Afghanistan and the Election

David Wood’s Politics Daily column today is worthy of the Halloween day 2010 in which it was published: a scary tale. In the column, Wood points out that among all the “issues” (such as they are) being debated in this off-year campaign, one is conspicuously missing: the war in Afghanistan. Despite public opinion polls that show a solid majority of Americans oppose continuing the contest and the fairly obvious lack of military progress against the Taliban, what to do about American presence in the mountainous Asian country long the grave yard of invaders does not seem to be an electoral matter at all.

Why not? At one level, it reflects simple political reality in this country. Americans may quietly oppose the war, but giving voice to that opposition is politically explosive, especially from the political right. If one supports ending the war, that person risks the wrath of the John McCain conservative wing of the GOP, which will scream appeasement, “cut-and-run,” and other incendiary epithets intended to raise serious questions about the opponent’s loyalty and patriotism–whether such criticism is justified or not. If one supports the war, libertarians likes the Pauls join hands with progressive Democrats to offer equally scathing invective about the futility of the war or minding our own business. A Democrat (Obama) can oppose the war, satisfy the party base, and be labeled a leftist pinko soft of terrorism. If the same Obama supports the war, the base is alienated and does not turn out on Tuesday. These are two losing hands to be dealt, and the politically prudent response has been to quietly fold, hope for the best in the nascent peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban, and continue a status quo that pleases no one but also does not create much electoral rancor, as the current apathy demonstrates.

This division as the basis for apathy is a kind of insider Washington basis and evades the more basic possible cause for voter indifference, and that is the detachment the American people have toward the war (which is the real gist of the Wood piece).

The simple fact is that Afghanistan is NOT the American people’s war. It is, in the increasingly bitter language of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (as quoted in the article), “a distinctly unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them (the public) personally.” And he is right. As Wood points out, less than one percent of Americans agree to do military service, and since no American has been compelled into involuntary military service since 1972 (when the selective service system of conscription was allowed to lapse), that means that over 99 percent of the public never faces the prospect of being forced to come to grips with the question of whether participation in that war is worth their personal prospect of possible death in the name of the cause. Moreover, Wood asserts that less than 12 members of Congress currently have children in the military, meaning they do not have to face the prospect that their support may entail sending their own progeny to their deaths on Rudyard Kipling’s “Afghan plain.”

Would the issue be more salient if Americans had the ultimate prospect of service in Afghanistan hanging over their heads? If the Vietnam memory has any salience, those most vulnerable to induction certainly would express an opinion: 18-24 year-old males were the only demographic category that opposedVietnam consistently during the war. College campuses were, of course, the hot bed of that opposition, and weekly anti-Vietnam rallies were an ongoing part of campus existence. Try to find or organize an anti-Afghanistan rally on a campus today, and the response will be massive numbers of stifled yawns. The students who provided the involuntary cannon fodder of previous wars know they are in no danger of being used in that role. So who cares?

This situation is, in my view, appalling. As argued consistently in this space, there are abundant good reasons for the United States to get out of Afghanistan. The lack of any realistic prospect of success and the killer economic burden of the war are the two most obvious, but neither of these have sufficient resonance politically to cause us to change course. Why? On one hand, the smallest imputation of opposition raises a bevy of self-styled patriots who will call the opponent every right-wing name in the book. On the other, the natural opposition–those who might be forced involuntarily to carry out the continuing madness–know they won’t be forced to make any sacrifice in the name of the cause.

Is there a way out of this? Possibly the Afghans, sick to death as they all seem to be with their American guests who are incapable of realizing they have overstayed their welcome, will agree to enough of a peace agreement to give the administration a graceful excuse to exit. The other possibility is American opinion rising in opposition. For that to happen, some means of personalizing the war must be found. The most obvious candidate is reviving the draft, but if one thinks opposing the war causes a political firestorm, trying grabbing the conscription tiger by the tail and see what happens.

The voters will speak on Tuesday. Unfortunately, they will have nothing to say about the war in Afghanistan. What a shame.

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