from The Water's Edge

GOP Foreign Policy Divisions

June 15, 2011

Equipment belonging to U.S. Marines hang by a flag at their outpost in Afghanistan's Helmand province. (Finbarr O'Reilly/courtesy Reuters)
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Well, I was wrong about Monday night’s GOP debate being the no foreign policy news debate. The debate touched on foreign policy only briefly, and none of the candidates said anything he or she had not said before. Nonetheless, the New York Times used the debate as a jumping off point for a front-page story today on Republican divisions over Afghanistan and Libya. The Wall Street Journal has a similar story as well.

I’ll leave it to sociologists and media junkies to explain why Republican foreign policy divisions are suddenly getting noticed. After all, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul were the only two candidates who spoke about Afghanistan. Paul has wanted out of Afghanistan for years. Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich were the only ones asked about Libya, and they both restated doubts they have aired for weeks about the wisdom of U.S. operations there. To judge by the polls, most Republicans agree with them.

Anyway, Romney’s seemingly anodyne remarks on Afghanistan have sparked the most comment. Politico’s headline was, Mitt Romney’s Afghanistan Remarks Stun GOP Pals.

Romney “stunned” his critics by saying two things. First:

It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes to our generals that we can hand the country over to the Taliban military in a way that they’re able to defend themselves. Excuse me, the Afghan military to defend themselves from the Taliban. That’s an important distinction.

Second:

I also think we’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban.

Romney’s critics are displeased because these statements don’t constitute what they would consider a full-throated endorsement of current U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Perhaps, though Romney doesn’t reject it either.

I doubt that Romney’s comments will hurt him with the average voter. (How he handles the criticism is another matter.) Indeed, most Americans probably would find Romney’s remarks sensisible if not obvious. Why wouldn’t we want to bring U.S. troops home as soon as we can? Don’t we owe them that? And sure, strictly speaking, Afghanistan is not engaged in a war of independence. But Romney’s basic point still holds: the Afghan people are ultimately responsible for their freedom.

One Republican not named Ron Paul who wants to slash our commitment in Afghanistan wasn’t on the stage at St. Anselm on Monday night. That’s former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. He said yesterday we should go down to “10,000 or 15,000 troops”--we have 100,000 there today--though he didn’t say how long he would take to get there.

Huntsman says he will formally enter the GOP race next week. He can expect to get pressed on why we should reduce the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. Yesterday he emphasized the cost of the Afghan mission. Critics will point out that the mission’s cost has to be measured against what is at stake.

Romney may take the lead in pressing that point. He seemed to be anticipating Huntsman’s argument when he said Monday night:

I want those troops to come home based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals.

So the Afghanistan debate looks to be on. That’s good for the country. Just keep in mind that doubting the wisdom of the current U.S. commitment in Afghanistan does not mean that isolationism is surging across the land. (The Times story talks of “a renewed streak of isolationism.”) Much of the criticism of U.S. policy in Afghanistan comes from people like Richard Haass, the president of the Council of Foreign Relations, who have impeccable internationalist credentials. They aren’t calling for a retreat to Fortress America. They just don’t believe that our current policy can work.

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