Image: Marines patrol poppy field
Bay Ismoyo  /  AFP - Getty Images
U.S. Marines walk through poppy fields during a "meet-and-greet" joint patrol with Afghanistan National Police in Helman province in April. 
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 6/22/2011 11:17:43 AM ET 2011-06-22T15:17:43

Republicans may want voters to forget about the legacy of George W. Bush, especially when it comes to foreign policy. But the ideological conflicts faced by the former president are resurfacing in Afghanistan as Republicans weigh military commitments abroad against spending cuts at home.

Bush warned during the 2000 campaign against “using our troops as nation-builders.” Criticizing Bill Clinton's military interventions in Kosovo and elsewhere, he said “the role of the military is to fight and win wars” and thus prevent future wars — not to help govern rural provinces and spend billions tutoring Third World nations into becoming 21st century democracies.

The Sept. 11 attacks changed all that, of course, but now, 11 years after Bush first voiced that skepticism, many Republicans have lost patience with nation-building. And it's happening against the backdrop of President Barack Obama's announcement of a drawdown timeline for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

On NBC's TODAY on Wednesday, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, the latest Republican to join the presidential race, said, "What we need now is a healthy dose of nation-building here at home."

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Since the Vietnam War, the Republican Party — with a few exceptions — has defined itself as the one calling for bigger military budgets and making an unapologetic defense of American interests around the world.

But Afghanistan has put Republican deficit cutters at odds with the party’s advocates of a robust military.

Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr. (on this page)

The split within the GOP is one Obama’s outgoing defense secretary, Robert Gates, noted in an interview with Newsweek: “You’ve got the budget hawks and then you’ve got the defense hawks within the same party. And so I think there is no consensus on a role in the world.”

This creates the potential for the first genuine debate among Republican presidential contenders over foreign and military policy since the 1976 contest. That was the year Ronald Reagan nearly took the nomination away from President Gerald Ford by challenging him over the Panama Canal treaties and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s policy of détente toward the Soviet Union.

Interactive: Timeline: The war in Afghanistan (on this page)

The GOP skepticism about Afghanistan and its opposition to Obama’s decision to join NATO-led attacks on Libya prompted one Republican hawk, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, to warn of a risky role reversal: "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.”

Last weekend, the 2008 GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain said, “We cannot move into an isolationist party. We cannot repeat the lessons of the 1930s, when the United States of America stood by while bad things happened in the world.”

A McCain ally who is seeking the GOP nomination, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said in an interview with POLITICO on Tuesday, "I don't like the drift of the Republican Party to what appears to be a retreat or a move more towards isolationism."

He added, "We need to have enough capacity in or around Afghanistan going forward to be able to identify any threats to the national security interests of the United States and promptly defeat it. Now, that is going to require us to be there a while longer ...."

Isolationism or something less than that?
Despite talk of "isolationism," only one of the current crop of GOP contenders, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, is calling for a broad retrenchment.

And despite McCain's reference to the 1930s, none favors reverting to the defense spending of the 1930s, which accounted for only 1 percent of gross domestic product, compared to about 5 percent of GDP today.

Video: Huntsman: 2012 focus will be economy (on this page)

What they are questioning is the need for America to join NATO’s quasi-war against the Libyan regime and what Bush questioned in 2000: nation building.

So far, the most outspoken Republican hopeful on Afghanistan has been Huntsman.

"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," Huntsman told Esquire magazine last week.

Afghanistan, he said, is "a tribal state and it always will be. Whether we like it or not, whenever we withdraw from Afghanistan, whether it's now or years from now, we'll have an incendiary situation ... Should we stay and play traffic cop? I don't think that serves our strategic interests."

When critics worried early in the Afghanistan engagement that it would have no end, Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, mocked their fears, asking sarcastically at a September 2002 press briefing, “Oh, my goodness ... ’Are we in a quagmire again?’”

Without using the q-word, in effect Huntsman and some House Republicans have answered that question: yes, we are in a quagmire and we ought to get out.

Wariness from Romney
Apparent frontrunner Mitt Romney has been more wary. “We've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation,” he said in last week’s Republican debate.

But he didn’t offer a plan for withdrawal of the troops, saying that their exit hinged on “the conditions on the ground determined by the generals.”

