If you need proof that the tide has turned against the war in Afghanistan, Exhibit A is Rep. Norm Dicks of Belfair, the top-ranked House Democrat in charge of the Pentagon’s budget.
After 34 1/2 years as a congressman, Dicks, 70, has established a reputation as a hawk, usually a reliable vote in backing a war or a strong defense budget.
But now he says he’s had enough.
As more Democrats unite in pushing President Barack Obama for a quick end to the decade-long war in Afghanistan, Dicks has joined the chorus, saying the nation can no longer afford the $10 billion monthly price tag and that Congress needs to spend more at home.
“I just think that the American people would like to see this thing end sooner rather than later,” Dicks said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office this week.
Dicks, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee and the defense appropriations subcommittee, knows a thing or two about money.
As Republicans work on their 2012 spending plan, he is spending long days trying to stave off cuts that he says will hit hard at the neediest, including food aid for pregnant women and their children, financial aid for low-income college students, community development grants, food inspection programs and agencies that help the poor.
“I’ve seen more vividly these cuts that we’re making,” Dicks said.
Dicks’ change of heart is turning heads at the Capitol, with some of his colleagues citing it as a clear sign that the U.S. has reached a turning point in the war.
“People noticed,” said George Behan, Dicks’ chief of staff.
Dicks has plenty of company in the Washington state delegation.
On Wednesday, Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, along with 25 other senators, sent a letter to Obama urging “a shift in strategy and the beginning of a sizeable and sustained reduction of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan,” beginning next month.
Rep. Adam Smith of Tacoma, the ranking Democrat of the House Armed Services Committee, said Dicks has moved to a place where most House Democrats, including himself, now stand. He said Obama also wants to end the war and that the big question is whether it will end in 2014, as currently planned, or sooner.
When the Appropriations Committee met on Tuesday to take up a defense spending bill, Dicks told his colleagues that the administration “has to accelerate the withdrawal” of forces from Afghanistan. And he said the idea of funding the war at current levels for the next three years “is not going to be realistic.”
“Are we going to take care of the people who are unemployed or are we going to continue to do nation building in Afghanistan?” he asked the committee. “I think that’s a choice we’re all going to have to consider in the days ahead.”
Dicks, whose northwest Washington district includes a big military presence, said he fears that funding for homeland security will be shortchanged in the 2012 budget, leaving the country in a weaker position.
He said that a political settlement to the war, involving Pakistan, India and other countries in the region, “would be the best outcome,” and that the time to try to negotiate one is now.
“The first thing you’d want to try to get is a ceasefire. … A number of Republicans have talked with me and said, ’We’re getting to be where you are on this,’” Dicks said.
Dicks said he’s speaking out now in an attempt to influence the president, who’s expected to make an announcement next month on the size and timing of his plan to scale down the war.
Dicks said he decided it was time for a speedy exit after Osama bin Laden was killed.
“First of all, we’ve been there a long time – 10 years,” Dicks said. “And our goal was to weaken al Qaida and overthrow the Taliban who were in charge, and we have done that.”
Dicks also said that Hamid Karzai, whom Dicks has met with several times, is not “a worthy president” for Afghanistan.
“He’s condemning the United States all the time,” Dicks said. “And we’re over there spending billons trying to help him and build up his military and police force and build up his country. We’re doing a lot more there, and without any appreciation.”
For his part, Dicks rejects the label of a hawk, preferring to call himself a “pro-defense Democrat.”
“I’ve been the guy on the defense subcommittee for 33 years,” he said. “I’m a moderate. I believe that we should be very cautious about getting into military engagements. … But I’m not a hawk.” Then he borrows a line from Scoop Jackson, the former Democratic senator from Washington state: “Scoop Jackson used to say, ’I’m neither a hawk or a dove, I just don’t want my country to be a pigeon.’”
Dicks, who plans to visit Afghanistan this summer, said he’s notified every time a soldier from his district dies in combat. And earlier this week, he visited injured troops at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
“It just gets you that, after 10 years, we’re still in this,” Dicks said. “These IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are horrific weapons. A lot of the kids have amputations. It is tough. That weighs on anyone in public life who has any responsibility.”