GOP Hopefuls' Words on War: Immaterial?

Most of the GOP presidential contenders support keeping U.S. troops in Iraq. They call it a frontline in the war on terrorism, and say U.S. troops should leave with victory and success. But the catchphrases fail to convey anything relevant about the war.

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When the leading Republican presidential hopefuls talk about Iraq, they use words like radical jihadists and Islamic fascists to define the enemy. They call the war a frontline in the war on terrorism.

Here NPR's Tom Bowman examines that language to see how it matches up with the war that's actually being fought.

TOM BOWMAN: Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is among the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. And while Iraq is one of the top issues for voters, you wouldn't know it by visiting Romney's Web site and looking at the issues. Iraq isn't there. Instead, there's a heading: Defeating the jihadists. Romney brings it up at campaign stops.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Republican Presidential Candidate): The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are not isolated wars, but are fronts in the global war against - against us, a global war being waged by violent, radical jihadists.

BOWMAN: Romney's chief rival is former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He says American troops in Iraq are facing an implacable Islamic foe and must remain on the offensive.

Mr. RUDOLPH GIULIANI (Republican Presidential Candidate): But if America is incapable of sustaining that, then America cannot prevail against the Islamic terrorists because they are very capable of sustaining it.

BOWMAN: The Republican frontrunners are using the broad-brush term terror to describe a complex, hard-to-define situation in Iraq.

Here's former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Republican, Arkansas): I believe we're currently engaged in a world war. Radical Islamic fascists have declared war on our country and on our way of life.

BOWMAN: These blanket terms - Islamic fascists, radical jihadists - don't really describe the situation in Iraq. After all, al-Qaida in Iraq has few foreign fighters. It's a homegrown group. American officers say many of them are fighting more for money than for religious fanaticism.

Meanwhile, the powerful Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq are not exporting terror. They're vying for power within Iraq, sometimes battling each other, which sets Iraq apart.

Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): The problem that we face here is, is this the center of the war on terrorism? No, of course, not. Does it have some impact on it? Probably.

BOWMAN: Anthony Cordesman is a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says all the presidential candidates - Republican and Democrat - prefer catch phrases to serious discussion of national security.

Mr. CORDESMAN: In all bipartisan fairness, is any candidate saying anything relevant about the war on terrorism, about the war in Iraq? And the answer is no.

BOWMAN: The Republicans are also wrapping themselves around General David Petraeus. The top American commander in Iraq is a popular figure who has improved security, partly because of the so-called surge in U.S. troops.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): We're going to get a read from General Petraeus.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): General Petraeus literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency. He is a determined, resourceful, and bold commander.

BOWMAN: And the Republicans are slamming their Democratic opponents on Iraq. The Democrats want to move faster in reducing American troops.

Here is Senator John McCain during CNN's debate on Wednesday.

Sen. McCAIN: But I'll tell you one other thing I'm going to do, is we're going to fight back the Democrats' efforts to set a date for withdrawal, which is a date for surrender. Now, my friends...

BOWMAN: For his part, Romney was asked recently by the Concord Monitor newspaper in New Hampshire how long American forces should remain in Iraq if the country doesn't stabilize? Romney replied, I really can't forecast something other than success.

McCain just spent Thanksgiving in Iraq. He said there was progress, but he criticized the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for not taking advantage of the more peaceful situation, not doing enough to reconcile the warring factions. That same issue came up during a Senate hearing in September.

Republican Susan Collins is from Maine.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): If a year from now the Iraqi government has still failed to achieve significant political progress, what do we do?

BOWMAN: General Petraeus had this response.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (U.S. Army): That would a very, very difficult recommendation to make at that point in time, because on the one hand we have very real national interests that extend beyond Iraq. On the other hand, there clearly are limits to the blood and treasure that we can expend in an effort.

BOWMAN: Petraeus didn't define those limits and neither have the Republicans who hoped to be president.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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