“His confusion merely mirrors that of the party,” said John Hulsman, who heads a risk consulting firm specializing in the effects of foreign policy on international business. “As frontrunner and in trying to be all things to all men, Romney sounds confused because the various wings of the party are so confused.”

Hulsman added, “His statement about not fighting wars of independence for other people is a definite welcome step back from the neo-conservatism of the George W. Bush era, a recognition that Iraq and Afghanistan have not worked as the ideologues advertised.”

But in deference to the GOP’s hawks, Romney “is leaving the strategy at the mercy of the generals, who are rightly trained to look to make the best of the situations they find themselves in, rather than to question whether they should be there in the first place.”

Stark choice or a matter of degree?
In the end, what voters will likely get on the ballot in November of 2012 is not a stark choice between one candidate who says, “Shrink overseas commitments, cut spending” and another who says, “We dare not risk our security by doing that.”

“We will get two candidates who will reflect some degree of pragmatism, informed by the experience of the last ten years,” said retired Army officer Nathan Freier, a senior fellow in the New Defense Approaches Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a visiting research professor at the U.S. Army War College.

The Republican nominee is likely to be “different only in degree from the president,” he said. “Every candidate now will tend to lean more heavily on an intervention message that focuses specifically on national interest. They will be more inclined to advocate pursuing more limited objectives in any intervention overseas ... Everybody wants shorter, faster, cheaper wars.”

The GOP skepticism about the Afghanistan mission comes at a time when last week’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed 54 percent of respondents approving of the president's handling of Afghanistan — up 10 points from his approval rating on the issue last summer.

Can Republicans pin the blame for an Afghanistan morass and the prospects for stalemate in Libya on Obama, the president who ordered the mission to kill Osama bin Laden? It would be unprecedented and perhaps awkward for a GOP nominee to run against a president who in some ways has followed polices consistent with Bush's: for instance, the robust assertion of the presidential authority to make war and the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists.

Adding up the spending numbers
And there’s a risk in over-promising on Afghanistan and Libya. Canceling those two operations could be only one element in solving the fiscal crisis that threatens the nation, since they account for only about 15 percent of overall military spending.

Both personnel costs and the cost of buying new weapons to fight and deter future wars will strain the budget, even if there were no Afghanistan and Libya commitments.

For example, according to a Congressional Budget Office report released last week, the Defense Department plans to buy 730 new unmanned aircraft and upgrade the 6,000 it already has. Cost: nearly $37 billion through 2020.

You’re not likely to hear from the GOP contenders the candor that Gates displayed last week when he warned that spending cuts must be done in a way that “consciously acknowledges and accepts additional risk in exchange for reduced investment in the military.” No candidate is going to admit: “I’m going to make you less safe from attack.”

And yet the debt dilemma cannot be ignored.

“Republicans will finally have to make their priorities clear; are they — first and foremost — for endless military budgets, or are they for genuine fiscal reform? They cannot have both,” Hulsman said. “The successful candidate ought to emulate (Dwight) Eisenhower, who made defense curbs (and balanced budgets) a cornerstone of the nation's defense” in the 1950s.

Hulsman said Eisenhower reminded the "neocons" of his day that "all foreign policy power is ultimately economic power. That’s the magic that must be woven to unite the party and win over independents, who (more than most sections of the electorate) are deeply worried about the economic perils the country faces."

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Video: Huntsman: 2012 focus will be economy

Data: Timeline: The war in Afghanistan

A look at key events in the U.S.-led conflict in the south-central Asian nation.

Photos: Jon Huntsman, Jr.

