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On Afghanistan—What Did Mitt Mean?

4:30 PM, Jun 14, 2011 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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One of the most interesting lines from the New Hampshire Republican presidential debate last night came from Mitt Romney, during the brief discussion of foreign policy. Romney was asked about Afghanistan and responded that he wanted troops home as soon as possible, so long as doing so was consistent with the recommendations from U.S. generals.

It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes to our generals that we can hand the country over to the Taliban military in a way that they’re able to defend themselves. Excuse me, the Afghan military to defend themselves from the Taliban. That’s an important distinction.

I want those troops to come home based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals.

This was a pretty standard recitation of the Republican position on Afghanistan. It was the next sentence that raised some eyebrows.

But I also think we’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban. 

What did Romney mean when he said, “our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation”? NBC’s Chuck Todd took it as a move away from the hawkish Republican foreign policy of the past decade. So did Ryan Lizza, from the New Yorker, who found it “striking” that Romney “sounded a lot less like George W. Bush and more like Ron Paul.” Republican foreign policy types emailed one another last night to debate the meaning of Romney’s words.

Was Romney channeling the isolationist wing of the Republican Party? Was he laying the foundation to argue for an expedited withdrawal? In his mind, is the war to some extent merely “a war of independence for another nation?” And if so, was it worth fighting?

If Romney were making such an argument, it would certainly represent a change in his thinking. In a well received speech at the Heritage Foundation in June 2009, Romney laid out his vision for a foreign and national security policy that recognized and embraced America’s unique role in the world. It was America’s willingness to fight wars of liberation and to “nurture democracy and human rights all over the worl,” that made the United States “the hope of the earth.”

“Since [World War II], American soldiers have fought in remote places. America sacrificed the blood of its sons and daughters and sent treasure abroad, helping nurture democracy and human rights all over the world. We sustained a network of alliances and built military prowess that at first contained and then defeated Soviet communism. Because of what America did in the 20th century, there are hundreds of millions of people around the world who now live in freedom – who, but for the price paid by the United States, would have lived in despair. I know of no other such example of national selflessness in the history of mankind. That is why America is the hope of the earth.” 

Later, in arguing against defense cuts, Romney contrasted the U.S. military with their Chinese counterparts. He approvingly noted that America’s unique role in the world meant “worldwide commitments” rather than just “regional objectives.”

“We respond to humanitarian crises, protect world shipping and energy lanes, deter terrorism, prevent genocide, and lead peace-keeping missions. And most significantly, our military is required to maintain a global presence; theirs is not. It is a far more demanding task to keep worldwide commitments than simply to build a force that can accomplish regional objectives.” 

During a fact finding mission to Afghanistan in January, Romney suggested that the U.S. presence there would be long-term if Republicans were in charge. "It is my desire and my political party's desire to support the people of Afghanistan and not to leave."

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