In one of his sharper moments in Tuesday night's debate, Jon Huntsman pressed Mitt Romney specifically over his willingness to defer to military commanders when it comes to U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
"At the end of the day the President of the United States is Commander in Chief, Commander in Chief. Of course you are going to listen to the generals... but the president is Commander in Chief," Huntsman declared, underscoring the argument that Romney was outsourcing policy to the Pentagon.
To bolster his point, Huntsman pointed to the Vietnam War as an instance in which military command dictated U.S. policy too far. The invocation of Vietnam as a nadir in U.S. history may not win over the GOP crowd. But it certainly got Romney a bit piqued.
"Of course the Commander in Chief makes the final decision," he replied. "But the Commander in Chief makes that decision based upon that input of people closest to the ground."
Romney's larger point was that an Afghan timetable was already in place and blessed by the generals. Surge troops were to be drawn down by December 2012 (a timeline that President Obama expedited). By December 2014, the U.S. military presence would be negligible if not ended entirely.
"And the mission is pretty straightforward and that is to have the Afghan people have a sovereign nation not taken over by the Taliban," he added.Huntsman, who has defined himself in part by willing to dial down America's military commitments abroad, urged for a quick transition to an on-the-ground troop presence of 10 to 15 thousand. He's made that point in various formats before but never as sharply (and as decidedly in contrast with Romney) than on Tuesday night.