Republicans grapple with a new world view

Mitt Romney’s foreign policy vacillation typifies how the Republican Party has struggled to keep up with developments, says Leslie H Gelb

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 party’s presidential candidate-elect, legitimised the tussle by changing his 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 new times bring new politics. Democrats are far less vulnerable on this score, as most Americans like Barack Obama’s showing abroad, including his surprise trip to Afghanistan last week. But Afghan policy is more gravitational for Republicans; a recent poll shows 48% of them want US forces out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, as do 62% of independents.

Republicans have always differed on foreign affairs. While president, Dwight D Eisenhower had to deal with the powerful isolationist wing led by Ohio senator Robert Taft. Since Richard Nixon’s efforts at detente with the Soviet Union, there has been a perennial struggle between conservative realists such as Henry Kissinger and neocons such as Richard Perle.

Now there is more of a mishmash, with new elements harder to understand and to control. Here’s the rather novel spectrum. Most hawks are still hawks. They want to stay the course in Afghanistan until the Taliban and al Qaeda are defeated, whatever the cost. They are far less interested in Obama’s schedule of getting US combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 than they are in victory.

Obama deflected this blow in Kabul a week ago by touting a new pact with Kabul to keep unspecified numbers of US forces in Afghanistan until 2024 and provide billions in aid. He even took away some of former UN ambassador John Bolton’s thunder by pledging to stay there until the job is done.

But he fell short of meeting historian Max Boot’s demand to leave 30,000 US troops to assist Afghan forces while giving them $6bn (€4.6bn) a year “indefinitely”.

The middle way includes both strange and familiar bedfellows: Conservatives such as columnist George Will and foreign-policy realists such as Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. The former berates hawks for “making] 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 such as 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: “[We’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 US debt.

Romney has attempted to unify these disparate strains in his fashion — leaning one way, then another. First he was hawkish, telling Afghan citizens in Jan 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 in 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.”

Recently, he’s edged right, rejecting talks with the Taliban. After Obama left Kabul last week, he praised the president’s remarks, while GOP minions still barked at Obama 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 never get involved in a land war in Asia.

In other words, there will be a surplus of tough talk, excessive military spending, and great caution in getting involved in conflicts. It could be worse.

* (c) 2012 Newsweek/Daily Beast


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