Rick Perry and the GOP’s Afghanistan Bind

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Rick Perry is still laboring to articulate a clear position on Afghanistan. At Monday night’s Republican debate, Perry–who has no real foreign policy experience beyond flying Air Force cargo planes abroad–seemed to endorse Jon Huntsman’s call for a major drawdown from Afghanistan. Yesterday, an unnamed Perry adviser revised and extended the gentleman’s remarks for Foreign Policy:

“If increasingly the Afghans can do this kind of work, then of course we want to bring our people home. It’s good for us, it’s good for them. But Gov. Perry is not confident in the Obama policy, which seems to be driven largely by politics, and he’s not confident in the 100,000 troops number. He’d like to know if it’s possible at 40,000,” the advisor said, explaining that the rationale for the specific number of U.S. troops on the ground has never been clearly explained by the administration.”He would lean toward wanting to bring our troops home, but he understands that we have vital strategic interests in Afghanistan and that a precipitous withdrawal is not what he’s recommending.”

This position is incredibly tortured. A presence of 100,000 troops seems too high to Perry, but he opposes Obama’s plan for a modest withdrawal of about 30,000 troops because it’s apparently driven by “politics.” He’s against a precipitous withdrawal, yet he’s interested in a 60 percent reduction in forces–to a level that would make David Petraeus bang his forehead on his desk.

Perry isn’t the only Republican to send mixed signals on Afghanistan. That’s because the GOP candidates are torn between two powerful forces.¬†One is the general public’s loss of patience with the Afghanistan war. Especially now that Osama bin Laden is shark food, a clear majority of Americans want us out–regardless of whether Afghan troops can execute jumping jacks. But Republican voters are still on board: As of June, 53% of them still favored fighting on until Afghanistan has been stabilized (whatever that means). Just as important, perhaps, Republicans who dare to hum a dovish tune invite retribution from the party’s high-profile hawks, which include the influential likes of Bill Kristol, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and lose the ability to align themselves with a gold-seal brand like Petraeus, who opposed the President’s decision to roll back his troop surge by next spring.

The larger context here is the amazing difficulty Republicans continue to have in getting traction against President Obama on national security. Obama has killed bin Laden and countless al-Qaeda operatives. We haven’t been hit with a successful terror attack. A confusing and unpopular operation in Libya is turning out to be a big success (all the more so with every day that passes quietly, without anarchy, radicalism or insurgency). And Obama has walked a politically agile line on Afghanistan, tonally emphasizing a move to the exits that pleases the center without adopting a troop level so low that it risks major military setbacks. It’s an impressive feat for a Democrat who came to office with scant foreign policy experience. No wonder his Republican rivals are squirming.