With surprising bluntness, the top House Democrat on defense and appropriations is warning that President Barack Obama can’t ignore the growing “war fatigue” in Congress and must consider steps to accelerate a U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Washington Rep. Norm Dicks, an early and enthusiastic supporter of Obama’s policy, told POLITICO staying in Afghanistan into 2014, as first outlined by the president, will be difficult now given the budget pressures at home and the erratic performance of the chief U.S. partners in the region: Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan.
“Between Karzai and Pakistan, I’m looking for a friend in the neighborhood, and I’m having a hard time finding one,” Dicks said. “I think the military operation has been more successful recently, but all of a sudden — when you are faced with these incredible cuts we’re making in the domestic programs and the social safety net of this country — you know, to do nation building in Afghanistan? I’m having a hard time.”
“I think it’s like $113 billion on Afghanistan, and there’s Pakistan’s situation, where we know on the border, people are coming across into Afghanistan,” he said. “It’s a serious problem. I just think that there’s a war fatigue setting in up here, and I think the president is going to have to take that into account.”
“We need to start seeing if we can do this a little faster,” Dicks said. “I think the American people would overwhelmingly like to see this brought to a conclusion sooner than 2014.”
Dicks’s comments are important because of his long record of support for Obama and special standing in Congress as the ranking Democrat on both the House Appropriations Committee and its defense panel overseeing the Pentagon budget. On an issue like the war, his opinions then carry weight with a wide range of Democrats.
“It’s a big indicator. People know him, respect him, know this is his subject area,” Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) told POLITICO. “Clearly, we are at a turning point.”
“The strongest part of his reputation is that he is an evidence-driven member. You can’t predict what he will do on something, and that is a compliment,” said Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.). “He doesn’t fall in an ideological box, and therefore, where he goes will have significant gravity.”
New 2012 war funding, chiefly for Afghanistan, began moving through Dicks’s subcommittee Wednesday. And the measure is due on the House floor late this month — just as Obama is scheduled to announce his first drawdown of forces July 1.
Within the Democratic Caucus, Dicks doesn’t yet enjoy the same gravitas as his defense predecessor, the late Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, a Marine veteran of Vietnam whose combat experience and anti-Iraq-war credentials helped him pull different factions together. But to lose Dicks’s support now would be a serious blow for the White House, and he is an important barometer for the party, given his daily exposure to domestic budget cuts as the top Democrat on appropriations — a post Murtha never held.
In the long and often bitter House debate over Iraq, Dicks never embraced the “anti-surge” posture of many Democrats, and when Obama began in 2009 to greatly expand the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan, Dicks was bullish, even allowing that other nations would want to partner with the U.S. so as to be on the cutting edge of anti-insurgency tactics.
“I told everyone who would listen, ‘Don’t bet against the surge,’ because I felt, having gone over there, that this surge would work and we ought to be very careful,” Dicks said in an interview 15 months ago. “As it turned out, that was correct. I’ve made a lot of other decisions that haven’t always been correct. On that one, I feel good, … and I feel the situation in Afghanistan also has a chance to turn around.”
It was important last week when Dicks quietly sided with anti-war forces in backing an amendment demanding that Obama come up with plans this summer to accelerate the withdrawal and pursue a negotiated settlement with “all interested parties” in Afghanistan, including the Taliban.
The White House was largely dismissive, but the amendment only narrowly failed, 215-204, and came within a few votes of being an embarrassing rebuke for the administration.
Twenty-six Republicans joined the effort, and for the first time, Democrats appeared to have found some unity in their stance on the war, with only eight voting in opposition.
Dicks’s shift was a big part of that picture. He did not speak in the debate and ducked press inquiries later but agreed to talk briefly Wednesday off the floor of the House.
“I think there are a lot of people changing their minds, and if this thing had had a little more time, it may have well passed,” he said. “The mentality is settling in.”
Indeed, at the White House on Thursday, the same vote on Afghanistan was raised by Democrats with the president. Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, the chief sponsor, made the point that 97 percent of Democrats had backed his language, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also spoke to the issue.
“I don’t think they’re going to be dismissive,” Andrews said, describing the exchanges. Pelosi “mentioned it today pretty emphatically. The 97 percent number is pretty impressive, and people like Norm Dicks and people who are pro-defense-type Democrats, [that’s] pretty impressive.”
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