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Roles Reverse As Obama Seems More Hawkish Than Many In GOP

President Obama speaks at Ft Campbell, Ky., last month.
Charles Dharapak
President Obama speaks at Ft Campbell, Ky., last month.

How much has the nation's political landscape changed after 10 years, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and whatever we define Libya as?

So much so that a Democratic president who ran as an anti-war candidate, at least on Iraq, has come to look like a hawk when compared to Republican presidential candidates.

On the eve of his Wednesday evening speech to the nation in which he will announce how he plans to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan, it's Obama who finds himself fending off calls for a rapid drawdown of U.S. forces there.

And it's Obama White House aides who have defended, against Republicans and Democrats alike, his power as commander-in-chief to order the U.S. military to play an extended role in the NATO effort to bring down Libya's Moammar Gadhafi without formal congressional approval.

Not so long ago, national security was the Republicans' strong suit. Try as they might to gain traction on such issues, Democrats found themselves unable to break through.

In the last decade, especially, after the Sept. 11 attacks, ex-President George Bush and congressional Republicans repeatedly deployed national security concerns to raise doubts in voters' minds about Democrats on the issue. When they opposed the second Iraq War, Democrats were derided as "appeasers" or worse.

But times have changed; Republicans have lost the advantage. As was widely noted last week after the Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire, the GOP candidates sounded a very uncertain trumpet indeed on Afghanistan and Libya.

Sal Gentile wrote the following for The Daily Need blog at PBS.org:

Perhaps the most notable takeaway, then, was the Republicans' collective inability to land a solid punch on what has traditionally been one of the GOP's most profitable issues: national security. All seven of the Republican candidates either strained or demurred when asked to critique the president's record on foreign affairs. And when they did go on the offensive, their attacks were muddled and vague.

Again, strange given the one-time advantage Republicans held on national security.

It's gotten so odd for Republicans that at least one of the traditional hawks in the party has had to warn fellow Republicans from getting too squishy on national security.

As I noted in an earlier post, Sen. Lindsey Graham actually had one of the killer comments of recent weeks during an appearance Sunday on NBC News' Meet the Press.

If you think the pathway to the GOP nomination in 2012 is to get to Barack Obama's left on Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, you're going to meet a lot of headwinds. This is not a war of Afghan independence from my point of view. This is the center of gravity against the war on terror, radical Islam. It is in our national security interest to make sure the Taliban never come back. If we fail in Afghanistan, they will kill every moderate who tried to help us, and no one in the future will, will step up. It will destabilize Pakistan beyond what exists today. It will be a colossal national security mistake.

While the doubts among some Republicans over the use of U.S. military power stems from heightening concerns over federal deficits and debt, some of it surely is a throwback to the party's isolationist history.

But there's another factor. No less than Sen. John McCain said some of the opposition comes from partisanship.

Asked by CNN's Dana Bash about it, McCain said:

"I also think it is a dislike of President Obama which sometimes affects the views of at least some."

McCain, along with Sen. John Kerry introduced a resolution Tuesday supporting limited U.S. involvement in Libya as a way to put a congressional imprimatur on Obama's actions against Gadhafi.

McCain also said:

"I would urge my colleagues on the Republican side to remember we're going to have a Republican president, someday soon I hope. And let's treat this issue as if the president of the United States were of our party. Would we do the same thing?"

When Bash asked him how he would answer that question, McCain said:

"I think some of them would not."

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.