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  1. Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Jon Huntsman Jr. claps as Singapore's Ambassador to the U.S., Chan Heng Chee, is recognized during a reception in the Rayburn House Office Building, Oct. 9, 2002. Huntsman started his public service career as an assistant in the Reagan administration and later served as the ambassador to Singapore under George H.W. Bush. (Scott J. Ferrell / Congressional Quarterly via Getty Im) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. In 2004, Huntsman ran for governor of Utah against Scott Matheson, Jr., seen here before their debate, Sept. 17, 2004, in Salt Lake City. (Douglas C. Pizac / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Republican Jon Huntsman Jr. and his wife, Mary Kaye, embrace as he is announced the winner of the race for governor at the Republican gala, Nov. 2, 2004, in Salt Lake City. Hunstman beat Matheson with 57 percent of the vote. (Douglas C. Pizac / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. As the governor-elect, Huntsman. displayed his worn shoe leather, left, during a news conference, Nov. 3, 2004, in Salt Lake City. Huntsman passed out lapel pins of a worn shoe, right, as a symbol of his grass roots campaign whose hard work ethic he promised would be extended into his new administration. (Douglas C. Pizac / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Nine-year-old Hayley Alder writes the date on House Bill 1001 as Governor Huntsman watches during the signing at Amelia Earhart Elementary School, in Provo, Utah, May 2, 2005. Huntsman signed a measure defying the federal No Child Left Behind Act despite a warning from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings that it could cost $76 million in federal aid. Asked which department he would cut, he responded, the Department of Education. During his governorship, Huntsman also signed several bills limiting abortion. (Matt Smith / Daily Herald via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. From left, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Canadian Ambassador to the United States Frank McKenna, and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, perform with Canadian country music singer George Canyon, during a reception at the Canadian Embassy, Feb. 25, 2006 in Washington. Huntsman dropped out of high school to play keyboards in a rock band called 'Wizard.' In 2005 he played on stage with REO Speedwagon at the Utah state fair. (Kevin Wolf / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman tries out the dirt motocross section of a track, April 13, 2006, at the Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele, Utah. Huntsman is a fan of motocross and helped grow outdoor tourism and sporting activities for the state. (Douglas C. Pizac / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Gov. Huntsman signs a declaration opposing the storage of nuclear waste in the state during a news conference, April 28, 2006, in Salt Lake City. The event was held to urge people in Utah to oppose the disposal site for spent nuclear fuel proposed for development on the Goshute Indian reservation. Despite his position against storing nuclear waste in Utah, Huntsman has made statements in support of nuclear power. (Douglas C. Pizac / ASSOCIATED PRESS) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Mexican President Vicente Fox, second from left, walks with Gov. Huntsman, while surrounded by security, to the legislative building at the State Capitol complex where Fox addressed the Utah legislature, May 24, 2006, in Salt Lake City. Huntsman's first foreign trip as governor was to Mexico in 2005. On immigration, Huntsman has been supportive of creating a path to citizenship for illegal aliens and against building a fence along the border with Mexico. (Douglas C. Pizac / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Gov. Huntsman holds his newly adopted daughter, Asha Bharati, as his wife Mary Kaye hold their other adopted daughter, Gracie Mei, at The Matruchhaya Orphanage in Nadiad, India, Dec. 19, 2006. Huntsman and his wife, who have five children of their own, adopted two more, one from China and one from India. (Sam Panthaky / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Gov. Huntsman and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sign a document to fight global warming, May 21, 2007, in Salt Lake City. The governors met at the mansion to sign the Western Regional Climate Action Initiative. The pact calls for a cap to greenhouse gas emissions and a trade program where emission credits could be sold. (Douglas C. Pizac / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Gov. Huntsman speaks during a news conference at the entrance to the Crandall Canyon Mine in Huntington, Utah, Aug. 17, 2007, as Richard Stickler, right, head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, listens. The desperate underground drive to reach six trapped miners was suspended indefinitely after a cave-in killed three rescuers inside the mountainside mine. Huntsman appointed his former political opponent Scott Matheson, Jr. to head a commission on mine safety for the state shortly after the incident. Huntsman's father, philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr., later donated $100,000 to help build a monument to honor the nine killed in the mine collapse. (Chris Detrick / The Salt Lake Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain gives a press conference accompanied by Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, left, and former Republican presidential hopeful and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, at the Million Air FBO, March 27, 2008 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Huntsman and Romney are distant cousins and both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Danny La / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. President Bush greets Gov. Huntsman and his wife Mary Kaye, as he steps off Air Force One in Salt Lake City, Utah, for a private campaign fundraising event for Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, May 28, 