Foreign policy sits so far back in American politics today that something quite important has gone almost unnoticed: Republicans are doing what does not come naturally—fighting openly on Afghan policy and edging toward an ever broader national-security squabble. They’re usually quite disciplined about quieting their foreign-policy splits. But now the battle is on for the mind of Mitt Romney.
Romney, the likely party standard-bearer in November, himself legitimized the tussle by changing his own mind on the war from hard to soft to something else. But demons far deeper have been tugging at Republicans—namely, how to grapple with the new age of unending nonconventional threats and wars and lethal national debt. And with new times come new politics. Democrats are far less vulnerable on this score, as most Americans like President Obama’s performance abroad, including his surprise trip to Afghanistan last week. But Afghan policy is more gravitational for Republicans; a recent Pew poll shows that 48 percent of them want U.S. forces out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, as do 62 percent of independents.
Of course, Republicans have always had their differences over foreign affairs. President Eisenhower had to confront the powerful isolationist wing of the party led by Ohio Sen. Robert Taft. Since the Vietnam War and President Nixon’s efforts at détente with the dreaded Soviet Union, there has been a perennial struggle between conservative realists like Henry Kissinger and neoconservatives like Richard Perle. But on most occasions, GOP presidents could cool family quarrels.
Now there is more of a mishmash, with new elements harder to understand and control. Here’s the rather novel spectrum. Most hawks are still hawks. They want to stay the course in Afghanistan until we have defeated the Taliban and al Qaeda, whatever the cost. They are far less interested in Obama’s schedule of getting U.S. combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 than they are in victory. Obama deflected this blow in Kabul last Tuesday by touting a new pact with Kabul to keep unspecified numbers of U.S. forces in Afghanistan until 2024 and provide billions in aid. He even took away some of former U.N. ambassador John Bolton’s thunder by pledging to stay there until the job is done. But he fell short of meeting military historian Max Boot’s demand to leave 30,000 U.S. troops to advise and assist Afghan forces while giving them $6 billion a year “indefinitely.”
The middle group includes both strange and sometimes familiar bedfellows: traditional conservatives like columnist George Will and foreign-policy realists like Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass. The former berates his hawkish cousins for “mak[ing] futility into a reason for persevering,” while the latter advises: “The sooner we accept that Afghanistan is less a problem to be fixed than a situation to be managed, the better.”
The third contingent is psychedelic, running the gambit from super-hawks like Newt Gingrich to libertarians in the mold of the old Republican isolationists to Tea Partiers whose views on national security have yet to fully blossom. Gingrich grabbed headlines when he said in March, “[W]e’re risking the lives of young men and women in a mission that may frankly not be doable.” Ron Paul adds to this the economic cost of the war, a point that resonates with his supporters as well as Tea Partiers who would prefer storming the Federal Reserve and waging war on the U.S. debt.
Romney has attempted to unify these disparate strains of thought in his fashion—that is, by leaning one way and another, and then another. First, he was somewhat hawkish, telling a crowd of Afghan citizens in January 2011, “It is my desire and my political party’s desire to support the people of Afghanistan and not to leave.” Then, he leaned left, saying last July, “[W]e’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban.” More recently, he’s edged rightward, dismissing negotiations with the Taliban. After Obama departed Afghanistan last week, he sort of praised the president’s remarks, while the GOP minions still barked at the president for “weak leadership.”
If the past is prologue, we will see Romney emerge as the Great Blender, trying to incorporate all the Republican factions. The new Romney/GOP foreign-policy mantra, then, would be: growl loudly, carry a tree trunk, and stay out of land wars. In other words, there will be a surplus of tough talk, excessive military spending, and great caution in getting involved in new and extended land wars. It could be worse.