Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) may have set the tone for the foreign policy debate in the Republican presidential nominating contest when he questioned the war in Afghanistan and its costs.
Barbour’s comments were quickly met with derision from the neocon wing of the GOP, but some Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers said the governor was taking a strong conservative stand on spending.
The differing reactions illustrate a tough political reality for Republicans in 2012: Even as public opinion increasingly turns against the war in Afghanistan and concern over the deficit intensifies, embracing talk of defense cuts and troop pullouts may still be a bridge too far.
But Barbour’s comments could ultimately result in a foreign policy debate between the presidential contenders that doesn't position Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) as comic relief in the area.
Not that any of the possible candidates will come close to embracing Paul's anti-war rhetoric or fiery brand of isolationism, but several Republican observers see an opening for a debate that's more nuanced than the stay-the-course rhetoric on Iraq and Afghanistan that dominated the GOP primary in 2008.
Speaking Tuesday in Iowa, Barbour, who has not officially announced a candidacy, said: "Anybody who says you can't save money at the Pentagon has never been to the Pentagon. We can save money on defense, and if we Republicans don't propose saving money on defense, we'll have no credibility on anything else." At the same campaign stop, Barbour questioned the way forward in Afghanistan, asking, "What is our mission? ... Is that a 100,000-man army mission?"
Neocons pounced on his statements. Writing in The Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol called Barbour's comments "irresponsible" and accused him of "pandering" to public opinion, suggesting there may be an opening in 2012 for a candidate who questions the direction in Afghanistan and puts defense cuts on the table.
But others say, at a time when Tea Party forces are pushing Republicans to put every option on the table when it comes to reducing the deficit, the governor's comments reflect a growing sentiment in conservative thought. "Gov. Barbour making such a public statement will break this issue wide open," predicted Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), one of just a small handful of House Republicans who voted Thursday in favor of a resolution to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
The resolution, put forward by Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.), was defeated resoundingly, but the number of lawmakers in support of it increased by more than two dozen from a similar measure Kucinich pushed last year. Chaffetz, who's still weighing a 2012 primary challenge to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), praised Barbour as the first rumored presidential candidate to espouse "what many will conclude is a good conservative position."
An ABC News-Washington Post poll released earlier this week showed opposition to the war in Afghanistan at an all-time high. It found just 31 percent believe the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting and that 73 percent want to see the U.S. withdraw a substantial number of troops by mid-summer. "Nobody wants to have something on their record that makes you look soft on defense or soft on terror," said Chaffetz. "I think that's why most members are scared to death to vote in favor of bringing troops home. But there are an awful lot of good conservatives out there who believe it is time to bring our troops and recognize that it doesn't mean the global war on terror has gone away."
Former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), who advised former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) on foreign policy during his 2008 campaign for president but is now aligned with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), also thinks Barbour's comments will ignite a debate that has been a long time coming within the ranks of the GOP. "This was inevitable," said Weber. "If it hadn't come from Haley Barbour, it would have come from someone else eventually. The reality is that the president's policy in Afghanistan is largely dependent on support from the opposition party. You're bound to see Republicans start to question that."
"The preeminent issue for conservative voters right now is federal spending," said Weber. "And it's impossible to have that discussion totally separate from the defense budget."
"Intentionally or not, Barbour's comments echo [former Republican National Committee Chairman] Michael Steele's from last year," said Stephen Yates, who served as a deputy assistant to former Vice President Dick Cheney for national security affairs. "And that didn't go all that well for Michael Steele." In a critique of the Afghan war last summer, Steele labeled it 'a war of Obama's choosing,' leading to calls for his resignation from some leading conservatives.
But it could be a strong issue in 2012. "The other part of this," said Chaffetz, "is that the president is highly vulnerable on this issue. America is wary of the continued body bags coming back from Afghanistan and he doesn't have a plan. ... I think if Gov. Barbour and others choose to take the route of bringing home troops from Afghanistan, it will be another point of distinction from the president and it really cuts into his base from a purely political standpoint."
He quickly added: "That's not the reason to do it, but it is one of the consequences."