By Andrew J. Polsky
Now that Mitt Romney has established himself as the certain Republican nominee in the 2012 president election, Americans will begin to scrutinize his record and his statements more closely. The economic problems that have beset the United States over the past four years mean that much of the attention will focus on Romney’s economic proposals. The ongoing controversy over “Obamacare” assures a focus on the Republican’s stance on health care. However, with an ongoing war in Afghanistan and continuing tensions over the Iranian nuclear weapons program, we also need to consider how Romney understands the role of the president as a commander in chief. Some of the signs are disturbing.
Early this year, Romney called for defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan. This has not been the American goal at least since President Obama announced his troop surge in late 2009. At that point, recognizing that the American people would not support a protracted counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, he opted instead for a campaign to weaken or “degrade” the opponents of the Kabul government. The United States also has sought to negotiate with the Taliban, a difficult task given its divided leadership. The Republican frontrunner has also disavowed the idea of a negotiated peace.
Some of this, of course, is posturing. Presidential candidates often take positions intended to convey messages about their character or to differentiate themselves from their opponent. No doubt the former Massachusetts governor believed it important to signal his “toughness,” an important presidential attribute, especially for a candidate with minimal foreign policy experience running against an incumbent who has served for four years as a wartime commander in chief.
But words have consequences, especially when uttered in a presidential campaign. They can bind a candidate to a course of action if he wins. And actors abroad, both allies and adversaries, may take them at face value and act accordingly.
Romney also believes he will enjoy a better relationship with Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who has so often frustrated American officials by refusing their entreaties to reform his government and control the rampant corruption that has alienated many of his people. Here Karzai is playing an old game, one we might recognize from Vietnam. If Karzai fears that an Obama reelection portends American departure and the possible collapse of his regime, then he has every reason to stonewall the current administration. President Nguyen Van Thieu regarded Lyndon Johnson the same way in 1968 when the Paris peace talks yielded a possible settlement shortly before the election. Like Thieu, Karzai reasons he can do no worse from a change at the top in Washington.
Also revealing are Romney’s comments about how he would relate to his military commanders on the ground. Although he accepts the general framework for withdrawing American combat troops by 2014, he says the timing of a drawdown should be determined by the military – when “our generals think it’s O.K.” But military operations need to be subordinated to clearly defined political objectives, not the other way around. Unless the use of American troops in ongoing operations advances the wartime political objectives a president had defined, their lives should not be put at risk.
And this points in turn to the most troubling aspect of Mitt Romney’s comments about the war. Despite the fact that the United States has been fighting in Afghanistan for a decade, he has yet to express his own war goals. He appears not to recognize how little latitude he would have as an incoming commander in chief inheriting a war that, for all intents, the American people have abandoned. All of the key players in Afghanistan and the surrounding region – Karzai and his government, the Taliban and its allies, al Qaeda, and Pakistan – know the United States is heading for the exit. This gives the next president very little leverage over what happens in the future. All that remains is to manage the American departure.
Andrew J. Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War.