Daniel W. Drezner

Why aren’t America’s wars an issue for the midterms?

Why aren’t America’s wars an issue for the midterms?

Tom Brokaw has acquired sufficient gravitas such that, when he clears his throat in a meaningful way, he gets his own New York Times op-ed essay.

This morning, Brokaw cleared his throat about why the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan in Iraq aren’t being talked about during this election campaign season. 

[W]hy aren’t the wars and their human and economic consequences front and center in this campaign, right up there with jobs and taxes?

The answer is very likely that the vast majority of Americans wake up every day worrying, with good reason, about their economic security, but they can opt out of the call to arms. Unless they are enlisted in the armed services — or have a family member who has stepped forward — nothing much is asked of them in the war effort.

The all-volunteer uniformed services now represent less than 1 percent of the American population, but they’re carrying 100 percent of the battle…

No decision is more important than committing a nation to war. It is, as politicians like to say, about our blood and treasure. Surely blood and treasure are worthy of more attention than they’ve been getting in this campaign.

It’s true that Iraq was a much bigger issue during the 2002 and 2006 midterms. Is Brokaw right that the lack of a draft is deflecting the issue? Sort of. 

Brokaw has half a point in saying that the all-volunteer force blunts the incentive to have a public debate on this Very Important Topic. There’s a better reason to explain the silence, however: There’s not much daylight between the two parties on this issue. 

In 2008, the Bush administration began the drawdown phase in Iraq. In 2009, the Obama administration anted up for 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan. Neither war is popular with the U.S. electorate

Given these political facts, why would either party bring up these conflicts? Democrats can’t rail against wars being prosecuted by a Democratic president. Not even nutjob ultra-conservative hacks can credibly claim that Obama has been a "Kenyan anti-colonialist" on the military front. Democrats can’t really run on a "see, we told you that Obama isn’t a war wimp!" message either. The GOP has little incentive to call for doubling down in these conflicts and can’t really pivot towards a "pro-peace" position either. [I suspect the Islamophobia issue is cropping up on the GOP campaign trail because it’s a stalking horse for "getting tough" with the United States’ enemies. Even here, however, it’s not like Democrats have created all that much daylight between them and the party of opposition.] 

If neither party has an incentive to bring up these wars during the campaign, the only way it becomes an issue is if a powerful interest group and/or social movement raises it. Here’s here the all-volunteer force comes into play. Perhaps some returning veterans want to bring up the war as an issue for policy debate — but the returning veterans do not appear to be alienated en masse. There is also no U.S. equivalent of the Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia — not that the Russian version was all that effective. All one finds on this terrain are the Cindy Sheehans of the world, and her credibility has been eroding as of late

Brokaw is right that matters of blood and treasure should be debated. But a debate requires politicians to have divergent views to debate about — and right now, that doesn’t exist between the major parties.