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GOP Frets as Romney's Tough Talk on Terror Disappears

June 15, 2011

To be sure, Mitt Romney is the man Republican hard-liners love to hate. While anti-abortion groups and free-market fundamentalists ramp up their all-out "stop Romney" efforts, the Manchester Union Leader blasted Mitt as "high-falutin' and haughty" for acting as if had the GOP presidential nomination already sewn up. But after Romney's curious comments about Afghanistan during Monday's CNN debate, it's the Republican establishment that's getting worried about their frontrunner. The same Mitt Romney who fours year ago said Osama Bin Laden "is going to pay and he will die", that "we ought to double Guantanamo" and warned of world domination by a "single jihadist caliphate," Republicans now fret, has grown weak at the knees.
The conservative apoplexy started seconds after the assembled GOP candidates were asked, "Isn't it time to bring our combat troops home from Afghanistan?" Governor Romney responded:

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...
That is I think we've learned some important lessons in our experience in Afghanistan. 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 was that last part that produced near-hysteria among the Republican chattering class. Writing in the Weekly Standard, Dick Cheney hagiographer and Iraq-9/11 fabulist Stephen Hayes worried, "What did Mitt mean?" Politico, which reported "Mitt Romney's Afghanistan remark stuns GOP pals," quoted a puzzled pro-war Republican:

"I don't know what that's supposed to mean. Nobody's over there fighting for Aghan independence. From who?"

South Carolina Senator and John McCain mini-me Lindsey Graham took the criticism of Romney even further. "This is not a war of independence, this is a war to protect America's national vital security interests," Graham said, adding:

"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."

For his part, the Weekly Standard's Hayes bought the Romney campaign follow up clarifications and reassured himself that Mitt wasn't "Romney channeling the isolationist wing of the Republican Party." But given Mitt Romney's tough talk in the past, it was no surprise that the likes of NBC's Chuck Todd and the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza found it "striking" that Romney "sounded a lot less like George W. Bush and more like Ron Paul."

After all, years before Glenn Beck warned "All Islamic governments would unify under a caliphate," candidate Romney repeatedly issued the same dire warning. In May 2007, Romney alarmingly - and erroneously - conflated Sunni and Shiite, friend and foe, the guilty and the innocent across the Islamic world into a single jihadist threat:

"But I don't want to buy into the Democratic pitch, that this is all about one person, Osama bin Laden. Because after we get him, there's going to be another and another. This is about Shia and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the worldwide jihadist effort to try and cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate."

As it turned out, Romney wasn't the only Republican spouting the "Islamofascism" talking point. But by the fall of 2007, Mitt expanded his umbrella to include Iran. In an October 2007 campaign ad simply titled, "Jihad," Romney amazingly explained that Shiite Iran wanted to join Sunni Muslims in extending their dominion over the entire world:

"It's this century's nightmare, jihadism - violent, radical Islamic fundamentalism. Their goal is to unite the world under a single jihadist caliphate."

Which is just one of the reasons why Mitt Romney later attacked President Obama for his "apology tour." In the fall of 2009, Romney blasted Obama, the man who as promised tripled U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan and quadrupled U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan:

"The president's inattention and dereliction have reminded me of the Northwest Airline pilots who became so distracted with things of little importance that they lost their way, which is exactly what this president has done in Afghanistan. In this case with greater consequence."

As it turns out, one other apparent Romney reversal in Monday night's debate has attracted much less attention from commenters left and right. While pizza mogul Herman Cain was justifying his demand for special loyalty oaths from would-be Muslim nominees, Mitt Romney sounded the voice of reason. Asked by John King if "should one segment be singled out and treated differently," Romney answered:

"No, I think we recognize that the people of all faiths are welcome in this country. Our nation was founded on a principal of religious tolerance. That's in fact why some of the early patriots came to this country and we treat people with respect regardless of their religious persuasion."

That's quite a turnabout for Mitt. After all, long before Herman Cain suggested Muslims appointees must swear that special loyalty oath to serve in his Cabinet, Mitt Romney explained they need not apply period.
In November 2007, the former Massachusetts Governor said as much to Mansoor Ijaz at a fundraiser in Las Vegas. As Ijaz recounted:

I asked Mr. Romney whether he would consider including qualified Americans of the Islamic faith in his cabinet as advisers on national security matters, given his position that "jihadism" is the principal foreign policy threat facing America today. He answered, "...based on the numbers of American Muslims [as a percentage] in our population, I cannot see that a cabinet position would be justified. But of course, I would imagine that Muslims could serve at lower levels of my administration."

(Despite Romney's subsequent denials, Greg Sargent and Steve Benen documented other occasions during which Mitt repeated his No Muslims Need Apply policy.)
That Mitt Romney was nowhere on display during Monday's Manchester Muslim bashing by Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain. As CNN noted, "Cain's and Gingrich's comments on American Muslims supplied some of the night's biggest applause lines."
As for Mitt Romney's seeming reversals on Afghanistan and Muslims in America before the assembled right-wing faithful, not so much.

One comment on “GOP Frets as Romney's Tough Talk on Terror Disappears”

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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