Why one Democrat voted 'no' on Afghanistan 

Rep. James McGovern asks, 'What is the exit strategy?'

WASHINGTON—For Rep. James McGovern, a seven-term Democrat from central Massachusetts, the inauguration of President Barack Obama was "one of the best days of my life."

"I wake up every day thanking God that Barack Obama is in the White House, not George Bush," he says.

So McGovern was torn last week, when he rose to speak in the House of Representatives, to announce that he would not — could not — support the president's plan to send 21,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

"I'm sick and tired of wars that have no exits, deadlines or an end," an anguished McGovern said. "We owe our troops and their families much better.

"And I'm deeply concerned about how long we will be able to sustain and pay for an expanded military presence in Afghanistan. I simply want to know, 'What is the exit strategy that brings our servicemen and women home?'

"Until someone gives me a credible answer," McGovern said. "I will be voting 'no.'"

McGovern was not alone. The $96.7 billion supplemental appropriations bill passed the House on a 368-60 vote. But 51 of those "no" votes—a fifth of the president's own party in the House—came from Democrats.

McGovern's own bill to require that the administration spell out its exit strategy for Afghanistan picked up 73 co-sponsors in the days before the roll call, and several more since.

The dissent over Obama's Afghanistan policy was overshadowed by the sharp debate that day between Democrats and Republicans over the future of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In the long run, the revolt may be far more important—a clear signal that Obama needs to worry about unrest on his left, as he escalates the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.

There are many others in the Democratic majority who stuck by the president because of party, or personal loyalty, but generally agree with McGovern. They did not want to embarrass Obama in his first months in office, but they have no enthusiasm for the U.S. military build-up.

Consider these remarks by Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the Democratic floor leader for the legislation.

"This is a bill I have very little confidence in," Obey said. The situation in Afghanistan "is a mess ... and let's hope with God's help we can get out of it in a reasonably decent time."

"I want the president to get everything that he asked for, and then some, to maximize his chances for success. And that is what this bill does," Obey said. But "I frankly have very little faith that it will work."

Obey and other liberals supported the appropriation, in part because of language requiring that the Obama administration return within the year and certify that key military and political benchmarks have been reached. Without such signs of progress, the number of "no" votes in the House could soar.

In an interview this week, McGovern noted that he voted to authorize the use of force in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. And he recognizes, he said, the short-term need for the United States to provide basic security in Afghanistan.

What he won't buy, said McGovern, is the open-ended commitment that Obama is selling. The White House is saying "give us what we want, no conditions, no strings attached," he said. "But a year from now, after we escalate, we will be in that much deeper. It will be harder to get out."

McGovern, 49, is no wild-eyed radical. He has working class roots and learned the ropes in Congress by serving on the staff of the late Rep. Joe Moakley, the tough chairman of the House Rules Committee, before running for office himself. McGovern has risen quickly in the Democratic hierarchy, and is now the vice-chairman of the Rules Committee himself, a plum position for those who excel at the inside game on Capitol Hill.

The historic nature of Obama's candidacy, the end of Bush's belligerent brand of foreign policy, and the prospect of achieving health care reform and other liberal goals have filled McGovern with enthusiasm.

"I want to go along to get along. I want to be a team player. It is difficult for a Democrat to vote against a Democratic administration. I hope I am wrong," he said. "But to me these votes of war are votes of conscience."

McGovern noted that during the Bush years he had been fiercely critical of the U.S. policy on Iraq, for many of the same reasons that he now opposes Obama. He thinks the U.S. arrogantly underestimates the geographical and cultural conditions that limit American military power in that part of the world.

"How do we deal with the real issues of poverty and neglect? I do not think it is by funneling more money to a corrupt Afghan government," McGovern said.

"I am worried about the high number of civilian casualties," he said. "It makes it difficult for us to win hearts and minds. If my child dies because of a bomb, even if it is not intended for my kid, as a parent I will hate you 'til I die."

McGovern has read former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's memoir, detailing the mistakes that another Democratic administration made in the 1960s, blindly blundering into Vietnam. He finds parallels.

"You get into this kind of thing, and the more troops you commit and the more money you spend the less you can admit you made a mistake," he said. "You've spent so much you can't turn back."

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