In the waning minutes of last week's Republican presidential debate, Mitt Romney was opining about Afghanistan when he uttered something that, in past years, would have been condemned by virtually all Republicans as dovish blasphemy.
He said: "I also think we've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation."
It's rare to hear a Republican front-runner talking like a Vietnam peacenik circa 1969. In fact, if you take what he said at face value, he would have staunchly opposed the war that George W. Bush ginned up in Iraq. So what the heck was going on here? How could a mainstream Republican say such a thing?
Romney stressed Tuesday that he opposed a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, but he did not disown his provocative remark. That's because he is a finger-in-the-wind kind of guy, and he's well-aware that the prevailing winds have shifted within the party. There was a time, roughly spanning the eras from Nixon to Bush II, when virtually all Republicans embraced the hawkish credo of muscular interventionism. But not anymore.
In a stunning Gallup poll last month, 47 percent of Republicans who responded favored bringing the troops home from Afghanistan. Romney was essentially speaking to those people, massaging their war weariness. Just as remarkably, the debate audience didn't laugh at him. At the Republican debates four years ago, the audiences frequently laughed when Rudy "9/11" Giuliani treated antiwar Rep. Ron Paul as comic relief.
In other words, this is no longer a unified party that yearns to fight wars of liberation worldwide. The neoconservatives who dominated during the George W. Bush era are still with us, of course, but now they're flanked by Republicans who openly question the mission in Afghanistan -- when President Obama is set to decide the pace of the troop withdrawals slated to begin July 1 -- and who question whether an open-ended interventionist posture is even affordable given our fiscal woes.
This sentiment has been building for a while. In March, when Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was weighing a presidential bid, he floated this thought: "We can save money on defense. ... What is our mission 1/8in Afghanistan 3/8? Is that a 100,000-man army mission?" Sen. Dick Lugar, arguably the party's most respected foreign-policy maven, fretted this month about "massive open-ended expenditures." Tea party House Republicans have been talking like antiwar Democrats, demanding (as one GOP lawmaker put it) that troop pullouts "begin immediately, sooner rather than later, because of the deficit."
This week we'll have a new Republican presidential candidate, ex-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., and he sounds like a flaming lefty on Afghanistan. He recently told Esquire magazine: "If you can't define a winning exit strategy for the American people, where we somehow come out ahead, then we're wasting our money, and we're wasting our strategic resources. (Afghanistan) is a tribal state, and it always will be. ... Should we stay and play traffic cop? I don't think that serves our strategic interests."
Huntsman and the other Republican skeptics are undoubtedly sincere in their belief that the 10-year war is a fiscal sinkhole without foreseeable prospects for success, that Afghanistan is less pivotal now that Osama bin Laden is dead, and that our role as global policeman is unsustainable. But let's not kid ourselves; there is also a whiff of political opportunism. Obama has owned this war since he engineered his '09 troop surge. On the eve of the '12 election, assailing the war in Afghanistan -- and tapping the swing voters' war weariness -- gives the Republicans another potential weapon against the incumbent. Or, as House Republican Jason Chaffetz put it, an antiwar stance provides "another point of distinction from the president."
To the credit of the party's beleaguered neoconservatives, they have not been seeking any political leverage against Obama. Quite the contrary. It's an enduring irony of the Obama era that the president, as commander-in-chief in Afghanistan, is heavily dependent on Republican support. The neocons are still with him; their anger is directed mainly at the war-averse party brethren. Neocons went berserk last week when Romney attacked wars of liberation; they sent e-mails calling his comments "a disaster." And hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham even suggested that Romney was a potential wimp in the mold of Jimmy Carter. As Republican insults go, that's probably worse than being compared to Anthony Weiner.
Here's the Graham quote: "From the party's point of view, the biggest disaster would be to let Barack Obama become Ronald Reagan and our people become Jimmy Carter." Indeed, that, too, would be an enduring irony: a Democratic president's prosecuting a difficult war, chasing down terrorists worldwide, sustaining a hawkish posture despite pervasive war weariness back home -- while the Republicans, of all people, openly question whether it's strategically and fiscally prudent to keep playing world cop.
The mind reels. And the Republican infighting on this issue will be fierce.
Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at dpolmanphillynews.com; blog: http://www.dickpolman.blogspot.com.
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