This article originally appeared at The Nation on May 26, 2011.
Update, 2:11pm: The House turned down the McGovern amendment on a close partisan vote this afternoon, 204-215. While 178 Democrats supported the measure, only 26 Republicans joined them, erasing any possibility of a bipartisan consensus to leave Afghanistan. The vote, however, is the strongest yet for McGovern’s initiative and sends a united Democratic message to the president.
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The Republican-controlled House will vote today on a measure by Jim McGovern encouraging the Obama administration to accelerate a timetable for troop withdrawals and an exit plan from Afghanistan.
On the surface, the proposal says little of substance. But a drama is unfolding in the shadows of American politics. If the measure receives a majority, or significant support from Democrats and Republicans, it may provide political cover for a significant troop withdrawal beginning in July. McGovern says that if his measure “gets a decent vote, it provides some wind at [Obama’s] back. Then, come July, he can do more than a token withdrawal.”
The politics at stake were foreshadowed in 2009, as described in Bob Woodward’s eye-opening book Obama’s Wars.
Since the book was published, hawkish Republicans have taken over the House, spoiling whatever earlier strategy may have existed among Democrats. But the effort to call for a timeline “from the Hill” is moving ahead.
That may explain why the amendment itself is so empty of substance, making an affirmative vote easier to cast for politicians worried about rising antiwar sentiment in their districts. The measure calls for setting a withdrawal timeline without including any proposal. In fact, the president already has set a withdrawal deadline for combat troops in 2014, dependent on conditions on the ground. The McGovern bill doesn’t explicitly challenge that date, though it does support an “accelerated” withdrawal. The amendment also calls for reports to Congress on a diplomatic exit strategy, a step forward that reflects the reality that the United States already is stepping up efforts at peace talks with the Taliban.
McGovern is a savvy and passionate opponent of the Afghanistan war, so one might ask why he is promoting a measure so free of content. Since it’s not a matter of incompetence, the only explanation is that he simply wants to maximize the House in favor of a rhetorical blueprint. Before Obama set his 2014 timeline, earlier votes on similar McGovern measures garnered 138 House votes in 2009 and 162 last year. By stripping the concept of concrete substance, it is possible McGovern will gain enough conservative Republican and Democratic votes to approach the magic majority number of 218.
The votes will be cast Thursday.
This may be a brilliant Machiavellian tactic. But it leaves serious questions. First, a far stronger measure by Representative Barbara Lee was disallowed by the House Rules Committee from reaching a floor vote. Lee’s measure would cut war funding only to the level necessary to pay for the withdrawal of US troops. About 112 House members have been prepared to vote for the Lee measure, considered a measure of “hard” antiwar numbers. But this year, the House Rules Committee, of which McGovern is a member, in effect threw the Lee amendment under the bus. Lee was allowed instead a vote on a measure banning permanent military bases.
If sufficient Republican members support the McGovern measure, it only sets the table for an Obama decision in July that could yet disappoint activists and peace voters—not to mention the official Democratic National Committee—who are demanding rapid, significant and substantial withdrawals beginning this July. If Obama follows his centrist political philosophy, he could announce a planned withdrawal of some 33,000 troops beginning in July. The number may seem significant, but it would leave the president in two years with the same number of American troops as when he took office in January 2009, minus the surge he authorized for the past two years. That would be more than the 10,000-15,000 troops the Pentagon says it could afford to withdraw, but only half the numbers that moderate antiwar think tanks like the Afghanistan Study Group and the Center for American Progress are advocating. As for the rank-and-file peace movement demand for all troops out by 2012, that is off the table, even though the senior centrist of the US Senate, Max Baucus, just called this week for the complete removal of combat troops by the end of 2012.
In other words, McGovern’s amendment could provide some bipartisan cover for Obama to announce any troop reduction he wishes to, any exit strategy he wishes to, and take it to the voters in 2012. It could be up to the Republicans whether to join Obama removing the war from the 2012 election debate by creating a bipartisan image of peace.