The U.S. Presidential Campaign's Unspoken Rule: Don't Mention the War

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Afghanistan is now the longest military conflict in American history. So why aren't the candidates talking about it?

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Barack Obama and Mitt Romney take the stage at the first U.S. presidential debate in Denver. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

There are many issues dominating the U.S. presidential campaign -- unemployment, taxes, the economy, Iran -- but the place where America has been at war for more than 11 years is not one of them. President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney mention Afghanistan only rarely in campaign speeches, and only briefly when they do. Romney didn't mention it all during his nearly 40-minute speech accepting his party's nomination. He was roundly criticized for that, even by fellow Republicans. "It was a mistake, I mean, this was a mistake," Steve Hays, of the conservative magazine "The Weekly Standard," told Fox News. "Whether it was an oversight or an omission, I don't know which one is worse, but it was a mistake. You have 70,000-plus troops on the ground in Afghanistan now, and you need to speak to them .... People want to see the leader of a party talk about something as important as war."

Or do they? The United States has been at war in Afghanistan longer than anywhere it has ever fought. More than 2,000 Americans have been killed, many thousands have been injured, and $574 billion has been spent. And yet, according to Frank Newport, the editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, when Americans are asked to name the most important issue facing the country, less than one percent says "Afghanistan." That's because people are so concerned about the economy and unemployment, he says. He adds there's a "huge correlation" between what the polls say and what politicians say. "The candidates read polls and also have their own pollsters, so they're clearly aware of what the key issues are," Newport says. "And we don't hear Afghanistan being discussed by either Romney or Obama probably because, a, their consultants tell them it's not a high-priority issue for the public; and b, it's not a point of differentiation."

'Narrowing Goals'

Two years ago, Obama and other NATO leaders set December 2014 as the date by which combat operations in Afghanistan will end. That decision has settled the issue of U.S. policy in Afghanistan in the minds of many Americans, who polls show are tired of war. ​​The recent string of green-on-blue-shootings has fueled the feeling that the sooner U.S. troops are home, the better. An October 14 editorial in the "New York Times" titled "Time to Pack Up and Leave" urged speeding up the pullout to next year, because "the United States will not achieve even President Obama's narrowing goals." It concluded, "Two more years of combat, two more years of sending the 1 percent of Americans serving in uniform to die and be wounded, is too long."

A Gallup poll found that more than half the public feels the same. That's understandable, says Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. But he also says most Americans don't think Washington should abandon Afghanistan before it's ready to take over its own security. "Eleven years into what's been a very difficult and frustrating and, of course, bloody effort, Americans are really tired of this," O'Hanlon says. "They're doubting whether we're accomplishing anything close to our desired optimal goals. And yet they also are responsible enough to know that we probably shouldn't rush for the exits and we already have a plan to get out within two years."

Seemingly Unimportant?

That withdrawal date has come up repeatedly in the campaign as the main point of difference on Afghanistan between Obama and Romney, who has criticized the president for announcing military plans to the enemy. But he recently said he agrees with Obama that the "goal should be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014." The lack of disagreement between the two candidates is another big reason why we're not hearing much about the war, says Gallup's Newport. "The candidates talk about issues to the degree that they're important to voters, and or when they think they have an advantage they think they can use against their opponent," Newport says. "So Afghanistan doesn't come up often on the campaign trail, it's because the candidates and their advisers don't think it meets either of those two criteria."

O'Hanlon says he thinks it's a good thing that Afghanistan hasn't become a point of political debate. He says he normally wants to see vigorous debate on any war the United States is involved: "I'm afraid that any political discussion would probably deteriorate a bit into a race for the exits. There'd be sort of an irresistible pressure to try to talk about hastening or speeding up the draw down schedule relative to what might otherwise occur. I have been glad that that has been avoided. I was worried that we'd see people committing to a faster troop draw down than the other guy to try to win some points on the basis of satisfying Americans' urge to be done with this thing. But that has thankfully been avoided."

Veterans and the Vote

With little talk of Afghanistan in this campaign, there's also been no political discussion of the 2.4 million military veterans that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created. And that's the real problem, says Tom Tarantino, a former U.S. Army captain who served in Iraq and is now chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghan Vets of America. "The level of discussion on Afghanistan is virtually zero. And more importantly, the level of discussion about what is happening with the veterans coming home from Afghanistan is also close to zero," Tarantino says. "What we hear so far are a lot of, 'thank you for your service,' but we don't hear a lot of specifics."

Tarantino says veterans don't care that Obama and Romney aren't talking about war policy. That's better left to military commanders, he believes. What vets want to hear, he says, is how the next commander in chief is going to deal with the many challenges that returning vets face. "We could send everyone home tomorrow -- we could do that. And if everyone came home tomorrow, we would still face serious problems with education, with employment, with health care," Tarantino says. "These problems will persist whether the war ends tomorrow, or the war ends in two years, or the war ends in 10 years. And frankly, we're not doing a very good job addressing these concerns."




This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
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