What does the Republican Party or its presidential nominee think about the war in Afghanistan?
Good luck figuring it out from the party's recent convention, which offered conflicting views.
At the convention's Thursday night climax, actor Clint Eastwood made Afghanistan part of his critique of President Obama. Eastwood faulted President Obama, and implicitly, George W. Bush, by saying, "We didn't check with the Russians to see how they did there for 10 years." He ignored the distinction that Russia was fighting to subjugate Afghanistan to Communism, while America was responding to a terrorist attack on New York and the Pentagon that was planned in Afghanistan.
Eastwood went on, addressing the empty chair that stood in for Obama, "I think you've mentioned something about having a target date for bringing everybody home and you give that target date, and I think Romney asked the only sensible question. He says, 'Why are you giving the date out now? Why don't you just bring them home tomorrow morning?' And I thought — I thought, yeah."
The impression left was that Mitt Romney favors bringing America's troops home from Afghanistan "tomorrow morning."
Yet earlier, at the same convention, Senator McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential nominee four years earlier, said, "By committing to withdraw from Afghanistan, the president has discouraged and emboldened our enemies, which is why our commanders did not recommend these decisions, and why they have said it puts our mission at much greater risk."
As Olivier Knox of Yahoo! News points out, the same 2014 timetable that Eastwood and McCain are criticizing is one that Romney himself endorsed in a November 2011 Republican primary debate, in which he said, "The timetable, by the end of 2014, is the right timetable for us to be completely withdrawn from Afghanistan, other than a small footprint of support forces."
Knox quotes a Romney campaign spokeswoman, Amanda Henneberg, as saying Romney still supports the 2014 goal. The Romney campaign Web site page on Afghanistan and Pakistan does not mention that timetable, however, and Romney himself did not mention the Afghanistan war in his Republican convention speech.
A generous interpretation of all this is that the Republicans are a big-tent party that is confident enough to allow differing opinions on important questions. Another generous interpretation would be that Romney wants to keep the enemy confused about his plans.
A more cynical interpretation would be that the Romney campaign is intentionally keeping American voters confused about his plans. He's trying to win the votes of Afghanistan hawks and Afghanistan doves at the same time, while deferring until after the election the question about what actually to do about the war, a decision that is bound to displease either the hawks or the doves.
Not that President Obama has been any clearer.
On Sunday President Obama told a Colorado crowd, "We are bringing our troops home from Afghanistan. And I've set a timetable. We will have them all out of there by 2014." Then, about two hours later, Politico reports, White House press secretary Jay Carney walked back the president's remarks: "He never said that all the troops would be out."
As William Kristol observes, "More than 68,000 troops are deployed to Afghanistan," and "More than 2,000 Americans have died in over 10 years of fighting." And as Michael Ledeen reports, "military moms and dads" are saying: "if we're going to fight, so be it. But if we're retreating, then why are you leaving … one-tenth of our guys to endure the inevitable slaughter our enemies are so eager to inflict on us?"
I'm all for a campaign season that turns on questions of economic growth and, relatedly, the federal budget. But military spending is a factor in the federal budget. And past experience (George W. Bush, Franklin Roosevelt) is a reminder that sometimes even presidents elected on economic policy find themselves thrust by world events into military or foreign policy crises.
Obama has a record of nearly four years by which voters can judge him on these matters. And perhaps the upcoming presidential debates will help to clarify Romney's positions in a way the convention did not. Ambiguity can have its advantages for candidates and even, at times, for presidents. But for a voter trying to figure out whether a President Romney would withdraw from Afghanistan on Clint Eastwood's timetable of tomorrow, on the Romney campaign spokeswoman's and President Obama's (but not Obama's spokesman's) timetable of 2014, or on Senator McCain's no-timetable timetable, a little help from the candidate would go a long way.