When President Obama expanded the Afghanistan war a year after taking office, Republicans fiercely criticized his deadline to bring troops home. But his decision on Wednesday to accelerate their withdrawal came with few reprisals, a sign of a remarkable shift in the politics of war.
The president, who addressed the nation in a prime-time speech from the White House, stopped short of declaring victory, but he suggested that the mission had been a success and that it was time to turn to a new foreign policy and to place a greater focus on domestic concerns.
A debate inside the Republican Party over Afghanistan, along with larger questions about American military engagement, has changed the political dynamic facing Mr. Obama as he prepares for re-election. He made clear that he would not be haunted, like many Democrats before him, by being cast as weak on national security. But he pledged to “chart a more centered course,” a phrase that could well serve as a metaphor for how he has sought to reset his presidency after Democrats were soundly defeated last fall.
Mr. Obama is benefiting from a confluence of factors — a rising strain of Republican isolationism, the killing of Osama bin Laden and deep concerns about spending and the deficit — which provide unexpected flexibility for dealing with Congress and selling his decision to the nation. He will test whether the post-Sept. 11 politics have changed enough to allow a Democratic president to wind down a war with little or no political peril.
“These long wars will come to a responsible end,” Mr. Obama said. “As they do, we must learn their lessons. Already this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America’s engagement around the world.”
As the nation has grown weary over the cost and toll of war, fault lines have emerged among Republicans, with the longstanding isolationist strain regaining its footing after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the adventurism of the George W. Bush era.
The aggressive posture adopted by the president, particularly in pulling out troops faster than Pentagon advisers recommended, could open a discussion in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail. Republicans now hold an array of positions, from the budget-minded focus of the Tea Party movement to the stay-the-course view of the party’s 2008 nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona, to other internationalist Republicans who fear the party has lost its way.
For the first time in generations, neither the president nor any candidates for the office have worn the military uniform. The familiar chords of patriotism may have given way to increased concerns about priorities at home.
Mr. McCain has emerged as the leading critic of Mr. Obama’s decision on Afghanistan, but his views are muted by the many Republican presidential candidates who have expressed a desire to end the war as soon as possible.
Jon M. Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor who recently stepped down as the ambassador to China, is trying to build his Republican presidential campaign around his foreign policy experience, which included positions in both Bush administrations. Four years ago, he was Mr. McCain’s co-chairman, but now is seeking to distinguish himself on Afghanistan by raising questions about whether the country can afford it.
“It is time we move to a focused counterterror effort, which requires significantly fewer boots on the ground than the president discussed tonight,” Mr. Huntsman said. Tim Pawlenty, a former governor of Minnesota, has emerged as one of the party’s few candidates who are cautioning against an abrupt withdrawal in Afghanistan. “I’m concerned about what appears to be a drift toward minimalism and isolationism inside the Republican Party,” Mr. Pawlenty said Wednesday in an interview. “But it’s really important to make sure that we finish the job correctly in Afghanistan.”
Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who has conducted focus groups to gauge public opinion of the war, said the multiple messages among Republicans would benefit Mr. Obama.
For Mr. Obama, his prime-time announcement was the latest in a series of defining moments in his presidency. Four years ago, in the early stage of his political rise, he positioned himself as a strong opponent of the Iraq war. After he took office, he began delivering on his pledge to end the war. But he chose to build up efforts in Afghanistan, infuriating many Democrats by sending 30,000 more troops.
On Wednesday night, the president found himself in a position where he could announce what has always been a priority of Democrats — and of Mr. Obama himself when he first took office: “America,” he said, “it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.” It is something that is surely going to help him with Democratic base voters who had been concerned that he had strayed too far from his promises since passing a new health care law.
Now the position is harder for Republicans to attack, since they, too, are describing the fighting in Afghanistan as an expense the country can no longer afford.
This week, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found for the first time that a majority of Americans — 56 percent — favored removing troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible, an increase of eight percentage points from a poll taken in May after Bin Laden’s death. Two-thirds of Democrats and nearly six in 10 independents support withdrawal, while 53 percent of Republicans favor maintaining troop strength — 12 percentage points lower than a year ago.
While predicting what will influence a presidential election is dicey more than a year in advance, the slow recovery and persistently high unemployment suggest that the 2012 election will be focused on the economy, not war. But the complicating dynamic for Mr. Obama is that the nearly decade-old war in Afghanistan has become an economic issue for many Americans.
“There are huge economic concerns about where the money is going, a realization that we’re basically defending the world and can’t show better results for it,” said former Senator Tom Daschle, who was the Democratic Senate leader after the 2001 terrorist attacks, when Democrats deferred to President Bush for fear of being labeled weak against terrorism. At the time, it was unthinkable in Congress or among the general public to question the war’s added cost.
“The whole burden for this has been on a very, very small percentage of people, so no one has really felt the effects of this war,” Mr. Daschle said.
Barring another major terrorist attack, Democrats say, Mr. Obama has to show at least a significant reduction in troops overseas by Election Day.
“Today’s announcement is a start, but not enough. Retaining most of our 100,000 troops in Afghanistan is simply delaying the inevitable,” said Representative Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Oregon. “Given the recent death of Osama bin Laden, our budgetary constraints and the questionable effectiveness of our nation-building efforts in Afghanistan, now is the time to begin a significant withdrawal of U.S. troops.”