The D.C. Examiner has a pair of op-eds on the Afghanistan war plan, and they are interesting in that they show the yawning chasm that separates the reasonably informed (and in my view correct) position of Joe Sestak and the confused argument of Jason Chaffetz. Whether or not one agrees with the war plan, there is simply no comparison between the quality of the two arguments. Sestak’s demonstrates significantly greater understanding of the region, and Chaffetz’s op-ed is scarcely more than a repetition of generic mantras that could be (and have been) applied to any and every military operation for the last thirty years. Anyone looking for a more elaborate or detailed argument than we found in the statement published on his House website, which I have already addressed here, would be sorely disappointed.
Many readers will wonder why it is even worth our time to bother with Chaffetz’s arguments. After all, he is a freshman member of the minority. Right now, he is perhaps one of the least influential figures in Washington. That misses the point. The problem with Chaffetz’s awful foreign policy views is not what they mean in the present, but what they mean for the future of foreign policy thinking on the right. As much as I disagreed with his interpretation of the significance of Chaffetz’s Afghanistan position, Reihan was right that Chaffetz really is representative of a broad swath of the Republican Party. This just happens to mean something very different from what Reihan believed it to mean.
Chaffetz’s brief political career is worth reviewing here. Chaffetz represents much of the conservative protest sentiment that has been building for the last few years. Elected just last year for the first time, he is one of the newest Republican members of the House, which means that he is not closely tied to the legacy of the Bush years. He came to office as an insurgent candidate against a Republican establishment figure. He is not tainted by voting for the Iraq war, infringements on civil liberties or bailouts. His restrictionist position helped to propel him past Chris Cannon, which served as a reminder of how far removed from their constituents some Republican politicians had become on this question. In many ways, Chaffetz is a model for conservative insurgents running in reliably Republican areas, and on many issues he should be an example of how conservatives have learned to reject the errors of the Bush administration.
As the GOP rebuilds, it seems likely that it will be producing more and more candidates like Chaffetz in its reduced core areas. This is why his awful foreign policy views are so unfortunate and in need of refutation. Like the rest of his party, he has learned nothing from the foreign policy mistakes of the last eight years, and he seems to have the same cookie-cutter, uninformed and ideological views on the subject that have dragged his party into political ruin. Unlike so many of his colleagues, Chaffetz could start fresh and pursue a different foreign policy direction unmarred by failure, but there is simply no evidence that he has the desire or the imagination to do so. Thus you get his mixture of partisan rejectionism and hegemonism all wrapped up together, which guards against acquiring a reputation of supporting a “weak” foreign policy while leaving room to oppose the administration on its most important foreign policy decision to date.
Coming back to the op-eds themselves, Sestak’s overstates the case for the plan when he conjures the specter of Pakistan’s nukes falling into the hands of jihadists, which is a scenario almost as far-fetched as the prospect of the Iranian government giving away a nuke to terrorists. Nonetheless, he is right when he stresses the importance of Pakistani stability, and he makes a plausible argument that a limited objective of improving security conditions can be reached. Sestak’s career in the Navy and his service in Afghanistan do not necessarily mean his arguments are superior, but they do lend his arguments credibility that Chaffetz cannot really match. In miniature, this Sestak-Chaffetz exchange symbolizes how much more credible rising Democratic politicians tend to be on foreign policy than their Republican counterparts.
What will be interesting to watch is how Sestak’s overall support for the war plan affects his chances against Specter in the primary next year. In his latest desperation move to save his job, Specter has embraced the progressive critique of sending additional forces to Afghanistan in an effort to win over the left of his new party despite repeatedly disappointing them on virtually every domestic issue. Even though Specter has a long record as a hawk and supporter of the war in Iraq, nothing is quite so important to him as his re-election, so this latest transformation is hardly surprising. If he had remained a Republican, he would probably now be echoing the arguments of Jason Chaffetz in equally opportunistic, rejectionist fashion to score points with conservative voters.