The Dutch government is the Afghanistan War’s latest casualty. When the Labor Party recently exited the Netherlands’ ruling coalition government to protest the extension of the Dutch deployment in Afghanistan, the Taliban rejoiced. Perhaps you thought I meant Afghanistan’s Taliban. No, I meant the Taliban in the Netherlands. Never heard of it? It’s the “Freedom Party,” and it’s poised to become a top vote-getter in the elections scheduled for early June because of the ruling coalition’s collapse.
Freedom Party 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 across Europe–is just as intolerant and narrow-minded and xenophobic as the radical Islamists it dislikes so much in Afghanistan. Both Talibans consider their own societies too tolerant. They want their religious traditions to be dominant. They disdain modern governments, but they’re happy to manipulate 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 the European left, by and large, hasn’t taken advantage of this sentiment.
The Democratic Party in our country faces a similar quandary. Obama’s Afghanistan surge rebranded the Dems, for the umpteenth time, as the war party. So where some fear to tread, others rush in boldly. Ron Paul’s anti-war message at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, for instance, helped boost him to the top of the event’s presidential straw poll.
This anti-war message will become more popular with November’s midterm elections looming. It doesn’t look like Obama will bring all combat troops home from Iraq by August. More Americans oppose the Afghanistan War than back it (52 percent vs. 47 percent, according to a recent CNN poll).
And that gap will likely widen. The Europeans–and the Canadians and Australians–are about to begin bringing their troops home. The Afghanistan War 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’s some overlap between Christian fundamentalists and anti-government extremists, but they haven’t joined hands to form a true U.S. Taliban. Unlike the Dutch Freedom Party, our Tea Party movement has not taken a prominent position on the war. So far it’s focused on a domestic message: free markets, limited government, no taxes. But there’s 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 that movement. And Ron Paul, whose presidential campaign in 2008 served as the Tea Party’s inspiration, now argues that the Republican Party is exerting a “neocon kind of influence” over the populist groundswell.
Unless the Democrats’ anti-war faction grabs the steering wheel, the peace movement stands a good chance of getting outflanked. A nativist anti-war 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 the left in general. We have to counter with a campaign that translates dollars spent on war into dollars that could be spent on jobs.
Let’s consider the Dutch political crisis as a warning. There are always people like Geert Wilders waiting in the wings. The last time 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.
OtherWords commentaries are free to re-publish in print and online — all it takes is a simple attribution to OtherWords.org. To get a roundup of our work each Wednesday, sign up for our free weekly newsletter here.