There is little use in trying to make the 2012 presidential campaign a referendum on foreign policy. Sorry, my friends in international relations; I know your phones aren’t exactly ringing. Academics and wonks can try to get the candidates to focus on Afghanistan, Iran, or the Pentagon’s budget, but those issues have little traction. It’s a bit humbling for many in the field who pine for relevance amid long discussions about Medicare and the economy. It was so easy to be needed when John McCain ran for president.
We’ve accepted a collective amnesia about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the focus on domestic issues has not only silenced most national security discussions; it has also left service members by the wayside. What was lacking in last week’s GOP convention in Tampa was a discussion of, or even a reference to, the men and women who fought these wars. Not even a thank you. This isn’t mere quibbling over what wasn’t said. Everyone knows that politicians can be effusive, to the point of sounding a little phony, when talking about the military. What is remarkable is that there wasn’t even an attempt to act the part.
Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech Thursday night occurred on the eve of the two-year anniversary of the end of our combat mission in Iraq. Yet, there was not a single mention of veterans in his remarks. Iran got three references. Even Russia got one. With no acknowledgment, it’s as if the 2.4 million American veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t exist.
Veterans concerns aren’t even debatable across party lines. The funds established in the new GI Bill supporting education programs are being monopolized by predatory for-profit schools. Female veterans bring to the table a new host of needs. Unemployment for veterans is, at 12 percent, still higher than the civilian population. And then there are the physical and mental health issues, including suicide among both veterans and active-duty troops. Despite all the recent focus on suicides, the Army suffered its highest suicide rate ever in July: 38 dead.
All this is made stranger because the Republican platform is exceptionally belligerent in tone toward China, Iran, Russia, and (lest we forget) Cuba, as if military confrontation doesn’t require military personnel. It wasn’t only that the wars made possible by the Bush administration were ignored last week; it was if they weren’t fought with real people.
The brief foray by the Republicans into the international domain last week was significant for what wasn’t discussed; former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice referred to Iraq only once and never even mentioned Afghanistan. Clint Eastwood spoke the longest about the war in Afghanistan, but if his words can be understood, he seemed to suggest that the troops should have been out years ago, a position inconsistent with both the Obama and Romney strategies.
The potential explanations for ignoring our veterans are of little solace and cut across both parties. None of the men on the two tickets has served in the military, breaking an 80-year precedent. The last time this happened was in 1932 when Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover; Roosevelt had at least been secretary of the Navy. None of the 2012 leaders defines themselves by military service.
Maybe the wars are so complicated that acknowledging the needs of those who fought them gets too murky. This group of men and women do not provide the same kind of historic fodder and narrative that veterans of World War II do. Last week, the Greatest Generation got more airtime than the current one.
And then there is the draft. We don’t have one. Those who serve represent such a small proportion of our population that the issues they represent, or need representation on, are easily back-benched. As if proof, in the middle of last week’s festivities Romney went to Indianapolis for an American Legion discussion, but it was a sideline event with little specifics offered and hundreds of miles from the main party.
It may very well be that the issue doesn’t rank because the party that helps create veterans no longer has a monopoly on helping them. To make the point clear, Obama signed an executive order on Friday improving mental health access to veterans and their families.
In a world in which new enemies can always be found and created, there is an “unfortunate gap between the willingness to use force, and the willingness to talk specifics about taking care of the people who fight,” says Phillip Carter, who served as veterans director for the 2008 Obama camp.
Four years ago, Republicans had an almost exclusive hold on veterans issues.
Now, not even a peep.