Republican Candidates Finish Flirting with Isolationism

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The Republican presidential field briefly flirted with attacking Obama for waging too much war before deciding he's not waging quite enough. Only a few months ago, one of the best ways for the Republican presidential candidates to get applause in debates was to express skepticism about the wars in Afghanistan and Libya. Ron Paul blew away his rivals in the June debate if you judge by applause interruptions, according to the Los Angeles Times. When Mitt Romney said he'd listen to the generals on the ground before pulling out of Afghanistan, Paul responded, "I wouldn't wait for my generals ... I'm the commander in chief. I make the decisions." Cheers followed. But Romney still showed a little dovishness, saying "we've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation." Five months later, he sounds totally different. In answering his first question at Saturday's foreign policy-focused debate, Romney said "President Obama's greatest failing" was that he didn't "speak out when [Iranian] dissidents took the streets and say, 'America is with you" nor did he "work on a covert basis to encourage the dissidents." He pledged his "support of insurgents within the country."

Conservative columnists appear super-pleased the entire Republican presidential field is getting over its dove phase. The Weekly Standard was dismayed in early September, when Jon Huntsman "sounded more like President Obama than the previous Republican president of the United States" -- and Rick Perry agreed with him. But the magazine found the tone at Saturday's event more heartening. Stephen F. Hayes wrote that if Romney "came into this debate wanting to look strong and resolute – a good bet – he succeeded." Hayes was happy Romney made it clear that he'd do more than put economic sanctions on Iran if it tried to get a nuclear weapon. Commentary's Jonathan S. Tobin said the debate showed "the divide in the GOP presidential field on foreign policy is between those who know what they are talking about and those who don't" -- and that while Romney is on the right side of that divide, Herman Cain isn't. (Cain said he'd only wanted to put economic sanctions on Iran.) Tobin thought Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann said the right things -- Bachmann once lamented Obama had put troops in a "fourth conflict in a foreign land" but Saturday warned "It seems that the table is being set for worldwide nuclear war against Israel." 

The Republican-leaning Rasmussen finds that 38 percent of Americans approve of using military force in Iran, National Review notes, while 35 percent are against it. It's not clear whether in the general election the Republican candidate will try to pull those undecideds toward military action or ease up on his or her hawkishness. But NBC News' First Read wonders whether "war-weary Americans [will] embrace hawkish rhetoric on Iran," given that polls show a large majority of Americans support Obama's decision to pull all troops out of Iraq by the end of the year. 

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