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January 29, 2008

Robert Kagan on Romney's Non-Support of the Surge

A bit of tealeaf reading here, but honestly, it is my own gauzy recollection based on such things that Romney wasn't leaning very far forward on the surge.

It is true, as you write, that “Romney wasn't as enthusiastic about [the surge] and in his body language, if nothing else seemed ready to distance himself from it if it failed.” But he went further than that. In June 2007, when there were already good signs that the surge was working, Romney told an interviewer, “I think we would hope to turn Iraq security over to their own military and their own security forces, and if presence in the region is important for us than we have other options that are nearby." (This is quoted by Dobbs in the Post) That may seem innocuous enough now. But you remember how thinsg were at the time. That was the way both Democrats and Republican supporters of withdrawal described their plan in those days. The idea was to pull U.S. troops out of the fighting in Iraq, hand over the fight to the Iraqis, and station U.S. forces “nearby” or “over the horizon.” That was how advisers to Hillary Clinton described their preferred option. It was how people who supported the Baker-Hamilton commission report described their ideal option. They didn’t call for immediate and total abandonment of Iraq — and very few do so today. When people who favored withdrawal explained their plan, it was as Romney described it. The fact that he also talked about “timetables” in an earlier interview, albeit secret “timetables,” also puts him in what was then the withdrawal camp.

Everyone who was fighting for the surge in the early months of last year — and that was not a very large number of people back then—was desperately looking around Republican ranks for support. Most Republicans on the Hill were quiet. Most conservative commentators were not working up any enthusiasm, to say the least. And aside from McCain, the leading Republican presidential candidates at the time were being careful. It was clear that both Giuliani and Romney were tempted to let McCain take the issue and self-immolate. But of the two, I remember, Rudy was the one who decided to put himself most clearly on the side of the surge. He began speaking out on the need for more troops in his public appearances. The contrast with Romney is even more striking in this regard. As best I can recall, Giuliani never talked about timetables, withdrawal, or about stationing forces “nearby.” Among the three leading candidates, only Romney took that line.

First of all, it should be remembered that McCain himself did a lot of political positioning on the war. He's fond of saying that he had the guts to challenge Rumsfeld when the war wasn't being won. That's partly true. It's also partly true that McCain found this position -- criticizing the execution of the war -- to be politically helpful, as he it afforded him the opportunity to distance himself from it while attacking Bush, supposedly, from the right.

Secondly, McCain himself was open to the idea of "timetables" and "benchmarks" and spoke in favor of them. Kagan's summary leaves out some important context: the public had turned against the war by this point and even those who firmly supported the goal of victory in Iraq found it necessary -- as McCain did -- to offer up appeasements to anti-war sentiment, to reassure the public that we were not, in fact, necessarily staying "forever," as the Democrats had it.

McCain did that too. So did Bush. "Benchmarks" and "timetables" -- of the goal sort, not the date-certain type -- became for many pro-war politicians the soft soap offered to a public tiring of war in order to keep the goal of victory alive.

In this context, Romney was deferring to conventional political wisdom on the point. He wasn't being a leader for the war effort, true enough. But neither was he being a leader against the war.

I'm not sure I can tell the difference between McCain's and Bush's soft, grudging support for benchmarks and unenforceable timetables and Romney's blessing of the same. They appear fairly similar.

I also don't see how Romney' statement about ultimately turning over Iraq to the Iraqis is somehow damning. That is everybody's goal, including Bush, McCain, and even the oil-vampire Dick Cheney. Kagan reads into this some code for withdrawal; I don't. He's expressing simply the hope of an end of the US involvement in the war, which everyone does, from left to right, from dove to hawk. Kagan reads into this a wish to withdraw no matter what the consequences; but the fact he can't find a quote that better aids him suggests there is none to be found.

The rest is up to "body language," the feeling, based on how passionately he spoke on the issue, that Romney meant more than this while Bush and McCain meant less. Having sometimes gotten that feeling myself based on "body language" and passion, I can't say that's an absurd inference. But it is, ultimately, just a sense.

In the "context" Kagan discusses, he seems to forget that even pro-war supporters were scrambling to meet the demands for immediate withdrawal with some reassurances to the public that would blunt the then-perceived stampede for the exits. He seizes upon ambiguous words of Romney to claim that Romney, unlike McCain, was in the bug-out camp whereas McCain's not-terribly-dissimilar statements were proof of his unwavering commitment to the war. That's a very big distinction to make upon such weak evidence.

Thanks to CJ.

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posted by Ace at 02:37 PM

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