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A new GOP foreign policy tone: pessimism

Newt Gingrich isn’t leading in the Republican delegate count but he is leading, at least rhetorically, in reshaping a Republican foreign policy alternative to President Barack Obama. Along with dire warnings against Iran getting nuclear weapons, Gingrich is offering a new pessimism about the U.S. ability to salvage Afghanistan and a new emphasis on the limits to U.S. power. 

Rogelio Solis / AP

Republican presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks March 12 at the Gulf Coast Energy Summit in Biloxi, Miss.

“I think it's very likely that we have lost -- tragically lost -- the lives and suffered injuries to a considerable number of young Americans on a mission that we're going to discover is not doable,” Gingrich said in an interview on FOX News Sunday. He was reacting to the most recent bad news from Afghanistan, where a U.S. soldier went on a shooting spree and killed 16 Afghan civilians. 

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Gingrich added in an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation that “our being in the middle of countries like Afghanistan is probably counterproductive. We're not prepared to be ruthless enough to force them to change. And yet, we are clearly an alien presence.”

Gingrich said that he is looking not only at Afghanistan and Pakistan, but at “what's happening in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood -- look at the things that are going on around the region and then ask yourself: is this, in fact, a harder, deeper problem that is not going to be susceptible to military force, at least not military forces in the scale we are prepared to do?"

Gingrich said if America could develop energy self-sufficiency, that would allow it “to back off from that region, not take primary responsibility for the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf and say to the Chinese and the Indians and the Europeans -- you have a problem, but it's not necessarily America's problem.”

Gingrich’s downbeat “back off” rhetoric is in stark contrast with the “freedom agenda” proclaimed by President George W. Bush in 2003. “Our commitment to democracy is also tested in the Middle East, which is my focus today, and must be a focus of American policy for decades to come,” Bush declared. 

He said “the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before.”

Gingrich’s argument seems to be that “persistence and energy and idealism” are not enough when it comes to changing certain countries and regions.

His rhetoric has put him at odds with the interventionist-minded wing of his party, represented by 2008 presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R- S.C., who still argue vigorously for American engagement from Syria to Afghanistan. Just last week Graham said the United States ought to lead an international coalition to intervene in Syria by imposing a no-fly zone and creating sanctuaries to stop the regime of Bashar al-Assad from killing its opponents. 

“It’s good for Assad to be taken down, because that breaks Syria away from Iran,” Graham said, and “it’s good to come to people’s aid when they are being slaughtered, because that’s who we are.” But he added, “You need coalitions.”

Yet even with U.S. coalition partners such as Britain -- whose prime minister David Cameron will be meeting with Obama at the White House on Wednesday -- the turn of events in Afghanistan in recent months has shaken Americans’ confidence in the mission of preventing the country from being used as a safe haven for terror groups. 

In a new Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday, 60 percent of respondents said the war is not worth its costs, compared to 44 percent who voiced this view at the end of 2009. 

As for the GOP contender who has amassed the most delegates so far, Mitt Romney, the spate of discouraging news from Afghanistan, which includes incidents of Afghan soldiers and police killing the U.S. soldiers who were ostensibly training them, raises the question of whether Romney can offer voters a plausible alternative to Obama’s policy. 

Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul issued a statement Monday on the weekend’s events in Afghanistan saying, “These acts by one soldier are not representative of the courageous and honorable conduct of our armed forces. That soldier should be held to account after a full and rapid investigation and we must be clear that America stands with the Afghan people, not against them." But she did not address the larger strategic questions that Gingrich addressed. 

Last month, Romney criticized Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for suggesting a 2013 exit for U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan. “So the Taliban hears it, the Pakistanis hear it, the Afghan leaders hear it. Why in the world do you go to the people that you're fighting with and tell them the date you're pulling out your troops? It makes absolutely no sense,” Romney said. “His naïveté is putting in jeopardy the mission of the United States of America and our commitments to freedom. He is wrong."

After Romney’s rival Rick Santorum won the Kansas caucuses on Saturday, he said that foreign policy -- not the state of the economy -- may end up being the decisive issue in the fall campaign. “It may be the dominant issue: national security, with Iran on the precipice of getting a nuclear weapon, Israel feeling increasingly isolated by this administration.”

Assessing the Afghanistan situation Sunday, Santorum sought to pin the blame on Obama: “The president putting a timeline in place has made a very winnable operation very, very difficult. It continues to unravel because the president has given something to the enemy that we should have been able to deny them, which is hope."

“Partisanship comes into play” in the foreign policy debate, said political scientist John Pitney at Claremont McKenna College in California. “Political figures and ordinary voters tend to be more critical of a policy when it comes from the other party.”He noted for example that “in the 1990s, many Republicans were highly skeptical of Bill Clinton's intervention in the Balkans. The antiwar movement grew under George W. Bush and largely vanished under Barack Obama, despite our involvement in multiple wars."

The Republican nominee will be asking voters to make a choice in November, but before that the Republicans must decide exactly what their national security message is – beyond the predictable criticism of Obama. Is Afghanistan “very winnable” or “a mission that we're going to discover is not doable”?