Is Afghanistan Going to Hurt President Obama in 2012?

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He doubled down on a war that is wildly unpopular with Americans. On the other hand, Bin Laden is dead and Mitt Romney is waffling.

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In one of the major foreign policy speeches that Barack Obama gave in 2008, he declared that "the central front in the war on terror is not Iraq, and it never was. That's why ... my new strategy will be taking the fight to al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan." In the paragraphs that followed he set forth several goals: bringing Osama bin Laden to justice, routing the Taliban, killing al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and building a secure, stable Afghan democracy.

The United States achieved some of those goals and failed miserably at others. And the American people have rendered this judgment: the war wasn't worth it, we aren't going to win, and we ought to bring the troops home. That's the basic takeaway from the latest New York Times poll. Sixty-eight percent of Americans think the war is going somewhat or very badly, 69 percent say the U.S. should not be involved in the war, and 59 percent say that the endeavor hasn't been a success. And a staggering 77 percent say that we should withdraw our troops no later than 2014.

You'd think that voters would punish an incumbent who doubled down on an unpopular war that a majority now regards as a harmful mistake. But certain factors may mitigate any anti-Obama backlash: He didn't start the war; at the time, most Americans agreed with his renewed focus on it; he can plausibly argue that our beefed up presence helped to get Osama bin Laden; and most importantly, Mitt Romney doesn't inspire any confidence that he'd do better. As NPR reported:

One simple way to compare strategies for Afghanistan is to ask this question: Would a President Romney bring American troops home before President Obama, or after? "That is a legitimate question," says Rich Williamson, a senior foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign, and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and special envoy to Sudan." But it doesn't have a quick, simple answer." The answer is murky and complicated -- if it's even there at all.

You'd also think the fact that Americans now regard the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan as mistaken endeavors would temper the citizenry's desire for another foreign war. Yet a majority says it would support a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities given evidence they're building a bomb. It is perhaps fair to say that the citizenry has been getting the foreign policy it deserves for awhile. But the dead innocents and the people who've done the fighting on our behalf deserved better.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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