Never before has the United States occupied a sovereign country for as extended a period of time as it has Afghanistan. That’s quite a record for a country with an imperialist tradition as rich as our own. And yet, a war has perhaps never received such scant attention in an election cycle as Afghanistan does today.
In 2004, the Iraq War was the defining characteristic of the campaign between the sitting President and his Democratic challenger. And just four years ago, the current occupant of the White House leveraged intense popular opposition to the Iraq war to catapult himself to the nation’s highest office. Of course, the last American military action on a scale similar to that of Iraq, the war in Vietnam, was the subject of intense political and media scrutiny during the presidential campaigns of 1968 and 1972.
But with the current Commander-in-Chief having beefed up the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and the Republican Party at a loss to outflank his aggressive strategy, there seems to be a general consensus that the U.S. is there to stay. Whether or not the U.S. will actually stick to the planned exit of NATO forces in 2014 just isn’t up for debate this election season. This flies in the face of public opinion: polls show a strong majority of Americans who are opposed to the war and want to speed up the withdrawal date. A growing group even thinks the United States shouldn’t have intervened in the first place.
But even if the political class is willing to disregard public opinion, it’s upsetting that the war hasn’t even entered the fiscal austerity discussion that dominates Washington. If the Republican Party’s rhetoric on “balancing the budget” were to be taken in good faith — which it shouldn’t be — then it would be focused intensely on the fiscal waste of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. An estimate from the Congressional Budget Office put the cost of the war at $443 billion from 2001 to 2011. And yet for all of the GOP’s mouth-foaming obsession with the national debt or its ideological-leader-cum-vice-presidential-nominee’s dreams of bludgeoning what remains of our nation’s social safety net, most Republicans remain blind to the cost of the war. The more than 80,000 troops currently stationed in Afghanistan jack up the debt much faster than, say, food stamps or child care services — both programs that the GOP has voted to slash.
To be sure, the Democrats are just as complicit. While they may be slightly more open to cutting military spending than their Republican counterparts, they’ve mostly embraced the war in Afghanistan, gladly preferring to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and the needy rather than look “weak on terrorism,” the ultimate sin in contemporary American politics.
When the war does come up on the campaign trail, its treatment is embarrassingly vague, as war journalist David Wood recently noted. But beyond not acknowledging popular frustration with the war, neither presidential candidate has even bothered to spell out a substantive plan over the next five years to the American or Afghan public. Instead, Obama and Romney prefer cheap rhetoric and soundbites, like promising to make sure Afghanistan doesn’t become a “safe haven for terrorists.” Be prepared to hear that line surface again and again in presidential debates if Afghanistan does come up.
In his later years, the recently deceased polemicist Gore Vidal was sometimes criticized for going overboard in his long-winded, mostly over-dramatic comparisons of the decline of the United States to the fall of Rome. That empire bankrupted itself with military excursions abroad as its civil and political institutions crumbled at home. But with the bipartisan consensus about the course of this war so blatantly defying public opinion, political logic, and fiscal responsibility, it’s hard to say that Vidal wasn’t onto something.
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