I share my colleague Marc Thiessen’s horror at the dreadful display of foreign policy foolishness at the Republican debate last night. After citing a similar misstep from Mitt Romney in an earlier debate (which Romney did try to correct later), Marc writes:
Tonight it was Rick Perry’s turn to flirt with withdrawal. Not long after Jon Huntsman gave his regular call for retreat, Perry said, “I agree with Governor Huntsman when we talk about it’s time to bring our young men and women home as soon and as obviously safely as we can. But it’s also really important for us to have a presence there. And I think the entire conversation about how do we deliver aid to those countries, and is it best spent with a hundred thousand military who have the target on their back in Afghanistan? I don’t think so at this particular point in time. I think the best way for us to impact that country is to make a transition where that country’s military is going to be taking care of their people. Bring our young men and women home and continue to help them build the infrastructure they need.”
When it comes to questions of national security, no one should ever start a sentence with the words “I agree with Governor Huntsman . . .” So we now have both the current and the former front-runners on record bowing to war fatigue and sentiment for withdrawal. It was left to Rick Santorum — a good man with little chance of winning the GOP nomination — to make the vigorous case for victory in the war on terror.
Perhaps Santorum should get another look. In response to my request for comment (Santorum was not asked to weigh in on this point during the debate), I got this e-mail: “As I said on Greta Van Susteren’s show last night, I listened to both men answer and I couldn’t believe that neither mentioned the word victory. To stand for anything less is a disservice to our troops, their families, and our nation. Let me be clear, I hate war — and every day I pray for our troops safe and speedy return. In fact, I believe our troops should come home as soon as the job is done. But the problem is, Barack Obama has never outlined a mission for victory. We cannot leave the region when there is still a good chance the Taliban can take control. To leave leadership in the hands of a radical terrorist group, known for its horrific treatment of women and for carrying out unprovoked terrorist attacks on this country — with promises for more — is something I am unwilling to do. The number one job of our president is to defend America, and for Governor Perry to skirt this complicated issue for an applause line shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the region and a level of inexperience only topped by our current president. ” Well, yeah.
Santorum’s spokesman reminds me, “As you know, Senator Santorum served for 8 years on the Armed Services Committee and was the author of the Syria Accountability Act and the Iran Freedom and Support Act, as well as a staunch defender of Israel.”
Robert Kagan of Brookings — who is not associated with any campaign and has been a devout supporter of the war against jihadists — had this take:
It would be useful for Perry to talk to American military commanders in the theater. They would tell him that we need the current troop-strength to deal a major and lasting blow to the Taliban. Then it will be possible to draw down. But to draw down to some limited “presence” absent that would simply put our troops in harm’s way and for no good purpose.
As to Huntsman’s comment (“I like those days when Ronald Reagan — you talked about — when Ronald Reagan would ensure that the light of this country would shine brightly for liberty, democracy, human rights, and free markets. We’re not shining like we used to shine. We need to shine again.”), Kagan responded:
As for Reagan, he did not just ensure that the light shines brightly. He carried out the largest peacetime military buildup in history. He supported guerrilla fighters against communist regimes in Nicaragua, Cambodia, Angola, and Afghanistan. He deployed U.S. troops in Central America. He used U.S. force to deter Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines from annulling a free election. He helped topple the military junta in South Korea. He invaded Grenada. He deployed troops to Lebanon and bombed suspected terrorist positions. He bombed Qaddafi. And he would have done more had he not been constrained by having to check the Soviets in Europe.
Likewise, Jamie Fly, the executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, emailed me: “We’re not in Afghanistan to nation build. We’re there to ensure that Afghanistan does not once again become a safe haven who those who seek to kill us. It’s unfortunate to see Republican candidates for President adopting the rhetoric of anti-war Democrats and implying that our fiscal problems at home are somehow tied to the cost of the war in Afghanistan.”
Another foreign policy guru and staunch supporter of the war effort (also not associated with any campaign) told me that we certainly do want to help Afghanistan transition to a point where they can take care of their own security. However, this guru cautioned:
However, what these comments don’t seem to recognize is that the U.S. surge is critical to making this happen successfully, both to have the forces to do the training and to create a sufficiently secure environment that newly-trained Afghan forces can operate successfully. The U.S. surge in Iraq, a total of 30,000 additional troops, made it possible to increase the Iraqi Army by roughly 100,000 in a year (plus additional increases for the police) while improving the overall quality of the Iraqi security structure. It was a remarkable achievement, for which enormous credit needs to go to Lt. Gen. James Dubik who was in charge of the US training command during under Petraeus. Lt. Gen. William Caldwell seems to be achieving an equally impressive turn-around of the Afghan training operation, to include recognizing the importance of such basic requirements as minimal literacy and driver training. In short, patience is the key to a successful handover. If we move out too fast, we could end up with a costly failure.
It’s disturbing, to say the least, that not only Huntsman (whom Rich Lowry aptly describes as “a smart ass who isn’t funny”) but one of the top contenders for the nomination should be so confused about the basics of foreign policy. Frankly, it’s about time we have a debate solely on national security. How about it, candidates? It’s time to figure out if any of these guys and gal are up to the job of commander in chief.