Leon Panetta: There’s a war going on
By STEPHANIE GASKELL and PHILIP EWING | 8/14/12 6:42 PM EDT
Neither Mitt Romney nor Paul Ryan mentioned the war in Afghanistan during their big running mate roll-out in Virginia Saturday. Barack Obama gives it only a brief mention in his own stump speeches.
Leon Panetta seems to have had enough.
“I realize that there are a lot of other things going on around this country that can draw our attention, from the Olympics, to political campaigns to droughts, to some of the tragedies we’ve seen in communities around the country,” the defense secretary said at Tuesday’s Pentagon press briefing. “I thought it was important to remind the American people that there is a war going on.”
Soldiers and their families need no reminder. There are 84,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan today, and the threat level for them is high: 41 were killed last month.
But as the Brookings Institute’s Thomas Mann explains, “The public has tuned out Afghanistan and it is unlikely they can be re-engaged in the next three months. They have no conception of the myriad of issues facing policy makers and those on the ground in Afghanistan and are almost certain to remain uninformed, whatever the candidates might do or say.”
What the candidates are saying: Not much.
Romney and Ryan said nothing at all about national security, defense, terrorism or the war Saturday in Norfolk – despite having staged their event in front of a retired U.S. battleship. And in his own stump speeches, Obama mentions the war in Afghanistan only in passing – to remind voters that he ended combat operations in Iraq and is aiming to do the same there.
For defense and veterans advocates, that’s not good enough.
"From watching the campaign debate so far, it's hard to tell America is still a country at war,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive directotr of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Neither candidate nor party has focused enough on Afghanistan, or on the issues facing our troops, veterans and their families at home. Our men and women are fighting and dying overseas for our country and both candidates have a responsibility to drive the national dialogue about issues of war and defense.”
“They absolutely should be talking about it more,” said former Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy. “The military is at war and the country is not.”
Given his own partisan leanings, Murphy argues that Romney and Ryan are obliged to spend more time discussing the war in Afghanistan because they both backed military responses in the wake of 9/11. And he says Obama could gain by talking about the war – or at least the war against terrorists more generally – because he gave the order to kill Osama bin Laden.
Florida Republican Rep. Allen West, an Armed Services Committee member, also says that the campaigns to put more of a priority on the ongoing war.
“The American people need to understand that our nation faces threats on multiple fronts,” he told POLITICO.
But candidates say what voters want to hear, and poll after poll suggests that the voters aren’t interested in hearing much about the war in Afghanistan.
A New York Times-CBS poll earlier this year found that nearly 70 percent of respondents wanted it to be over. But it’s not a big issue for them. When the Pew Research Center asked voters earlier this year to name the issues that would drive their vote in 2012, they put the economy and jobs at the top of the list. Defense, foreign policy and terrorism didn’t make the cut.
“At best, foreign policy rates in the middle tier of issues,” said Carroll Doherty, associate director at Pew Research Center.
Democratic political consultant Peter Fenn said that if foreign policy and national security were a bigger issue right now in the minds of the American people, Romney never would have picked Ryan, given his almost exclusive focus on domestic issues.
“It would be untenable,” Fenn said. But, he said, “Iraq is in the rear view mirror now, and it’s [also] true with Afghanistan. . . . Generally, Americans are tired of the foreign entanglement.”
Whether or not it’s an issue on the campaign trail, Afghanistan will play a central role in American foreign affairs for at least another decade. Thousands of American troops will likely remain there long after 2014’s planned transfer of authority, and Afghanistan cannot afford to maintain the army and police force the United States and its international allies have helped build. That means Washington could send some $4 billion per year to Kabul for the next decade, all the while pressing other international contributors to kick in their share, too.
Still, after 11 years, more than $400 billion and more than 2,000 troops’ lives, the American people want to focus on issues at home.
But there’s another reason the candidates don’t talk about the war much: It doesn’t give them a chance to draw sharp lines between them.
Romney largely agrees with Obama’s plan to bring the troops home from Afghanistan, but he has criticized the president for applying timetables and setting deadlines for the withdrawal. If elected, Romney has promised to “review” the state of the war and potentially reevaluate the 2014 transition goal, “based on conditions on the ground as assessed by our military commanders,” according to his platform.
As of Tuesday, Panetta said the U.S. withdrawal was continuing apace, on track for the number of American forces in Afghanistan to stabilize at about 68,000 by the end of September. Those remaining troops will continue to have “a very tough fight against a determined enemy,” he said.
“I just want the American people to take the time and reflect on these sacrifices,” the defense secretary said. “At a time when I am sure there is an awful lot to be mad about, there’s a lot to be proud of when it comes to our men and women in uniform.”
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