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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