The Battle for Mitt's Mind

Article excerpt

Byline: Leslie H. Gelb

Romney's foreign policy: growl loudly, and avoid land wars.

Foreign policy sits so far back in American politics today that something quite important has gone almost unnoticed: Republicans are doing what does not come naturally--fighting openly on Afghan policy and edging toward an ever broader national-security squabble. They're usually quite disciplined about quieting their foreign-policy splits. But now the battle is on for the mind of Mitt Romney.

Romney, the likely party standard-bearer in November, himself legitimized the tussle by changing his own mind on the war from hard to soft to something else. But demons far deeper have been tugging at Republicans--namely, how to grapple with the new age of unending nonconventional threats and wars and lethal national debt. And with new times come new politics. Democrats are far less vulnerable on this score, as most Americans like President Obama's performance abroad, including his surprise trip to Afghanistan last week. But Afghan policy is more gravitational for Republicans; a recent Pew poll shows that 48 percent of them want U.S. forces out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, as do 62 percent of independents.

Of course, Republicans have always had their differences over foreign affairs. President Eisenhower had to confront the powerful isolationist wing of the party led by Ohio Sen. Robert Taft. Since the Vietnam War and President Nixon's efforts at detente with the dreaded Soviet Union, there has been a perennial struggle between conservative realists like Henry Kissinger and neoconservatives like Richard Perle. But on most occasions, GOP presidents could cool family quarrels.

Now there is more of a mishmash, with new elements harder to understand and control. Here's the rather novel spectrum. Most hawks are still hawks. They want to stay the course in Afghanistan until we have defeated the Taliban and al Qaeda, whatever the cost. They are far less interested in Obama's schedule of getting U.S. combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 than they are in victory. Obama deflected this blow in Kabul last Tuesday by touting a new pact with Kabul to keep unspecified numbers of U.S. forces in Afghanistan until 2024 and provide billions in aid. He even took away some of former U.N. ambassador John Bolton's thunder by pledging to stay there until the job is done. But he fell short of meeting military historian Max Boot's demand to leave 30,000 U. …