Graham warns Romney risks looking like Jimmy Carter on Afghanistan

A leading Republican voice on national security said Tuesday that presidential contender Mitt Romney risks looking like Jimmy Carter if he doesn’t take a stronger stance on Afghanistan.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), who supported Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) against Romney in the 2008 presidential primary, leveled one of his party’s most stinging insults at the 2012 front-runner in response to Romney’s statements in Monday’s New Hampshire debate.

He directly challenged Romney’s suggestion that the conflict in Afghanistan was a war of independence, and added: “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.”

Graham was not alone in his skepticism about Romney. Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), a senior Republican member of the Armed Services Committee, also voiced dismay with the former Massachusetts governor’s characterization of the Afghan war.

In the debate, Romney said he believes the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan should be based on security conditions there instead of political or fiscal considerations. But he also appeared to undercut the rationale for U.S. involvement by suggesting that American troops are fighting a war for Afghan independence against Taliban influence.

Romney said: “Our troops shouldn’t go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban.”

Graham retorted on Tuesday, saying “this is not a war of independence, this is a war to protect America’s national vital security interests.”

The senator acknowledged that Romney said withdrawal should be “conditions-based,” but expressed dismay that “no one articulated last night a strategic vision why it’s important we get it right in Afghanistan, what happens to our country if we don’t.”

Graham said if Romney and other candidates aren’t willing to defend the mission in Afghanistan as crucial to U.S. national security interests, they risk invidious comparisons, such as with Carter, who was seen as weak in handling the Iran hostage crisis.

Graham said he believes the GOP is at risk of ceding its ownership of national-security issues, adding, “I’m not going to let that happen without some speaking out.”

Inhofe backed up Graham, criticizing Romney’s implication that the conflict is an Afghan war for independence.

“Mitt is — I’ll tell you the mistake he’s making — he’s trying the old big-tent routine; it never works,” Inhofe said. “He doesn’t understand the situation if he thinks that’s what this is about; this has nothing to do with independence.” 

Inhofe wasn’t happy with what he saw as a somewhat “bland” articulation of GOP national-security values in Monday’s debate.

“I didn’t see anyone really articulate the real sense of urgency and what Republicans stand for,” Inhofe said. “Republicans were tending to try to moderate and be everyone’s friend, with the exception of our friend from the pizza shop,” he said, referring to candidate Herman Cain.

Inhofe said he would support Texas Gov. Rick Perry jumping into the race.

Several conservatives have expressed unhappiness with the current crop of GOP presidential hopefuls, which has led to speculation that someone like Perry or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie could jump into the race.

Christie has repeatedly denied any interest in running, but Perry has been wavering, telling Fox News on Tuesday that he is “giving it some serious thought.”

A spokesman for Romney’s campaign reiterated the candidate’s stance on Afghanistan, saying, “Gov. Romney is pretty clearly opposed to President Obama’s artificial deadlines.

“He will not make a withdrawal decision based on politics or economics but instead will base it on information from commanders in the field,” the spokesman said.

Romney’s campaign pointed out a column by conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin published in The Washington Post that defended Romney’s Afghanistan remarks in Monday’s debate.

Rubin said she wasn’t clear at first whether Romney was calling Afghanistan an imprudent war, but noted Romney’s spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, reassured her “Romney supported the entry into Afghanistan and the surge to prevent the country from being a launching pad for terror.”

“What he wants to see now is Afghan leadership step up in a way that’s been missing. They need to show the passion for liberty that is essential for independence,” Fehrnstrom told her. 

McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee who serves as ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has steered clear of judging Monday’s debate.

“I am not going to Monday-morning-quarterback this,” he told The Hill.