Afghanistan becomes flashpoint in race to oust Cheney

Nick Reynolds, via Wyoming News Exchange
Posted 9/6/21

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, has an extensive foreign policy record.

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Afghanistan becomes flashpoint in race to oust Cheney


U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, has an extensive foreign policy record.

As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, Cheney is among a small group of lawmakers with outsized influence on the Department of Defense’s purse strings. Before she ran for office, she was a ranking official in the U.S. Department of State, serving as one of the Bush Administration’s top diplomatic officials at the height of America’s wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, played a major role in the United States’ presence in the region. She has maintained a preventionist stance on Afghanistan in the years since, stating that the United States presence in the country is necessary to prevent a resurgence in terrorist activity from groups like the Taliban. 

Now, as fallout mounts around the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan — and the death of a Marine from northwestern Wyoming who was killed last week in Kabul — some of Cheney’s political opponents are wielding her foreign policy record against her.  

Wyoming Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne — the fundraising leader among Cheney’s challengers in the U.S. House race — has referred to Cheney as a warmonger in campaign materials, and has maintained that any long-term military engagement in the region was a mistake. Wyoming Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, blamed Cheney directly for the scenario in Afghanistan, saying in a statement that she “and other radical socialists” undermined former president Donald Trump’s efforts to negotiate with the Taliban last year.

“The Taliban would not have double-crossed President Trump, because they understood he would not allow it,” Gray wrote in a statement. “What happened in Afghanistan is another result of Cheney voting to impeach President Trump to strengthen Biden and Pelosi.” (Gray declined to be interviewed.) 

Through it all, Cheney has remained steadfast, insisting withdrawal — while politically popular — was a losing strategy. “You don’t end wars by surrendering,” Cheney tweeted earlier this week.

Cheney has blamed both Trump and President Joe Biden for a withdrawal strategy that resulted in the Taliban-led takeover of the country and the deaths of hundreds, including 13 Marines. One of those troops, 20-year-old Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum, hailed from Bondurant. She has also supported the idea of leaving a limited force of American troops in the country to stabilize relations there, a plan advocated for by many former members of the Bush administration.

“Allowing our policy to be set around political slogans is extremely dangerous,” Cheney said during a Q&A at the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco on Aug. 17. “We’ve had now three presidents essentially — Obama, Trump and now Biden, all of whom said ‘oh we have to end the endless wars.’” (Cheney was not available for an interview for this story.)

“Our leaders should have done a better job at explaining to the American people why we need to deploy and why [a troop presence] is important for counterterrorism efforts and our counterintelligence efforts,” she added. “The notion that you’re going to simply announce ‘we’re withdrawing’ was wrong. I think it reflects a misunderstanding about America’s role in the world.”

Using Cheney’s foreign policy track record against her is nothing new. Opponents from Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz to former President Donald Trump have painted the Cheney family as the symbol of America’s modern foreign policy failures, and have attacked her stances as Democrats and Republicans alike began to sour on “forever wars” like the 20-year conflict in Afghanistan.

Some, like Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, have alleged Cheney worked to undermine Trump’s de-escalation efforts, though those allegations have since been debunked.

Among her challengers, the positions on America’s role in the country vary widely. 

Denton Knapp, an army veteran who served at Bagram Air Base near the Afghan capital of Kabul, has focused his public criticisms on the Biden administration while defending Cheney’s position. Knapp, like Cheney, has also expressed support for a limited troop presence in the country for counterterrorism efforts.

The two differ on one key point, however: Knapp does not blame Trump’s pledge to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by May 1 for the chaos surrounding America’s exit from the country.

“I think [the Taliban] knew very clearly from our State Department as well as with Trump as Commander-in-Chief that they could not do what they did this past week while Trump was president,” Knapp said.

Foreign policy can be a touchy topic for candidates trying to align themselves with the former president, who earned a higher percentage of the vote in Wyoming than in any other state. Cheney challenger and Cheyenne attorney Darin Smith, for example, faced early attacks in Wyoming and in the conservative press for statements he made during his 2016 Congressional bid regarding American intervention overseas, in which he appeared to criticize Trump’s calls to withdraw from the Middle East.

Smith, who did not respond to several interview requests, later challenged that narrative in a statement on his website.

The diversity of perspectives in the race help to illustrate the conservative movement’s evolving view of American involvement in foreign countries, according to University of New Haven political science professor Chris Haynes, who studies political framing and public opinion. Once a minority opinion in Republican politics, anti-interventionism grew into a mainstream facet of conservatism with the rise of candidates like libertarian Ron Paul and later, Trump, Haynes said. 

“The traditional DNA for Republicans are to be kind of the ‘Reagan Republican,’ sort of internationalist pro-democracy, all that other stuff, but it really clashes right with Trumpism and its anti-war stance. The trend nowadays is to be pro-Trump if you’re on the Republican side just to save your own skin and to win elections, and that’s why it becomes very difficult,” Haynes said. 

The complexities are enough that Bouchard wonders whether it’s still worth running against Cheney on Afghanistan policy. 

“It’s not even an issue,” he said. “People are done listening to her. She’s been part of the problem. Her dad’s been part of the problem … The Democrats used to hate Dick Cheney. And I was on the same side as Democrats. Now everything is flip-flopped around. I can’t make sense of what the Democrats are thinking.”

Haynes said running on foreign policy may not be a worthwhile strategy for the candidates. At this point, he said, Biden’s sliding poll numbers are likely attributable to temporary distaste from Democratic voters, and that Afghanistan policy is unlikely to play a significant role in Republican races.

Then again, Haynes said, the current political climate is unprecedented in American history. It remains to be seen if Cheney’s ideological view of America as the “world’s policeman” is one that aligns with that of a plurality of conservative voters, he said.

“[Some Republican candidates] are willing to bend or reshape what conservatism used to be as long as they can win,” Haynes said. “Liz Cheney is not willing to do that, and we’ll see at the end of the day whether her principled approach is going to get her kicked out of office, or whether her movement either grows or gets completely overwhelmed by the more pragmatic approach.”

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