Romney Goes AWOL on Afghanistan
In his meticulously choreographed entry into the convention hall last night, Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney greeted the assembled delegates to convey the feel of a State of the Union address. But any resemblance to a Commander-in-Chief last night ended there. With tens of thousands of U.S. troops still in harm's way, Governor Romney mentioned the war in Afghanistan exactly zero times. And for a man who opposed U.S. strikes in Pakistan to take out Osama Bin Laden and other high-value Al Qaeda targets, the silence on America's continuing conflict in Afghanistan is deafening.
During his remarks, Romney once again suggested his willingness to start a new war with Iran. But when it came to the old one in Afghanistan, the newly crowned nominee, who in March asked "how in the world can the commander in chief sleep at night, knowing that we have soldiers in harm's way that don't know exactly, precisely, what it is that they're doing there?" had nothing to say. Even Romney's staunch ally and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol was stunned at the unprecedented omission:
The United States has some 68,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan. Over two thousand Americans have died in the more than ten years of that war, a war Mitt Romney has supported. Yet in his speech accepting his party's nomination to be commander in chief, Mitt Romney said not a word about the war in Afghanistan. Nor did he utter a word of appreciation to the troops fighting there, or to those who have fought there. Nor for that matter were there thanks for those who fought in Iraq, another conflict that went unmentioned.
Leave aside the question of the political wisdom of Romney's silence, and the opportunities it opens up for President Obama next week. What about the civic propriety of a presidential nominee failing even to mention, in his acceptance speech, a war we're fighting and our young men and women who are fighting it? Has it ever happened that we've been at war and a presidential nominee has ignored, in this kind of major and formal speech, the war and our warriors?
The absence seems all the more glaring, given that four years ago Mitt Romney made fighting "this century's nightmare, jihadism - violent, radical Islamic fundamentalism" a centerpiece of his campaign. On the other hand, this time around Team Romney concluded that on the subject of Afghanistan, the less said the better. And with good reason.
For starters, Romney despite his subsequent denials opposed the kind of unilateral U.S. raids that would eventually kill Osama Bin Laden. On August 1, 2007, then Senator Barack Obama delivered a major speech on foreign policy. In addition to pledging to unilaterally launch strikes against Bin Laden and other high-value targets in Pakistan, Obama promised he would ramp up the U.S. effort in the under-resourced effort across the border in Afghanistan. In July 2008, Obama explained that "we must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights." But the first version of presidential candidate Mitt Romney said no:
"I do not concur in the words of Barack Obama in a plan to enter an ally of ours... I don't think those kinds of comments help in this effort to draw more friends to our effort...There is a war being waged by terrorists of different types and nature across the world," Romney said. "We want, as a civilized world, to participate with other nations in this civilized effort to help those nations reject the extreme with them."
That might seem like an incongruous statement coming from the same Mitt Romney who in November said of our "ally" Pakistan, "We need to help bring Pakistan into the 21st century, or the 20th for that matter." It's more comical still coming from the same Mitt Romney who told Chuck Todd of MSNBC that he now supports the very kind of operation to take out Osama Bin Laden he once opposed:
"I think in a setting like this one where Osama bin Laden was identified to be hiding in Pakistan, that it was entirely appropriate for this president to move in and to take him out," Romney replied, later adding that "In a similar circumstance, I think other presidents and other candidates, like myself, would do exactly the same thing."
Of course, Romney's confusion about whether to respect or not respect Pakistani sovereignty may have something to do with his past reversals about whether or not killing Osama Bin Laden even mattered:
In May 2007, Romney alarmingly--and erroneously--equated Sunni and Shiite, friend and foe, the guilty and the innocent across the Islamic world.
"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."
Even regarding that "one person, Osama Bin Laden," Romney struggled. After insisting in May 2007 that "It's not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person," Romney reversed course just three days later and declared of Bin Laden, "He's going to pay, and he will die."
As it turns out, Mitt Romney's revisionist history and gymnastic flip-flops on Afghanistan hardly end there. In June 2011, Romney stunned his conservative allies when he declared:
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 Afghan 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."
Mitt got the memo.
Still, he hasn't had much to say since. Aside from criticizing President Obama's public timeline for withdrawal in 2014, the New York Times reported earlier this year, "Mr. Romney has loosely embraced the main thrust of White House policy for troop levels after the election: a timetable for pulling out nearly all troops by the end of 2014."
And for this Hamlet of Republican foreign policy, the rest is silence.
One day after Mitt Romney went AWOL on Afghanistan, President Obama used today's anniversary of the end of the Iraq War to visit Ft. Bliss to honor America's military men and women ignored by Romney Thursday night. Meanwhile, the White House urged all Americans to support the servicemen and women still fighting the war in Afghanistan.
To which would-be President Mitt Romney last night essentially responded, "What war?"