In the waning minutes of last week's Republican presidential debate, Mitt Romney was opining about Afghanistan when he uttered something that, in past years, would have been condemned by virtually all Republicans as dovish blasphemy.
He said: "I also think we've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation."
It's rare to hear a Republican front-runner talking like a Vietnam peacenik circa 1969. So what the heck is going on here?
Romney stressed later that he opposed a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, but he did not disown his provocative remark. That's because he is well aware that the prevailing winds have shifted within the party.
There was a time, roughly spanning the eras from Nixon to the second Bush, when virtually all Republicans embraced the hawkish credo of muscular interventionism. But not anymore.
In a stunning Gallup poll last month, 47 percent of Republicans who responded favored bringing the troops home from Afghanistan. Romney was essentially speaking to those people, massaging their war-weariness.
The neoconservatives who dominated during the George W. Bush era are still with us, of course, but now they're flanked by Republicans who openly question the mission in Afghanistan and who question whether an open-ended interventionist posture is even affordable given our fiscal woes.
This sentiment has been building for a while. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., arguably the party's most respected foreign policy maven, fretted this month about "massive open-ended expenditures." Tea party House Republicans have been talking like anti-war Democrats, demanding (as one GOP lawmaker put it) that troop pullouts "begin immediately, sooner rather than later, because of the deficit."
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a new Republican presidential candidate, sounds like a flaming lefty on Afghanistan. He recently told Esquire magazine: "If you can't define a winning exit strategy for the American people, where we somehow come out ahead, then we're wasting our money and we're wasting our strategic resources."
Huntsman and the other Republican skeptics undoubtedly are sincere in their belief that the 10-year war is a fiscal sinkhole without foreseeable prospects for success, that Afghanistan is less pivotal now that Osama bin Laden is dead, and that our role as global policeman is unsustainable. But let's not kid ourselves; there is also a whiff of political opportunism.
Obama has owned this war since he engineered his 2009 troop surge. Though Obama announced a troop-withdrawal plan Wednesday, assailing the war in Afghanistan — and tapping the swing voters' war-weariness — gives the Republicans another potential weapon against the incumbent.
Still, hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that "from the party's point of view, the biggest disaster would be to let Barack Obama become Ronald Reagan and our people become Jimmy Carter."
Indeed, that would be an enduring irony: a Democratic president prosecuting a difficult war, chasing down terrorists worldwide, sustaining a hawkish posture despite pervasive war-weariness back home, while the Republicans openly question whether it's strategically and fiscally prudent to keep playing world cop.
The mind reels. And the Republican infighting on this issue will be fierce.