mean and how do we hold the Obama administration accountable?

We have been concerned about the mixed messages coming from the Obama administration about the length of the US commitment in Afghanistan—from President Obama reiterating his plan to start a transition in July of this year to Vice President Biden saying the US would be willing to stay in Afghanistan past 2014. Talking to congressional staff just emphasizes how vague the messaging has been, since I heard a variety of opinions about what July 2011 will actually mean and how significant a turning point it will be. This offers us an opportunity to have members of Congress and the public push the administration to concretely define what its plans are for Afghanistan.

Some members of Congress have already taken advantage of the July 2011 milestone as a way to hold the administration accountable and push them to actually scale down the military presence in a meaningful way, as he led many people to believe he would. Whatever the administration’s intentions in floating that date, it provides us a target for encouraging the administration to stick to that date and to build a drumbeat of support for changing course in Congress between now and then. Some of our allies will be out with legislation and other initiatives to get people on the record, and we will work to strengthen our allies’ voices and provide opportunities for people who have been quiet on the war to find their voice and create the political space for the administration to change course. With the 2012 election already looming and the war incredibly unpopular with the Democratic base (and also independents), we will have increased leverage to push on the president and members of Congress to catch up with the American people.

After surviving more than five years of working for Peace Action West under the Bush administration, I know from experience that we can have an impact even in challenging political environments. We’ll be working to use every opportunity to our advantage, and these lingering questions could resolve in interesting ways that make room for progress on peace.

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