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Reps. Dana Rohrabacher and Barbara Lee a political odd couple when it comes to Afghanistan war

A Huntington Beach Republican and a Bay Area liberal oppose a U.S. troop increase, but they came to their positions differently.

October 19, 2009|Richard Simon

WASHINGTON — Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, an Orange County conservative, and Rep. Barbara Lee, a Bay Area liberal, are about as far apart ideologically as anybody in Congress.

Yet both oppose a troop increase in Afghanistan.

As President Obama ponders a new war strategy and members of Congress stake out their positions, Rohrabacher and Lee have become the political odd couple.

"Sending in more U.S. combat troops is not the answer," Rohrabacher said in a speech on the House floor last week, breaking from his fellow Republicans, most of whom back a troop increase.

The Huntington Beach congressman, who once traveled with the Afghan mujahedin while they fought the Soviets, added: "Reaching out to the villages and tribal elders and establishing local militias, perhaps buying their goodwill if need be, these are the things that will work."

Lee of Oakland, who cast the lone congressional vote in 2001 against the use of force in Afghanistan, welcomed her surprise ally after hearing Rohrabacher speak.

"I listened to his opening statement. I could have given it," she said.

"The fact that both Lee and Rohrabacher oppose troop increases reflects how widespread doubt is about Afghanistan," said Loren Thompson, a defense policy analyst for the Lexington Institute. "Those two occupy opposite ends of the ideological continuum on most issues, so their shared misgivings on Afghanistan tell you that the unease is bipartisan."

The Ripley's-believe-it-or-not moment is politically uncomfortable for both lawmakers.

Lee's opposition to a troop increase turns up the heat from the left on a White House that has been under pressure to grant a request from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, for up to 40,000 more U.S. troops. There currently are 68,000 U.S. military members operating there.

And it could put Lee in the position of challenging a president she worked to elect.

"There is no military solution in Afghanistan," Lee said, warning that any additional troops would be perceived by the Afghans as occupiers.

As for Rohrabacher, most of his Republican colleagues are pressing Obama to approve McChrystal's request.

"Opposing our enemy by arming and financing local and village leaders was a strategy that worked against the Soviet Army, and it worked against the Taliban after 9/11, and it will work again," he said.

Though they hold similar views on the troop increase, Lee and Rohrabacher -- both the children of military officers -- are not working together, and they disagree on other issues related to the war.

Lee has introduced legislation to prevent funding for a troop increase, a measure Rohrabacher has said he would oppose. Rohrabacher has hinted he is open to more troops if used solely to train the Afghans "to defend themselves" -- an idea Lee has rejected.

They also came to their positions differently.

Rohrabacher has been interested in Afghanistan since his days as a speechwriter for President Reagan. He traveled there shortly after he was elected to the House in 1988, donning Afghan garb and traveling with a mujahedin unit fighting the Soviets.

The Republican has broken from his party before over the Afghan war, supporting an unsuccessful measure (co-sponsored by Lee) in the spring to require the Obama administration to prepare an exit strategy.

He also defied GOP leaders when he recently voted against a resolution to remove Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) as the House Ways and Means Committee chairman and was one of the few Republicans to vote to rebuke Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) for shouting "You lie!" at Obama during the president's healthcare speech to Congress.

Rohrabacher also has worked with liberal Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) on legislation to stop federal authorities from interfering in the distribution of medical marijuana where states allow it.

Lee's efforts on the troops issue, however, have been in keeping with her bona fides as one of the House's most liberal members. And she has downplayed any potential rift with Obama over Afghanistan, praising the president for conducting a review of the war's strategy.

Lee laughed when asked about being on the same side of an issue with Rohrabacher. "We try to work in a bipartisan way," she said.

Rohrabacher, when asked whether this was the beginning of a new alliance, snapped, "Not at all."

--

richard.simon@latimes.com

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