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Why Mitt Romney can’t talk about Iraq

Why Mitt Romney can’t talk about Iraq

Sectarian tensions are once again rising perilously in Iraq after a court in Baghdad sentenced Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi to death in absentia — on the same day that insurgents launched a wave of attacks across the country that killed nearly 100 people. But, judging from this year’s campaign rhetoric, you probably won’t hear Mitt Romney criticizing Barack Obama for the precarious situation in Iraq following the U.S. troop withdrawal.

According to a University of California, Santa Barbara archive of formal campaign speeches by both candidates, Romney has used the word "Iraq" seven times on the trail (usually in the context of military service) while Obama has referenced the country 76 times (often as part of a stump-speech line about keeping his promise to end the war). The same pattern held true at the conventions: Republicans mentioned Iraq seven times, while the Democrats did so 34 times. Romney didn’t talk about Iraq in his convention speech and made only a passing reference to it in his biggest foreign-policy address of the campaign in South Carolina.  

Romney might argue, as he has in defending his failure to mention the Afghan war in Tampa, that it’s his policies that matter, not how many times he mentions particular words in speeches. But he’s been equally evasive when outlining how he would have managed the Iraq war. When Obama announced in October 2011 that all U.S. troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year, Romney lashed out at the president for not securing an "orderly transition in Iraq" and publicizing the recommendations of military commanders (the 2012 GOP platform doesn’t mention these criticisms).

In a Fox News interview two months later, Romney’s position on Iraq grew murkier. He noted that U.S. troops were "fortunately" withdrawing from Iraq before adding that he would have left a residual force in the country. He followed those comments up by refusing to answer whether he would send U.S. troops back to Iraq as president:

Why is Romney so hesitant to talk about Iraq? The bottom line is that the unpopular war, which is fading fast from voters’ minds, is a political loser for the GOP candidate. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in November 2011 revealed that nearly eight in ten Americans approved of Obama’s decision to withdraw combat troops from Iraq (including 58 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of independent voters).  A CNN/ORC International poll a month later found that more than half of Americans felt sending troops to Iraq in the first place was a mistake and that 57 percent believed the Bush administration misled the American public about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. Fifty-four percent of respondents in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo survey this summer claimed that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had contributed most to the federal budget deficit — a flashpoint in the campaign.  

Every time Romney mentions Iraq, moreover, he exposes himself to charges that he is aligned with George W. Bush and the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party — an association that might just stick given the debate over whether, when it comes to foreign policy, Romney is a neoconservative, realist, or another breed altogether. This is precisely the attack that the Obama campaign leveled in June by linking Romney to Bush’s former U.N. ambassador John Bolton and his "reckless neoconservative thinking." And it’s what Obama himself implied in his convention speech by arguing that Romney and running mate Paul Ryan "want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly."

Obama has already taken Romney’s words on Iraq out of context to support this back-to-Bush argument, asserting that the Republican candidate said ending the war in Iraq would be "tragic" (Romney argued that the pace of the withdrawal was tragic). The Romney campaign isn’t about to give the president any more ammunition.