Bill Kristol has spent much of the past decade warning that Democrats are dispositionally incapable of protecting the United States. But earlier this week, he seemed pleased to discover that President Obama and the Democratic Congress are not actually planning to "surrender" to al Qaeda in Afghanistan. "I'm thankful for the seriousness of all our elected representatives," he told a bipartisan assembly of elected officials and think-tank types yesterday, at the kickoff event for his new organization, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI).
Kristol and Robert Kagan--the same duo who founded the Iraq War-boosting Project For the New American Century--decided to create FPI in order to beat back what they perceive to be creeping isolationism and domestic fecklessness (defined by them as military budget cuts and troop drawdowns) in the face of existential threats. Ordinarily, one would expect a group like this to oppose President Obama, but since he unveiled his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan last week, they have become some of his biggest cheerleaders.
"What's critical about this new plan is that it's not a 'minimalist' approach," Kagan said, sitting on a panel with John Nagl and Jackson Diehl. (Other speakers included Kristol, Fred Kagan, Lt. Gen. David Barno, Dan Senor, Jane Harman, John McHugh, and--sounding more partisan than the other panelists--John McCain.) Kagan added that Obama's definition of success--which involves preventing al Qaeda from ever returning to Afghanistan--means the U.S. is committed to building a responsive Afghan state. "Obama's is a gutsy and correct decision," Kagan said,
While a few of the speakers complained that Obama wasn't expanding the Afghan national army rapidly enough, and that he wasn't speaking explicitly about the effort required to create a functional Afghan government, most thought Obama's plan near-perfect. Now, FPI members say, they believe the danger comes as much from Republicans who want to slam the president for nation-building as it does from anti-war Democrats. "I want to echo that this is a courageous and responsible policy," said former Bush adviser Ashley Tellis.
Where did this newfound bipartisanship come from? According to Senor, an FPI co-founder, the decision dates back to an unpleasant informal discussion with the House Republican leadership. The three FPI founders were promoting an alternative stimulus bill, based on military spending. "One member told me, 'We're opposing Obama on the stimulus and we don't want to distinguish between good spending and bad spending--we want to start making the case that it's all bad.' To say something like that was just incredibly irresponsible." That and other conversations with Republicans who plan to paint Afghanistan as "Obama's war" convinced the trio that "there's a huge, glaring leadership vacuum on the right." They think populist economic rage has the potential to affect foreign policy. Senor explained: "Our objective right now is to give President Obama cover in the eyes of those who would otherwise be skeptical on the right."
Which means that neocons have uprooted themselves from their post-Iraq position and planted themselves squarely in the putative political center. Or at least they've gone to lengths to make it seem that way. The FPI has all the identifiable trappings of Establishment foreign policy centrism: Gone is the stylized talk about World Domination and a New American Century; in its place is a nondescript name and a blue globe emblem that makes the organization appear like the younger cousin of the UN or CFR.
Needless to say, the transformation isn't totally convincing. Although Obama's and Kristol's interests on Afghanistan do seem to align--and they may continue to--the organization's agenda diverges on a whole host of issues including missile defense, democratization, Russia, and "rogue regimes" like Iran.
In order for the political center to coalesce around Obama's plan, the president will have to convince the American public that his effort is realistic and legitimate. It's still an open question whether FPI's cheerleading helps or hurts in that regard.