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Grover Norquist Calls for Conservatives to Rethink Afghanistan

Local residents look at burning oil tankers carrying fuel supplies for NATO forces, caused by a militant attack near Jamrud, in the Khyber tribal region along the Afghan border, Monday, Dec. 20, 2010. AP/ Amir Zada

Prominent conservative Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, is appealing to conservatives to rethink the war in Afghanistan - in part because of its impact on the national debt and deficit.

At a private dinner this week, Norquist reportedly argued that the attention and resources required to continue the war in Afghanistan are weighing the nation down. Norquist said conservatives need to have an honest discussion "about the vast expenditures of cash, the vast expenditures of other people lives, and the opportunity cost" of the war, the Huffington Post reports.

"It seems to me that it has been more expensive than not," he said. "And it has made America weaker than otherwise."

House Republicans are promising to cut $100 billion from the federal budget in 2011 but have maintained they will leave defense spending untouched. The GOP says it will reduce spending to 2008 levels but has offered few specifics in terms of which particular programs to cut.

At this week's dinner, hosted by the left-leaning New America Foundation, Norquist queried, "If you don't take $10 billion out of the occupation of Afghanistan, you're going to take it out where?"

Norquist reportedly stopped short of calling for a withdrawal from Afghanistan, but he said he wanted to "start a discussion" about it.

"I'm confident about where that conversation would go," he said. "And I think the people who are against that conversation know where it would go, too."

Norquist said that the widespread support for the war among conservative leaders and pundits does not reflect the opinions of grassroots conservatives.

The Afghanistan Study Group, which is supported in part by the New America Foundation, released a survey of conservatives supporting Norquist's argument. It showed that 57 percent of conservative respondents, including 55 percent of self-identified Tea Party members, agreed with the statement: "The United States can dramatically lower the number of troops and money spent in Afghanistan without putting America at risk."

At least one Tea Party leader has expressed sentiments at least somewhat in line with Norquist's assertions. Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler told Hotsheet last week that Congress should reduce government spending to 2000 levels -- and that "everything should be on the table," including defense spending. Meckler said the Tea Party typically does not take positions on foreign policy but that all policies that cost money deserve scrutiny, and defense spending "is not any less on the table than welfare spending."

The U.S. military budget stood at $370 billion in 2000, the Afghanistan Study Group, which opposes the war, points out in a new report. Just last month, Congress approved a new Defense Department budget of $725 billion. It includes $158.7 billion allotted for overseas combat, or about $3 billion a week for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While the Obama administration, specifically Vice President Joe Biden, has promised to have combat forces out of Afghanistan "come hell or high water" by 2014, it's unclear how long the United States will have some kind of military presence in the country. Biden this week told leaders in Afghanistan, "We are not leaving if you don't want us to leave." He's likened the administration's plans for Afghanistan to those for Iraq, where about 50,000 troops remain even though combat operations ended last August.

During this week's dinner, Norquist reportedly contrasted the ongoing war in Afghanistan, which has so far lasted more than nine years, with President Ronald Reagan's actions in Lebanon in the wake of the 1983 murder of 241 Marines in Beirut.

"Reagan didn't decide that the U.S. should stay in Lebanon for 15 years," he said, as Foreign Policy Magazine reports. "We left that country to have their civil war all by themselves."

Clearly, many conservatives disagree with Norquist that the ongoing war may not be worth the cost. Max Boot of the conservative Commentary magazine called Norquist's anti-war efforts "laughable" and took issue with Norquist's citation of Lebanon specifically.

"Perhaps he is not aware that this incident was routinely cited -- along with the U.S. pullout from Somalia in 1993 -- by Osama bin Laden in the 1990s to justify his belief that the U.S. was a 'weak horse' that could be attacked with impunity," Boot writes. "Note to Grover: Even the great Ronald Reagan was not infallible."

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