Bin Laden's death: How anti-war members of Congress plan to take advantage.

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May 2 2011 7:44 PM

The Smell of Victory

How anti-war members of Congress hope to capitalize on Bin Laden's death.

Elsewhere in Slate, Daniel Byman analyzes the future of al-Qaida after Osama Bin Laden, John Dickerson looks at Obama's secret meetings, Annie Lowrey asks who might get the $25 million reward, and Jack Shafer says to follow the news skeptically. Dahlia Lithwick says it's time to end the war on terror, and Chris Beam explains the mood in Pakistan. For the most up-to-date-coverage, visit the Slatest. Slate's complete coverage is rounded up here

Rep. Barney Frank.

On Sunday night, Osama Bin Laden's death was announced to the world. On Monday morning, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., cut to the chase. "That's why we went into Afghanistan,"he said in an interview with ThinkProgress. "We went there because Osama bin Laden had been using Afghanistan as a base from which to murder people, in the thousands." Frank anticipated a backlash, and dismissed it immediately. "People say, well, America can't look like it was driven out with the mission not accomplished. We went there to get Osama bin Laden!"

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

As the day went on, Democrat after Democrat agreed with Frank. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who chairs the Armed Services Committee, predicted that terrorist recruits would be scared off by Bin Laden's death and that the coming troop reduction in Afghanistan— scheduled for August—could be "robust." Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., had recently failed to pass an amendment that would cut funding for the war. On Monday, he told the Huffington Post that "we ought to stop wasting our troops and our money and our lives and get out." To put it another way, the mission was accomplished.

The House Democrats who are making these points the loudest don't run anything. When Nadler's amendment came up last month, it failed, with 91 Democrats voting for it and 99 voting against it. (Seven Republicans joined the "nays.") In today's press conferences-cum-benedictions in Congress, Republican leaders did not take questions, but they subtly pushed back on any idea that the war would be drawing down.

"This makes our engagement in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan more important," said House Speaker John Boehner, "not less."


Anti-war members have one advantage, and it's a considerable one. The public is with them. Last month, a Pew Research Poll found that only 44 percent of Americans wanted troops to stay in Afghanistan "until the situation has stabilized." Fifty percent of Americans disagreed. Three years ago, when Obama was campaigning for an Afghan surge, the numbers were 61 and 32. Around the same time, a Washington Post/ABC News Poll had 64 percent of voters saying the war was "not worth fighting." That was the highest the number had ever been.

There is no candy-coating it: Support for the war has fallen off steadily. After Bin Laden, we're not likely to see a new wellspring of pro-war feeling. On Monday, war critics beat them to the punch in framing and describing what had happened in Abbottabad.

"Obviously, the operation that was successful did not require the military occupation of a nation," said Tom Andrews, the former Maine congressman who directs Win Without War. "It required good intelligence. It required the capacity to execute a precision-based operation. And it demonstrates the sort of precision needed to fight terrorism. This is coming on the eve of the decision of the president to do an accelerated transition from Afghanistan."

The advocates of a quicker withdrawal are not necessarily doves. Only one member of Congress had opposed the legislation that started the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. (That member, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Ca., said on Monday she was "hopeful these developments will help to accelerate an end to the war in Afghanistan and the implementation of a smart security strategy.") The rest of the members who are looking for an exit explain their objection in cost terms, or realpolitik terms (about the folly of remaking Afghanistan with military force and aid).

War supporters think they're engaging in realpolitik, too. The White House has not given any signal that Bin Laden's capture changes the overall strategy. As yet, no Republican who supported the war on Sunday has changed his mind.

"The other vital important reason for being in Afghanistan was to prevent the Taliban from establishing a safe haven for the al-Qaida network," said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., on Monday afternoon. "I don't think it fundamentally changes our mission in Afghanistan, just as it doesn't change the fundamental mission of al-Qaida."

But go back to the way Barney Frank described the war. What was the mission of the war, and what's been the lesson of it? The Afghanistan hawk's case would have been easier to make had Osama Bin Laden been caught in the country. He wasn't. Afghanistan didn't remain a "safe haven" for him—he found a safe haven in an ally of the United States, one that collects $3 billion of foreign aid every year.

The debate on Afghanistan was likely to heat up in July. It will probably pick up sooner than that. On Thursday, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., and other war skeptics will begin another attempt to scale back war funding with new legislation.

"Our reaction to the death of Bin Laden should be that we declare victory," said Jones on Monday. "I think this changes the whole dynamics of the war on terrorism. Let's go after them. Let's not occupy a country for 10 years for nothing but a waste of lives."

Their opponent are stuck with an old script. They have a brand new one. Go ahead and call them defeatists, because they'll tell you they're celebrating victory.

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