Who knew Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter would emerge as one of the most vocal opponents in the Senate of the President's military escalation in Afghanistan?
But so it is. In an op-ed this week in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Specter not only challenges the "surge"; he also challenges fundamental premises of the war. Specter writes:
I'm opposed to sending 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan because I don't believe they are indispensable in our fight against al Qaeda.
But if al Qaeda can organize and operate out of Yemen, Somalia or elsewhere, then why fight in Afghanistan, which has made a history of resisting would-be conquerors - from Alexander the Great in the 3rd century BC, to Great Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to the former Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s?
What can one Senator do? Well, one Senator can introduce legislation, for starters. At this writing, there isn't a single piece of legislation before the Senate that expresses opposition to continuing the war indefinitely. This is in marked contrast to the House, where Representative McGovern's bill requiring the Pentagon to present Congress with an exit strategy from Afghanistan has more than 100 co-sponsors. That's like having 23 Senators.
But Arlen Specter is in a unique position to do much more than introduce legislation. He could turn his Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary into a referendum on the Afghanistan war, because his primary opponent, Joe Sestak, supports the war and supports the escalation:
President Obama has presented a plan that will allow us to finally complete a mission that is as indispensable today as it was eight years ago: the elimination of the Al Qaeda terrorists who struck us on 9/11," said Joe Sestak.
Which is, of course, total sophistry. The goal of the escalation, as stated by U.S. officials, is to "degrade" the Taliban insurgency, not "eliminate Al Qaeda;" and there is zero probability that military escalation in Afghanistan will "eliminate Al Qaeda."
If the Pennsylvania Senate primary became a referendum on the Afghanistan war, that could have national effects, emboldening Congressional Democrats to oppose the war more forcefully. There is an important, recent, and relevant precedent: Ned Lamont's primary against Joe Lieberman in Connecticut in 2006, which Lamont turned into a referendum on the Iraq war. I can report from direct personal experience - I was a volunteer for Lamont - that actual Connecticut primary voters told me on their doorstep that they were voting for Lamont because it was a referendum on the Iraq war, and they knew the whole country was watching. And when Lamont defeated Lieberman in the primary, it helped change the national discussion among Democrats about Iraq, and establish "out of Iraq" as the Democratic position.
Of course, Lamont had one advantage over Specter - he was an unknown commodity, so he could define himself as the anti-Iraq war candidate. Specter has a long history in Pennsylvania politics, and no doubt many Pennsylvania voters identify him with various grievances. For example, he alienated many in Pennsylvania labor by waffling on the Employee Free Choice Act (although he could still fix that by coming back to Jesus.)
But what if peace activists in Pennsylvania took this up as their cause? "Vote Specter for Peace," their 30-second TV ad could say. If we're going to end the war, some Pennsylvania peace activists might need to engage in some single-issue voting. If you look at how the Israel lobby or the gun lobby or the anti-abortion lobby have influence, it's not by their members saying, "Well, so-and-so isn't good on our issues, but he's good on other issues, so I'm going to vote for him anyway." They have influence by rewarding their friends and punishing their enemies. As they say in the labor movement, the women's movement, and the civil rights movement: "We have no permanent friends, and no permanent enemies. We only have permanent issues." Right now, Arlen Specter is a friend of the peace movement, because he's supporting the peace movement's permanent issue: opposing the Afghanistan war. Let's reward our friend Arlen Specter - and use his candidacy as a hammer to end the war.