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War Resurfaces on the Campaign Trail

Author: Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
July 23, 2008


Since the start of the marathon presidential election campaign, the U.S. government has poured thirty-thousand additional troops into Iraq and deployed thousands of new forces in an increasingly difficult war in Afghanistan (PDF). Congress has passed counterterrorism legislation that gives the government sweeping new powers to eavesdrop on civilians. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has struck down some of the White House's rules for detaining enemy combatants seized since 9/11. Yet for much of the past 18 months, the steady march of grim economic news has commanded more attention (WashPost) than national security.

This summer, however, the presidential campaigns have seized on national security as a dominant issue, offering nearly daily reminders of the importance of resolving two wars. It is no coincidence this resurgence of interest in Afghanistan and Iraq dovetails with the formal start of the general election contest between the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), and presumptive Republican rival Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). Since winning his party's primary nomination battle, McCain has emphasized his national security credentials. Obama, meanwhile, recently embarked on his first visit to Iraq and Afghanistan since becoming his party's presumptive candidate. The two candidates have traditionally presented sharply different views on Iraq. Obama stresses he will stick by a plan to withdraw most combat troops within sixteen months of taking office (AP). Earlier, Obama called Afghanistan the "central front" (Face the Nation) in U.S. counterterrorism efforts. McCain has countered that Iraq is the "central battleground in the war in the struggle against al-Qaeda" and says conditions on the ground, not timetables, should dictate the redeployment of U.S. combat forces from Iraq.

The Economist's Democracy in America blog, for instance, notes that on July 18 the White House endorsed "what is essentially a flexible timetable for the withdrawal of American troops." On the same day, McCain's campaign, citing the success of the surge, spoke of the possibility of withdrawal: "A conditions-based withdrawal has always been U.S. policy. [It] has always been something Senator McCain has supported." And while they differ on the manner of deploying more troops in Afghanistan, both candidates support bolstering that mission with thousands of troops while refocusing efforts on training Afghan forces.

On the home front, Obama risked angering part of the Democratic base on July 9 when he cast a vote in favor of legislation overhauling U.S. domestic surveillance practices and granting immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with a Bush administration eavesdropping program. Obama called it an imperfect bill (HuffPost) but said "I'm persuaded that it is necessary to keep the American people safe." McCain did not participate in that vote but has backed the legislation.

It remains to be seen how all of this will register with American voters, who are still coming to grips with $4-a-gallon gasoline and the challenges of a tight credit environment. A Pew Center survey showed that, even by mid-July 2008, many Americans still had scant knowledge of the candidates' policies on foreign affairs. Other recent polls give a mixed picture. One shows support for Obama's calls to move the front (CQPolitics) in the war against al-Qaeda to Afghanistan. Another survey gives McCain a solid edge on the question of who would be a more effective commander in chief (CBS News). Beset with economic concerns, Americans may be less inclined to consider the world at large. Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria says the country finds itself in "surprisingly normal" circumstances despite troop deployments totaling nearly 200,000 on two fronts. "The country may be engaged in wars, but it is not at war," he writes.

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