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T-Paw v. Hee-Haw

What the Pawlenty-Barbour dust-up means

12:30 PM, Mar 17, 2011 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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The skirmish between Haley Barbour and Tim Pawlenty on defense spending and Afghanistan is more enlightening for what it says about GOP 2012 politics than for what it says about the substance of foreign and defense policy.

Barbour's comments, at a GOP dinner in Iowa, were ... comments—and certainly didn't constitute any kind of serious presentation of a foreign policy agenda. His case for cutting defense spending was more political than substantive—"We can save money on defense and if we Republicans don't propose saving money on defense, we'll have no credibility on anything else,"—and not very smart politics, either. What's more, according to Kasie Hunt's report, "After the speech, Barbour told reporters that he couldn't identify specific programs that should be cut from the Pentagon budget." Barbour's only substantive argument seemed to be this: "Anybody who says you can't save money at the Pentagon has never been to the Pentagon." This is a) childish, b) slightly offensive, and c) raises the question of how much time Barbour has spent at the Pentagon—apart from time spent lobbying for defense contractors or foreign governments.

As for Afghanistan, Barbour said:

that the U.S. should consider reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan. "I think we need to look at that," he said when asked if the U.S. should scale back its presence….

"What is our mission?" Barbour said. "How many Al Qaeda are in Afghanistan. ... Is that a 100,000-man Army mission?"

"I don't think our mission should be to think we're going to make Afghanistan an Ireland or an Italy" or a Western-style democracy, he said.

This doesn't exactly constitute a serious analysis of the war effort, its goals, or the implications of "scaling back" our presence. 

But Barbour is a shrewd political operative, and if he's saying this, he's seeing an opening for a defense-cutting, Afghanistan-skeptic candidate in 2012. Polls suggest he may be right—however irresponsible Barbour's pandering to these sentiments may be—though history also suggests that so far Republicans have been inclined to nominate a foreign policy hawk, not an advocate of U.S. retreat. (For more on Barbour's foreign policy thinking, see Phil Klein here.)

As for Pawlenty, he seems to be a sincere Reaganite, and has been for quite a while. What's interesting is his leaping at the occasion to get in a little dust-up with Barbour. This suggests a degree of nimbleness and boldness that speaks well for his prospects to move from the second tier to the first. You could do worse than run as the heir of Reagan-Bush-McCain hawkishness, against a weak and dithering Obama administration, and you could do worse than bet that at some point in the primary process voters will remember they're electing a commander in chief, not just (important as the budget issues are) an OMB director. 

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