Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- If Michael Steele's latest gaffe -- criticizing the conflict in Afghanistan as "a war of Obama's choosing" -- was a test, Republicans generally passed it.

It must have been tempting for GOP leaders to join Steele in piling on an increasingly unpopular president, conducting an unpopular war, in the midst of a controversial troop escalation. But Steele was joined in his criticism only by professional provocateur Ann Coulter, locating both on a tiny island of anti-Obama wackiness.

Contrast this to 2007, when an increasingly unpopular president, conducting an unpopular war, in the midst of a controversial troop escalation, was set upon by most of the Democratic Party establishment. Majority Leader Harry Reid declared the Iraq War "lost." After the Iraq surge clearly had begun to work, Sen. Barack Obama proclaimed "the surge has not worked." Sen. Joe Biden called it "a tragic mistake." Rep. Nancy Boyda, D-Kan., walked out of a meeting of the House Armed Services Committee because she could not stand to hear a witness report good news from Iraq.

Had it prevailed, this gleeful defeatism would have led to an evacuation of American credibility even more damaging than Vietnam. But though partisan pessimism did not prevail in Iraq, it still managed to be politically destructive. Talk of Bush's war -- or Obama's war -- hints at a hopefulness that America might fail in order to demonstrate a political point. This is the most extreme sort of polarization -- one so intense that it overwhelms normal patriotic sentiment. It may be leaders who begin and conduct wars, but whole nations win or lose them.

The largest challenges to Obama's Afghanistan strategy -- apart from those on a very difficult Asian battlefield -- are internal.

Obama's national security team -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Adm. Michael Mullen, Gen. David Petraeus -- could hardly be stronger. James Mattis, the newly appointed head of Centcom, is a Marine of reassuring Marineness. "Marines don't know how to spell the word 'defeat,'" he explains.

But last week, Vice President Biden appeared at a fundraiser for one of the least responsible critics of the Afghanistan War, Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore. -- among a handful of House members who voted to defund the war entirely. "I encourage you, old buddy, to speak out," said Biden. "You're independent. Don't let anybody take that out of you." Is it possible to imagine Biden saying the same thing of a Democrat who is a leading climate science skeptic? Or a Democrat who dismisses Obama's health reform as socialism?

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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