First impressions from a presidential debate are always about how things look, how people come across. Tim Pawlenty doesn’t really assert, he natters. Rick Santorum is earnest, Michelle Bachmann serious. Mitt Romney knows how he looks in every camera shot from every angle: He is a master of the cutaway shot, when the camera isn’t on him. He keeps his posture and maintains a kindly smile, as if he’s pleased the other candidates are sharing their nice little thoughts.
But the GOP debate in New Hampshire was a big success in two ways. First, there was no obvious candidate from Crazytown, which was a boon to the party’s reputation and brand, and which may help it more easily shake itself out and pick an electable candidate. In a functionally 50-50 nation and in a campaign in which Democrats hope to spend a billion dollars, this could turn into a significant benefit. Second, and more important, the foreign-policy discussion, though limited, was marked by a new sobriety. There was no spirit of adventurism, there were no burly promises of victories around the corner and lights at the ends of tunnels. It was more muted than that, more realistic, different in tone and tenor from four and eight years ago. This signaled a real shift, and a heartening one.
No one was dreamy. Those on the stage staked a claim in the reality-based community. Mitt Romney, asked if it’s time to bring our combat troops home from Afghanistan, said yes, “as soon as we possibly can.” Then, more interestingly, he offered, “I think we’ve learned some important lessons in our experience in Afghanistan. . . . 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.”
The last sentence is so thumpingly obvious that Mr. Romney was soon under pressure to recant, or rather clarify.
Every candidate who was asked took issue with U.S. involvement in Libya. Michele Bachmann asserted no “American interests” were at stake: “We were not attacked. We were not threatened with attack.” Newt Gingrich spoke of “fundamentally . . . reassessing our entire strategy in the region.” Ron Paul said we should get our troops home. Tim Pawlenty nattered on about something, but even he didn’t take an opportunity to ask for patience on Afghanistan. John Huntsman, who was not announced and not present at the debate, told CNN he has doubts about the cost of Afghanistan and the likelihood of U.S. success there.
All of this had the sound of the Republican Party inching its way back from 10 years of un-Republican behavior, from a kind of bullying dreaminess about the world: “Everyone wants to be like us.” Actually, everyone doesn’t. There are days when even we, with our political paralysis, financial collapse and coarse culture, don’t want to be like us.
Does this suggest a return of isolationism, as some critics have said? No, and not necessarily by any means. Isolationists think they can be isolated, which is just another form of romanticism and unreality. We live in the world. We will never again be apart from it; trade and technology wouldn’t allow us to if we wanted to. We have real alliances and real foes. But there is little taste now for what is fast becoming an old vision that progress can be made and U.S. security enhanced through invasion, pacification and occupation. There is little taste for the idea that we can easily, or even arduously, force the complete cultural change of other hearts and other minds. Terrorism is a threat. There are many ways to fight it.
But the larger point is that sometimes parties step away from themselves, stop being what they are. The Democrats are doing it now, in their soggy interventionism in Libya. So it’s especially good to see the Republicans start to return to themselves, to their essential nature as a party, which was invented to be genially sober, like Lincoln, optimistic but not unrealistic, like Reagan, and accepting that life has limits and it’s not unpatriotic to say so.
A flurry of polls this week show the public is on the side of the new sobriety. CNN had 62% now opposing the war in Afghanistan, just 36% in favor. CBS News found 64% want the number of U.S. troops decreased, and 51% said the U.S. shouldn’t be in Afghanistan at all. A Washington Post/ABC News poll said 54% of respondents feel the war has not been worth fighting, and 73% said the U.S. should withdraw combat forces this summer. A Rasmussen survey found a combined 56% who said the U.S. should withdraw from Afghanistan immediately or on a firm timetable, up four points since March.
What has been behind decline in support for the war? The obvious. It has gone on almost 10 years. It is America’s longest war. We have been there longer than the Soviets were. No one in a position of authority credibly or coherently explains the path to victory, or even what victory would look like. Are we losing young men so that a year from now we can commence 10 years of peace talks with the Taliban? Toward what end? What will we be asking for, that they be nice?
America is now full of veterans of Afghanistan, and while many will agree with the original mission, or the current mission as they understand it, it is certain that at the American dinner table the cost, complexity and confusion of the effort are being discussed. And the killing of Osama bin Laden provided a psychic endpoint to the drama. The day we went into Afghanistan, we were trying to find him and kill him. Six weeks ago, we found him and killed him. All wars run on a great rush of feeling, of fervor. That feeling and fervor have on an essential level been satisfied.
But there’s something else, probably the most important fact of all.
We are as a nation, on paper, almost bankrupt. Or bankrupt, depending on how you judge. Among the Republican candidates for president, there is a growing awareness that America does not have a foreign policy unless we have the money to pay for it. We do not have an army unless we can fund it. We do not have diplomacy and a diplomatic structure without money. We do not have alliances and friendships sealed by aid without money. We do not go forward and impress the nations with our values, might and leadership without money.
We cannot lead, or even be an example, without money. And we are out of it. Therefore, reordering our financial life and seeing to our financial strength is the single most constructive thing we can do to create and maintain a sound U.S. foreign policy. If we want to be safe in the world, we must be sturdy at home.
That is why those inclined to take an unfriendly or competitive view toward us increasingly see us as a paper tiger. Because they hold our paper.
The problem with Afghanistan, and Iraq for that matter, is not only that after 10 years our efforts have turned out to be—polite word—inconclusive. We are spending money we don’t have for aims we cannot even articulate.