James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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GOP Foreign Policy Divisions

by James M. Lindsay
June 15, 2011

Equipment belonging to U.S. Marines from the First Battalion Eighth Marines, Alpha Company, hang by a U.S. flag at their outpost in Afghanistan's Helmand province. (Finbarr O'Reilly/courtesy Reuters)

Equipment belonging to U.S. Marines hang by a flag at their outpost in Afghanistan's Helmand province. (Finbarr O'Reilly/courtesy Reuters)

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.


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.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Bill Gillingham

    Romney took ‘the safe’ position. He didn’t commit to anything – he said he would ‘leave it to the generals’. It reminded me of Romney’s response in a 2008 debate as to if the President needs the Congress’s approval before hostilities. Romney’s position? He would ‘sit down with your attorneys and they tell you what you have to do.’ That is not leadership.

    Paul stated in 1998 that Clinton’s bombing in Iraq, our sanctions upon their country, etc., makes our country more open to attack _from terrorists_!

    After 2001, bin Laden cited our treatment of Iraq as one of his main reasons for the attacks on us… Of course, that doesn’t make bin Laden right – and it doesn’t even prove that it really was his justification… at the very least, it was an excuse to do it and an excuse to recruit those that carried out the act.

    People call Paul an isolationist. This truly misrepresents his position. He advocates non-interventionism… He isn’t suggesting closing the borders to legal immigrants, or closing down our embassies… he simply wants us to keep our noses out of other nations’ internal affairs. Trade, travel and communication with all.

  • Posted by Tony Shahnami

    GOP foreign policy should not be a shut-gun approach hoping it will stick with popular vote,
    The doctrine should be unique and last decades to protect our nation’s security , improve the economy, reduce the import, increase the export, and natural resources including oil and gas.
    No mention on nation building nor acting as a watch dog while China & Russia are benefiting from our current foreign policy mistakes.

  • Posted by Ted Friedman

    This is just ridiculous. Obviously politicians are professional liars. Look at our current poor excuse for a president Obama. He has broken every campaign promise out there, and, is an obvious tool of big banksters. The GOP will diffuse all the isolationist sentiment in the electorate just as the dems have absorbed all the anti war sentiment. Once they are in office they will serve their corporate paymasters. Wars will continue because this is what we do. This our export. Debt, poverty, war and terror. The empire is rotten to the core and will crumble from within. Much as the soviets did. It is game, set match for the US economy and the dollar. The power elite is thoroughly debauched. Look out for more false flag terror and more endless, senseless, genocidal wars that serve no one but the rich and powerful organized criminals that rule both parties.

  • Posted by Carter Mitchell

    It’s telling that the author didn’t comment on Romney’s obvious mistake “Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban”. The only entity that Afghanis need to “win independence from” is the only foreign occupier: the U.S. military.

    As far as his “commitment” to bring troops home “based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals.” – why not bring them home based on principle?

    Oh, sorry. Romney has no principles other than “get elected”.

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