The GOP's foreign-policy quandary

On the heels of the death of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and President Obama's announcement late last week that U.S. forces will soon be pulling out of Iraq, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is accusing the president of making military and national-security decisions based on politics. "I would argue Iraq and Afghanistan is being run out of Chicago, not Washington, in terms of decisions," Graham said on Fox News Sunday.

No surprise there — we knew President Obama can't get credit from Republicans for his foreign-policy and defense successes, no matter how many he piles up. But the real news from Graham's comments is his concern that GOP presidential candidates may be giving the president a free pass. "To the Republican Party: National security matters; step up on it," said Graham. "We've got a jobs problem. We've got a national-security problem that is growing by the day."

Graham is critical of the president's decision — once the Iraqis refused to provide immunity to our remaining troops — to leave Iraq completely, since Gen. Allen has said security gains there would require up to 18,000 troops. The announcement, Graham said, has caused "dancing in the streets in Tehran." Graham, a hawk, is correct that Iran has been meddling in Afghanistan and Iraq throughout the time U.S. armed forces have fought there, and that its influence will only grow as our troops depart. He strongly disagrees with Obama's use of "smart" power that aims to join in collective action rather than have the United States take the lead. "Here's the big mistake from leading from behind: When you take American air power off the table, NATO is a much weaker force ... if you go to war, go to win, don't lead from behind," Graham said.

But as political as the president's decisions may be, they are also substantive and based in an unfortunate reality, that the American public no longer believes the war is winnable or that we should spend any more money or time or risk any more lives there. Indeed, as messy as the Libyan operation was, a majority of Americans would prefer a seven-month, allied operation that topples a dictator who has ruled for more than 40 years, and cost $2 billion and not one American life.

The Republican presidential candidates, meanwhile, aren't exactly sure what to say. While most of them agree it is dangerous to take all troops out of Iraq now, on Libya and Afghanistan they aren't so consistent. Rick Santorum has been clear about having to stay on in Afghanistan, but Mitt Romney has waffled, Rick Perry has made conflicting statements and Jon Huntsman has joined Ron Paul and Haley Barbour in saying it's time to go.

But Graham wants more clarity from the GOP candidates on these issues — or else. "If I hear a Republican nominee for president embrace 'leading from behind' they will have a very difficult time in South Carolina," he warned.


WHO THINKS THE SUPERCOMMITTEE WILL REACH A DEBT DEAL IN THREE WEEKS? Ask A.B. returns Tuesday, Nov. 1. Please join my weekly video Q&A by sending your questions and comments to askab@thehill.com. Thank you.