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Can Pawlenty Capitalize on His Afghanistan Stance?

The immediate reaction to the president’s speech last night showed there is a clear split in the GOP on the issue. On one side of the divide is former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who delivered a stinging rebuke to the president on the Bill O’Reilly show on Fox News last night as well as demonstrating he has a good idea about what America’s goals should be in any war it fights:

I thought his speech was deeply concerning. Look how he phrased the outcome of this war. He said we need to end the war, quote unquote, responsibly. When America goes to war, America needs to win. We need to close out the war successfully, and what that means now is not nation-building. What it means is to follow General Petraeus’s advice and to get those security forces built up where they can pick up the slack as we drawdown.

I supported the surge, and I would have supported it even at a higher level as General McChrystal recommended. I supported President Obama’s decision to surge even at the levels that he did, but it shows you a window in his thinking on the very night that he announced the surge, he very quickly announced a deadline for withdrawal.

At the other end of the spectrum was Jon Huntsman, who true to his strategy of running to the left of not only his GOP rivals but of President Obama on foreign policy, called for even steeper troop drawdowns than those offered by the president.

Predictably, Mitt Romney, who sounded an ambivalent note about Afghanistan during last week’s New Hampshire GOP presidential debate, placed himself somewhere in the middle on the issue. Romney did denounce the idea of “an arbitrary timeline” and said the decision “should not be based on politics or economics.” But beyond that, the careful Romney would go no further, only saying he wanted to hear testimony from military commanders.

But of the viable GOP contenders, there was silence from only one candidate: Michele Bachmann. Bachmann, who in the past has been a stalwart defender of the war effort in Afghanistan while opposing the intervention in Libya, did not release a statement after the president’s speech. Bachmann’s absence from the debate is puzzling.

But the two candidates with the clearest positions on the issue may well have tied their fortunes to this debate. Jon Huntsman has gained applause from establishment pundits and GOP “realist” elites with his anti-war stance, but it is far from clear the Republican grass roots will be excited by a candidate who wants to outflank Obama on the left.


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