In the absence of debate, Iraq and Afghanistan go unnoticed

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, May 24, 2010

You would hardly know, from following this year's election campaign or the extensive coverage of last week's primaries, that America is at war.

Those elected to Congress in November will face fateful decisions on the continued deployment, or not, of U.S. forces in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet those wars, and the wisdom of committing to or withdrawing from them, have hardly been mentioned in the hard-fought campaigns of the spring.

Look at some candidate Web sites. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, forced into a runoff in Arkansas's Democratic primary, lists 10 categories of issues, none of which are defense or national security. Under "Veterans and National Guard," she does mention the war in Iraq but not the war in Afghanistan. For her opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, "National Security, Veterans and the Military" comes eighth on a list of nine issues and begins, "Arkansas is home to military bases that are critical to our nation's security." "Ensuring success in Iraq and Afghanistan" is the entirety of his platform on those conflicts.

In Pennsylvania, Joe Sestak, who rode a wave of opposition toward the Iraq war into Congress in 2006, includes defense (fifth out of five topics) on his site but writes mostly about properly equipping and caring for the force and accountability in weapons purchasing. For his Republican opponent, Pat Toomey, "National Security" comes 10th out of 10 (just after "Second Amendment") with no mention, as far as I could see, of Iraq or Afghanistan.

In a time of joblessness and home foreclosures, it's not surprising that politics would focus on the economy more than on national security. And maybe, in a time of toxic partisanship, we should be grateful for this inattention to the wars, taking the absence of debate as a sign of rare bipartisan consensus. Certainly few would miss the vitriol of the Iraq debate of a few years back.

Yet there's something disquieting about the quiet. For one thing, it's yet another reminder of American society's separation from its professional military. As the November elections approach, candidates across the spectrum will ostentatiously wear their support for "our warriors" like body armor, which I suppose is better than the alternative. But as the troops become props, the real men and women who are sweating and taking fire and sleeping on hard ground 7,000 miles away are oddly missing from the conversation.

It also seems likely that apparent bipartisan consensus masks a shallowness of support, an unease that permeates wings of both parties but that, for different reasons, neither party feels ready to politically exploit.

President Obama gets both credited and blamed for the absence of debate. A European diplomat I respect welcomes the political cease-fire and attributes it to Obama having masterfully mollified both Afghanistan hawks (with a surge) and doves (with a guaranteed date to begin withdrawing), defusing disagreement.

Some conservatives look at the flip side of that record and criticize the president for having had too little to say about the war since crafting his plan last fall -- for not reminding Americans more frequently of the sacrifice the troops are making and the reasons they are fighting. Although Obama returned to West Point on Saturday to deliver a commencement address, he does not style himself as a "war president," and many Americans seem content with that; unlike his predecessor, Obama is not chided for playing golf in his off hours.

As long as events cooperate, maybe none of this will matter much. If the Iraqis form a government and U.S. troops can safely begin coming home, if the surge in Afghanistan yields progress, if American casualties do not spike, then war can be 10th out of 10 on the political priority list and the job will still get done.

But wars rarely go according to plan. And if the absence of debate reflects not full-bodied consensus but a wishful averting of eyes, then a spectacular attack on U.S. forces, or even a U.S. surge that yields fruit more slowly than hoped, could tip public opinion abruptly. In that case even political leaders who believe in the mission, having been AWOL from the debate, will have difficulty tipping it back.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company