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Our Taliban

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The Dutch government is the latest casualty of the Afghanistan War. Over the weekend, the Labor Party in the Netherlands walked out of the ruling coalition government to protest the extension of the Dutch deployment in Afghanistan.

The Taliban is rejoicing.

Oh, perhaps you thought I meant the Taliban in Afghanistan. No, I meant the Taliban in the Netherlands. You didn't know there was a Dutch Taliban? It goes by a different name, you see. It's the Freedom Party, and it's poised to become a top vote-getter in the elections that will follow in the wake of the ruling coalition's collapse.

The Freedom Party's leader, Geert Wilders, would violently object to his party being labeled the Dutch Taliban. He's anti-Islam, after all, and has famously called the Koran a "fascist book." But the far right wing in The Netherlands -- and its counterparts elsewhere in Europe -- is just as intolerant and narrow-minded and xenophobic as the radical Islamists it dislikes so much in Afghanistan. Both of these Talibans believe their own societies have become too tolerant. They want their religious traditions to be dominant. They share a distaste for modern governments, but they have no problem taking over those state apparatuses to impose their own values.

But here's an interesting twist. Wilders and the Freedom Party want the Dutch out of Afghanistan. It's perhaps no surprise that a populist party should adopt a popular position -- 58 percent of Dutch want out of Afghanistan, compared to only 35 percent who want to stay. It's part of a larger trend. Public opinion throughout Europe has decisively turned against the war. But it isn't the European left, by and large, that has taken advantage of this antiwar sentiment. After all, European Social Democrats -- the British Labor Party, the German Social Democratic Party, the French Socialist Party -- have been compromised by their early support of the war in Afghanistan. With the mainstream left at a disadvantage, right-wing populists like Wilders can pull a Ron Paul and capture the vaguely libertarian sentiments of a significant portion of the electorate.

The Democratic Party here in the United States is in a similar quandary. Obama's surge in Afghanistan has rebranded the Dems, for the umpteenth time, as the war party. So where some fear to tread, others rush in boldly. Ron Paul's antiwar message at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, for instance, helped boost him to the top of the event's presidential straw poll. As CPAC attendee John Basil Utley writes, there was "solid antiwar participation" at the ConCon that went beyond just Ron Paul.

This antiwar message will become even more popular as we approach the 2010 mid-term elections. It doesn't look like the Obama administration will remove all combat troops from Iraq by August after all. As for Afghanistan, the antiwar position in the United States narrowly edges out the pro-war position (52 percent vs. 47 percent, according to a late January CNN poll). But that gap will likely widen. The Europeans -- and the Canadians and Australians -- will begin to pull out their troops. The war in Afghanistan will generate more and more U.S. casualties (we just went over 1,000). A rising number of Afghan casualties - such as the 27 civilians who died in the recent airstrike on a convoy of buses -- will undercut the supposed hearts-and-minds element of the current surge. And the Democratic Party's attempt at both guns and butter will founder as surely as Lyndon Johnson's did in the 1960s.

And what about our own intolerant, racist, xenophobic, narrow-minded, religiously conservative political movement? There is some overlap between Christian fundamentalists and anti-government extremists, but they haven't joined hands to form a true U.S. Taliban. Unlike Geert Wilders' Freedom Party, the U.S. Tea Party movement has not taken a prominent position on the war. So far it has focused on its domestic message: free markets, limited government, no taxes. But there is a fight going on inside this movement. Sarah Palin, whose views on war are so naively hawkish as to earn a rebuke from none other than Dick Cheney, aspires to lead the Tea Party movement. And Ron Paul, whose presidential campaign in 2008 served as an inspiration for the movement, now argues that the Republican Party is exerting a "neocon kind of influence" over the populist groundswell.

Unless the antiwar faction of the Democratic Party grabs the steering wheel, the peace movement stands a good chance of getting outflanked. A nativist antiwar movement, which wants "our boys" back home to patrol the borders against the very people who keep our economy going, could steal the populist vote from the Democrats and from the left in general. We have to counter with a campaign that translates the dollars spent on war into dollars that could be spent on jobs.

So let the Dutch political crisis serve as a warning. There are always people like Geert Wilders waiting in the wings. Last time the Democrats screwed up so royally on a war vs. economy issue, we got Richard Nixon for nearly six years. This time around we might get something a whole lot worse.

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