2008. Huntman served in both Bush administrations, first as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce and then Ambassador to Singapore under George H.W. Bush and then as a deputy trade representative under George W. Bush. Huntsman has also been an executive for his father's business. (Charles Dharapak / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Gov. Huntsman, delivers the nominating speech for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for the office of vice president at the Republican National Convention at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., on Sept. 4, 2008. (Paul J. Richards / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Gov. Huntsman, right, and Democratic challenger Bob Springmeyer greet each other prior to their debate during a Rotary Club luncheon, Oct. 28, 2008, in Salt Lake City. Huntsman was easily re-elected, winning with over 77 percent of the vote. He maintained high approval ratings throughout his two terms and during his tenure, the Pew Center on the States named Utah the best managed state. (Douglas C. Pizac / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Gov. Huntsman kisses his wife, Mary Kaye, after signing his resignation document in the Gold Room at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Aug. 11, 2009. Huntsman resigned from his office following his nomination as ambassador to China by President Barack Obama. Huntsman became fluent in Mandarin Chinese during his two years as a missionary in Taiwan, where he later also lived. (Michael Brandy / Pool via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Huntsman, the new U.S. ambassador to China, gives a news briefing at his residence in Beijing on Aug. 22, 2009. At right is his wife Mary Kaye, carrying their daughter Asha Bharati., at left, daughters Gracie Mei and Mary Anne. Huntsman announced that President Barack Obama would make his first visit to China later that year. (Afp / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. President Obama tours the Great Wall of China outside Beijing on Nov.18, 2009, with the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Zhou Wenzhong, left, and U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman briefs reporters outside the Supreme People's Court in Beijing on Feb. 18, 2011 where he called for the 'immediate' release of Chinese-born American geologist Xue Feng after a Chinese court rejected an appeal against his conviction and an eight-year sentence on a state secrets charge. During his service as ambassador, Huntsman repeatedly called for progress on human rights and in his final address he made sharp comments on China's record against dissent, commenting on the detentions of several high-profile activists including Feng, Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo. (Frederic J. Brown / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Jon Huntsman submitted his letter of resignation as U.S. envoy to China on Feb. 2, 2011, amid reports that he might seek the Republican nomination in 2012 and try to deprive his boss, President Barack Obama, of a second term. Here Huntsman takes his seat for the Global Chiefs of Mission Conference luncheon February 2, 2011 in the Ben Franklin Room of the State Department in Washington, D.C. (Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman looks at a Winchester rifle at Riley's Gun shop in Hookset, N.H., as he tests the waters for a possible 2012 presidential run, May 21, 2011. As governor, Huntman signed bills loosening gun regulation. His record also shows support for a legal status for same-sex unions, but not same-sex marriages. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman announces his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, June 21, 2011, at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, N.J. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Left to right, Liddy Huntsman, Mary Anne Huntsman and Abby Huntsman Livingston, daughters of presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, appear on CBS's "Face the Nation" in Washington with host Bob Schieffer. The girls took an active roll in their father's campaign, producing videos, tweeting snarky updates from the campaign trail and using social media as a way to get their message out. (Chris Usher / CBS News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich react after Huntsman said it was time to move to a new topic because he feared his daughter, seated in the audience, was nodding off during their debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Dec. 12, 2011. Huntsman opted out of many of the televised debates and instead focused his campaign on the state of New Hampshire, where he participated in a two-man debate with competitor Gingrich. (Brian Snyder / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman greets voters before speaking at a town hall meeting in Thornton, N.H., Dec. 31, 2011. Huntsman has held more than 140 public events in the state, hoping to gain traction by grass-roots politics. “Voters will reward those who have actually been on the ground, put in shoe leather,” he said. Huntsman skipped Iowa, instead choosing to spend all his energy in the Granite State. (Cheryl Senter / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, left, stumps for Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman during a campaign stop at Globe Manufacturing Company on Jan. 04, 2012 in Pittsfield, N.H. Ridge, a former governor of Pennsylvania, endorsed Huntsman over fellow statesman Rick Santorum. (Matthew Cavanaugh / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Jon Huntsman, announces he is ending his campaign, Jan. 16, 2012, in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Though he was endorsed by South Carolina's largest daily newspaper, he decided to drop out of the race before the Palmetto state's primary after placing third in New Hampshire. Huntsman endorsed Mitt Romney and called on the remaining candidates to end the negative campaigning. (Charles Dharapak / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (28) Jon Huntsman Jr.
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