Gov. Haley Barbour (R., Miss.) raised a ruckus Tuesday night when he voiced support for cutting military spending. At a fundraising dinner in Davenport, Iowa, the potential presidential candidate told a crowd of 100 Republicans that the GOP should put the Pentagon’s budget on the chopping block.
“Anybody who says you can’t save money at the Pentagon has never been to the Pentagon,” he quipped. “We can save money on defense, and if we Republicans don’t propose saving money on defense, we’ll have no credibility on anything else.”
Also heterodox were his views on the War in Afghanistan. “What is our mission?” the governor asked. “How many al-Qaeda are in Afghanistan? . . . Is that a 100,000-man Army mission?” One mission that Barbour rejected was nation-building: “I don’t think our mission should be to think we’re going to make Afghanistan an Ireland or an Italy.”
Later, Barbour elaborated on his skepticism. “I don’t think it’s our mission to make Libya look like Luxembourg,” he told the press. “At the end of the day, we might have some role in Libya, but it should not be to send American troops in there and knock heads and make Libya what we would like Libya to look like. Because it, no offense, is not ever going to look like what we’d like it.”
His comments left some insiders in shock and awe.
A few observers interpreted the remarks in light of Barbour’s pending presidential bid. “Barbour’s comments were likely intended to distinguish himself in what is quickly becoming a crowded GOP field,” Cameron Lynch, a Republican consultant, writes in an e-mail to NRO. “I hope and expect that he has a substantive draw-down strategy that would supplement these initial comments.”
“I think he may well be right, and he may be a leading indicator in the primary of a sentiment that may be growing,” adds Republican strategist Mike Murphy.
But Barbour’s spokesman, Jim Dyke, counsels caution: “I think that the press is eager to have potential candidates visiting early states and wants to make as much about these statements as it can.” True, Barbour did not make the comments about Afghanistan in his speech. He was merely responding to a question from the press afterward.
Arnie Hederman, chairman of the Mississippi GOP, defends the governor’s remarks. “General Petraeus said this week we should draw down our troops in Afghanistan,” he tells NRO. “Anyone who is considering running for president should analyze our Afghanistan policy. The Department of Defense, I think, can save some money.”
One source close to Barbour adds: “The governor believes, as he said, that we’ve got take a hard look at everything, and he believes it’s important to be clear about our mission. He is someone who comes from the Reagan school of peace through strength, so I think that is the context of his remarks.”
Whatever the context, Barbour’s comments make him look more and more like a presidential candidate.
— Brian Bolduc is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.