Does Jason Chaffetz’s Anti-War Stance Matter?

Jason Chaffetz, a conservative House freshman from Utah, wants U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.Here’s how Politico’s Daniel Libit writes it up:

Earlier this year, Chaffetz traveled to the region and said that, since then, he’s “become more engrossed in my conviction it is time to bring our troops home.”

“I am opposed to nation building, and I quite frankly don’t see or understand what victory looks like,” he said. “I believe, as most people do, that our military can do everything we want them to do. … But we’re asking them to fight a war that is not very well-defined. And we are asking them to do so with one hand tied behind their back.”

Chaffetz’s name has been floated as a potential conservative primary challenger to Senator Bob Bennett, and he defeated Republican incumbent Chris Cannon in a primary last year by running to the right. Yet Chaffetz also served as campaign manager and, for a brief time, chief of staff to Jon Huntsman, Utah’s moderate Republican governor who is now serving as President Obama’s ambassador to China. One of Chaffetz’s key issues was opposition to an amnesty for illegal immigrants. And like many Republicans in the Obama era, he has placed a heavy emphasis on the spending explosion. One gets the sense that Chaffetz is well within the conservative mainstream.

So what exactly is going on here? Chaffetz isn’t naive, and he is presumably very aware of the fact that his anti-war stance will draw considerable attention. My guess is that he is positioning himself for further reversals in Afghanistan. I’ve been arguing that we’re going to see a boomlet of anti-war Republicanism for a while now. In March, I thought that Mark Sanford would become its chief proponent, and I was obviously way off-base.

According to a new CBS News poll (you have to click on the PDF for the numbers), 55 percent of Republicans believe that more troops will improve the situation in Afghanistan as opposed to 23 percent of Democrats. But it’s a safe bet that Republican support for a troop surge is declining. In narrow political terms, Chaffetz could be making a shrewd calculation. He told the Politico that he thinks he will “suffer” for taking an anti-war stance. I’m skeptical. He is trying to get ahead of the curve. And he’s couched his opposition in very conservative-friendly language.

“I am opposed to nation building, and I quite frankly don’t see or understand what victory looks like,” he said. “I believe, as most people do, that our military can do everything we want them to do. … But we’re asking them to fight a war that is not very well-defined. And we are asking them to do so with one hand tied behind their back.”

I strongly support a troop surge a robust counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan and the troop surge that will require. I also don’t believe that President Obama is committed to this strategy, and that raises real questions about U.S. credibility. Strategy rests on psychology, and the Pakistanis are convinced — with good reason — that we intend to flee Afghanistan in the near future. That means they have every incentive to stick with the destructive strategy of underming Afghanistan’s central government.

Ultimately, conservatives should back the right policy rather than embrace the shrewdest political strategy. And like Bill Kristol and Fred Kagan, I believe that the right thing to do is to support the president to the extent he supports counterinsurgency. But there is a decent political and intellectual case for going down Chaffetz’s route.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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