To date Mitt Romney has been consistent in his foreign policy views — that is, strong on the war on jihadist terror, robust in his defense of Israel and supportive of the (now-successful) efforts in Iraq and the offensive in Afghanistan. During last night’s GOP debate, he gave this answer when asked if we should withdraw our troops from Afghanistan:

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.

But then he continued:

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.

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.

It wasn’t clear to me whether he was identifying Afghanistan as an imprudent war or whether he was responding to critics. Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser on Romney’s campaign, told me this morning: “Governor Romney supported the entry into Afghanistan and the surge to prevent the country from being a launching pad for terror. What he wants to see now is Afghan leadership step up in a way that’s been missing. They need to show the passion for liberty that is essential for independence.”

Well, that doesn’t sound like he’s bugging out prematurely or that he thinks the war was misguided at its inception.

Frankly, one key element that distinguishes Romney as well as Tim Pawlenty from the rest of the GOP presidential-contender crowd is their mature stance on national security and their refusal to fall captive to a distinct isolationist streak that was very much in evidence in the questions from the audience last night. The Republican who makes the case that the U.S. has a vital role to play in the world will be the candidate most capable of launching a successful indictment of President Obama’s many foreign policy stumbles. Who’s going to make the case against Russian reset? Provide a morally and strategically coherent alternative to Obama’s Middle East policy? That person will be the one who, I would argue, stands above the crowd and appears more than equal to Obama as a commander in chief when he or she has to take the stage in debates next fall.