What exactly did Mitt Romney mean when he spoke about pulling out of Afghanistan during the New Hampshire debate? His remarks have been interpreted in different ways, and the attempted clarifications from his staff haven’t completely cleared up the confusion.
While Romney’s campaign denied to Politico that he has expressed private concerns about the war’s slipping poll numbers, his foreign policy advisor Mitchell Reiss did indicate that Romney was responding to the war’s waning popularity:
“The hallmark of [a policy’s] success is whether it can sustain domestic support and there is a fatigue about this war,” Reiss said. “The governor was trying to adresss some of those concerns — this is not going to be an open ended commitment forever — and yet he does recognize the strategic importance of victory in Afghanistan.”
The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin spoke to Romney’s senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom, who also said that Romney understands the national security interests of Afghanistan. “Governor Romney supported the entry into Afghanistan and the surge to prevent the country from being a launching pad for terror,” said Fehrnstrom. “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.”
But Romney’s original comment has been perceived as a sign that the GOP field isn’t fully invested in Afghanistan. Sen. Lindsey Graham complained on Tuesday that none of the 2012 candidates at the debate gave “a strategic vision why it’s important we get it right in Afghanistan, what happens to our country if we don’t.”
Graham criticized Romney directly, saying, “From the party’s point of view, the biggest disaster would be to let Barack Obama become Ronald Reagan and our people become Jimmy Carter.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that Romney’s comments were one indicator of a “renewed streak of isolationism among Republicans.”
But it’s possible that Romney, who developed a reputation as an opportunist during his last presidential bid, was only testing the political waters on the issue.
“Romney has proven himself a little bit of a weathervane and I guess he senses that positioning himself in this place is good for his campaign — attempting to appease Ron Paul’s constituents without actually being Ron Paul,” Danielle Pletka told Politico. “You can’t really triangulate on these issues. Either you think we’re fighting a war we need to win or you think we ought to bring all the troops home, but he said it all there.”
And it doesn’t seem like he’ll be able to play to both sides for much longer.