The hawkish foreign-policy consensus that held the Republican Party together during the 2008 election has shattered, with the field of candidates vying for the GOP presidential nomination expressing diametrically opposed views on Afghanistan. The differences reflect the fissures between the party’s foreign-policy and fiscal hawks, with soaring deficits and a struggling economy helping economic concerns to supplant foreign-policy ones.
Last week’s presidential debate, the primary season’s second, brought those developing differences into stark contrast for the first time. The early primary front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, surprised many during last week’s debate when he said America can’t fight a war of independence for the Afghans.
“It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can— as soon as our generals think it’s OK,” Romney said during the debate. “One lesson we‘ve learned in Afghanistan is that Americans cannot fight another nation’s war of independence.”
Whereas Romney hedged by leaving the decision in the generals’ hands, ex-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman took his calls for a drawdown one step further on Tuesday. In a statement issued on as the president spoke, Huntsman -- until April Obama's ambassador to China -- criticized his former boss for the slow pace of the military’s withdrawal in Afghanistan.
"Now it is time we move to a focused counter-terror effort which requires significantly fewer boots on the ground than the President discussed tonight, Huntsman said. "With America mired in three expensive conflicts, we have a generational opportunity to reset our position in the world in a way that makes sense for our security as well as our budget."
The anti-interventionist viewpoint is one that only Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, expressed during the 2008 campaign. But the fiscally focused tea party movement, which is wary of conflicts because of the accompanying high cost, has pushed the dovish stance into the GOP mainstream.
That Huntsman and Romney, along with Paul, have been at the leading edge of withdrawing troops is a strong signal of the appeal that view might hold among moderate and more independent Republicans. Both candidates have crafted campaigns designed to attract support from moderates, ones that could excel in a general election against the president. And, indeed, polls show that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan is popular.
A poll from the Pew Research Center released on Tuesday shows that 56 percent of adults support withdrawing American troops immediately, compared with 39 percent who want the U.S. to stay in the country until stabilizes – a 16-point shift in favor of pulling out since early May. Even 43 percent of Republicans say they want to withdraw immediately.
The poll, taken from June 15-19, surveyed 1,502 adults and had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
“Some people may be appealing to the pure political side of this, which is, the American public has war fatigue,” said Jim Dyke, a GOP political consultant who worked with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour when he was considering a presidential campaign. Barbour was one of the first Republicans to express skepticism about the continued need for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
But not every GOP candidate shares what critics deride as that “isolationist” stance, indicating that although the Republican electorate has shifted to a more dovish foreign policy, plenty of hawks remain in the party. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, for instance, revisited an old talking point during an interview on Tuesday, criticizing the president for establishing a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops.
“I supported President Obama’s decision to surge the troops,” Pawlenty told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto. “I wish he wouldn’t have simultaneously announced a war withdrawal deadline at the same time, I think that sends mixed signals. I think it is appropriate to revisit the policy now, but it should be based on conditions on the ground, not on some arbitrary political timetable leading up to the elections.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., echoed a similar message in a recent interview with The Weekly Standard.
“On Afghanistan, I firmly believe that we are at a point where we've got to stay the course, and we've got to finish the job,” she said. “Reports coming out of Helmand right now are positive.... [Gen.] David Petraeus, who wrote the book on counterinsurgency and on the surge strategy, is successfully prosecuting the surge.”
Bachmann and Pawlenty have been aided in part by the party’s venerable wing of foreign-policy hawks, including its last presidential nominee John McCain. The senator from Arizona blasted Romney and other GOP candidates as “isolationist” and said they are endangering the country.