Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist said he wants to build a center-right coalition to advocate for considering pulling out of Afghanistan in order to save the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars being spent there.
As the United States grapples with the government's fiscal crisis, the huge investment in Afghanistan just isn't wise, Norquist argued at a private salon dinner in Washington on Tuesday evening to a group of foreign-policy minded academics and journalists. He also pointed to the opportunity cost of devoting so much national attention and resources to Afghanistan, which takes focus away from other international challenges.
Norquist teamed up with New America Foundation foreign policy chief Steve Clemons, who organized the dinner, to present his case. Clemons's own effort to publicize the costs of the war, as detailed in the report of the Afghanistan Study Group he helped to lead, dovetails nicely with Norquist's beliefs.
"The U.S. interests at stake in Afghanistan do not warrant this level of sacrifice," the report states, estimating the price tag of continuing the strategy put forth by President Barack Obama at about $100 billion per year.
Norquist, who said his career in politics began with an interest in foreign affairs, noted that $100 billion is exactly the amount some are calling for to be cut from the defense budget.
Clemons is set to release new polling data that he says shows conservatives around the United States support scaling back the Afghanistan mission. The poll, which is based on interviews with 1,000 conservative voters on Jan. 4-10, was conducted by Third Eye Strategies on behalf of the Afghanistan Study Group.
According to the poll, 57 percent of conservative respondents, including 55 percent of self-identified Tea Party members, agreed with the statement: "The United States can dramatically lower the number of troops and money spent in Afghanistan without putting America at risk."
71 percent of conservatives and 67 percent of Tea Partiers said they were "very worried" or "somewhat worried" that the costs of the war in Afghanistan will make it more difficult to reduce the deficit and balance the budget over the next decade.
Less than half of the respondents said that, all things considered, the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting, and two-thirds said that the United States should either reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan or leave the country altogether.
"According to findings, conservative Americans worry that the substantial annual costs of the Afghanistan War will make it much more difficult for the U.S. to reduce the deficit and balance the federal budget by the end of this decade," a press release about the poll stated. "Also, more conservatives believe the war has been worth the costs sustained thus far than those who believe the war has not been worth it."
Throughout the dinner, Norquist repeatedly invoked former President Ronald Reagan, whom he said reacted appropriately to past terrorists attacks, such as the 1983 murder of 241 Marines in Beirut, but didn't commit the United States to a protracted occupation of that country.
"Reagan didn't decide that the U.S. should stay in Lebanon for 15 years. We left that country to have their civil war all by themselves," Norquist said.
Norquist also repeatedly referred to those on the right that have advocated for continued and increased investment in the Afghanistan mission, "such as Irving Kristol's son," a reference to Weekly Standard founder William Kristol. Norquist said that despite the fact these voices dominate the debate on the right about Afghanistan, their commitment to extending the war doesn't represent the true feelings of grassroots conservatives.
When pressed, Norquist declined to call for a withdrawal from Afghanistan outright. Rather, he said, he wants to "start a discussion" about leaving Afghanistan among the "center-right," and educate the conservative masses about the costs of the war in the hopes of shifting conservative public opinion.
When Clemons was asked how he thought withdrawal advocates could convince those on the right who argue for continued war in Afghanistan on moral or ideological grounds, he said, "I don't want to convince them, I want to beat them -- or at least compete with them -- in the debate."
Attendees at the dinner included retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, former Bush White House staffer and New America Fellow Jim Pinkerton, the Council on Foreign Relations' Charles Kupchan, the Nixon Center's Paul Saunders, the Atlantic Council's Ian Brzezinski, and many others.