From Outrage To Yawns: How War Has Dropped Off The Political Landscape

Over the past few weeks, the news out of Afghanistan and Iraq has been pretty grim. Abstruse and bizarre comments from Afghan President Hamid Karzai troubled America's diplomatic community; violence followed the election of Iraqi president Iyad Allawi; and a leaked, two-year-old video showing the killing of civilians in New Baghdad raised fundamental questions about U.S. military policy.

It's a sequence of stories that two years ago would have produced howls in Congress and spurred demonstrations outside the Beltway. Today, the fallout is negligible.

America's military campaign in Afghanistan and its draw-down in Iraq are hardly resonating on the political landscape. Lawmakers who came to office in recent years largely on an anti-war wave don't touch the topic. Progressive groups -- who rallied feverishly against the Iraq War and opposed further escalation in Afghanistan -- have ceded that debate is now static. Even those in charge of getting Democrats elected to Congress argue that there will be little friction within the party over the course the wars are taking.

"I think that people will understand what the stakes are going into November even if there may be disagreement with the president, whether it is on Afghanistan or some other foreign policy," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Mary.) who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "[T]here are clearly going to be Democrats who disagree with president's polices on Afghanistan. I still believe that they will be moved and motivated to come out to the polls for all the other issues that are at stake."

It's a remarkable reversal from what the state of play was just a few years ago. Back in October 2007, 62 percent of respondents in a Gallup survey labeled the Iraq war as their top priority (more than double the next issue: health care). This past March, only five percent of respondents in a Bloomberg poll said that the war in Afghanistan was the most important issue facing the nation right now, trailing, among other items, spending and the deficit.

Not all polling numbers echo Bloomberg's. And the differences between Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2009-2010 are vast. But the fundamental message sent by the numbers is shared among foreign policy and public opinion experts: war abroad is spurring yawns at home.

"It is out of the minds of voters because it is not on the news," said Mark Blumenthal, editor and publisher of Pollster.com. "It is not on the news they watch on television or the news they read in the papers or online. Couple that with the fact that the economy is a big deal and people are paying much less attention."

This development is owed to a confluence of contemporaneous events. As Blumenthal notes, a lagging recession has consumed the attention of much of the American public. A health care battle that lasted longer than a year has sucked the oxygen out of Congress. Finally, the country is suffering from a collective bit of war fatigue, having watched the operation in Afghanistan progress for more than nine years; and that in Iraq, seven-plus years.

And yet, the fact that Karzai's threats to join the Taliban haven't resonated further on the political stage -- or that a leaked 2007 video showing U.S. military personnel shooting a group of journalists and onlookers in Baghdad hasn't triggered larger howls of outrage -- can't be explained by these factors alone.

As it stands now, the groups that traditionally express the loudest concerns over such developments are choosing, instead, to stay largely muted. John Isaacs, the executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said his organization remains frustrated with the situation in Afghanistan. But rather than work actively against the Obama administration in an effort to get troops out, they have instead invested their energies towards policy they actually think they can affect: nuclear weapons proliferation.

"We have a possibility of achieving positive things as opposed to working against negative events. We are trying to work for nuclear treaties and get weapons removed," Isaacs said. "It is more satisfying to get a positive accomplishment then to work against something we don't like."

Having a Democratic president in office has, indeed, changed the dynamics in fundamental and sometimes difficult ways for the progressive community. And it's not just simply because it presents more opportunities for collaboration than existed under George W. Bush. While a variety of organizations and lawmakers have come out against the surge of troops in Afghanistan, it's not clear if the message has spread to their constituencies or memberships. It certainly hasn't been picked up by the broader public. Stan Greenberg, a prominent pollster within the party, noted that Obama enjoys his highest approval ratings on Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the messaging he's tested, meanwhile show that "voters are very responsive where Democrats talked boldly about our foreign policy of taking it to the terrorists."

For a group like MoveOn.org this presents a bit of a depressing dilemma. The organization, which cut its teeth opposing the war in Iraq, came out publicly against Obama's plans to send more troops to Afghanistan in early December. Since then, little has been done to push its members on this front. While MoveOn's electoral roundups from 2006 and 2008 both tout the fact that they channeled a strong anti-war sentiment into an electoral force, currently the group doesn't even list Afghanistan on its website's home page.

"Our members still have a watchful eye on the events unfolding in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the combination of trust in President Obama's promise of diplomacy and withdrawal and an economy that means they are struggling to make ends meet at home has kept the wars from being a flash point for sustained political activism this past year," said Ilyse Hogue, the organization's communications director.

If having a Democratic president in power has created a kind of political paralysis for Democratic voters opposed to the Afghan surge, the situation on the ground has created legislative lethargy for lawmakers. House liberals, led by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), were able to force a vote this past month to cut off the funding for continued operations. It failed. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), meanwhile, is set to introduce legislation calling for a "flexible timetable" for a troop withdrawal. Beyond that and the occasional hearing, it's been slim pickings. And the main reason why, experts say, is because the options right now are limited.

"There isn't another leader we can turn to. I think that was apparent from the election," said Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic International Studies. "I suppose in principle the U.S has the option of providing less support to Karzai but, at the moment, that would be a perverse option because a strategy that includes increasing military strength rests on three legs: economic, military and political. And the latter two rest on having a government in place that can exercise leadership."

Of course, Feingold, Kucinich, and a whole host of other voices would disagree with such a premise. Why America has invested so much in Karzai -- or for that matter Afghanistan -- in the first place remains a mystery. Any further involvement, likewise, is money, time and lives wasted. But the voice that matters, in the end, is Obama's. And to this point he has neither been pushed, nor shown much willingness, to alter his plans.

"I think it is true that progressives do not want to take on this war partly because they think it will hurt their specific domestic causes, partly because they think it will be disloyal to Obama," said Robert Greenwald, the activist filmmaker who has spearheaded anti-war efforts. "In the end, not pushing Obama on this is one will be one of the greatest single mistakes progressive will make and will continue to make."