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Why wasn't the war an issue in the election?

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"I have no hope, energy or optimism that we will ever be heard. I no longer stand vigil against war. Neither war was even an issue in the election."

The above quote is from a message sent by one stalwart peace activist explaining why her local peace group is disbanding. At a recent Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice meeting where this quote was read, many of those present expressed a similar sense of frustration about the lack of attention paid by the public, the media and by the candidates to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And how can you not be outraged and frustrated when construction of a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan draws more attention than wars that have claimed the lives of thousands of Americans, killed as many as a million Iraqi and Afghan citizens and squandered trillions of dollars that could have been better used at home?

But outrage and frustration alone don't cause peace groups to disband. For that to happen, we have go farther, to the belief that the American people are not capable of caring about deaths that occur in a war thousands of miles away, even when those dying are our own soldiers, or that the peace movement is so ineffective and incapable of forcing its issue onto the national agenda that "we will never be heard."

I won't take that extra step. I don't think the lack of attention to Afghanistan and Iraq in the mid-term elections reflects public indifference or peace movement ineffectiveness. And, to make my case, I don't have to reach very far -- just back to 2008, when the war was very much an issue in the election.

His early opposition to the Iraq war pushed Barack Obama, a relatively unknown one-term Senator, past Hillary Clinton -- who voted to authorize the Iraq invasion -- in the contest for the Democratic nomination. Iraq was a factor again in Obama's victory over war-supporter John McCain.

What changed between 2008 and 2010? First of all, let's remember that it was opposition to one particular war -- the war in Iraq -- that forced war on to the election agenda in 2008. By 2008, the peace movement had spent five solid years making the case against the Iraq war and occupation, with relatively little attention given to Afghanistan, which took on the name "the forgotten war." That steady work culminated in a level of opposition to the Iraq war that approached 70%, making the Iraq war the most unpopular in our nation's history.

But while we were all headed to the polls in November of 2008, negotiations between the Bush administration and the Iraqi government were underway on a withdrawal agreement that would require a complete withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq by the end of 2011. The agreement, signed in December of 2008, now forms the basis for troop withdrawals from Iraq that the Obama administration is now undertaking.

The Iraq withdrawal agreement is a major accomplishment for the Iraqi people, who successfully frustrated and defeated the most powerful military force on the planet and its plans for permanent military bases from which to dominate the Middle East. But it also had the effect of removing the Iraq war as a political issue within the United States. And because the basis for peace-movement growth during the Bush years was opposition to the Iraq war, and not the Afghanistan war or war in general, troop withdrawals from Iraq were bound to mean a loss of interest in the peace movement.

All of this was well understood at the time, and starting in early 2009, as the Obama administration began to couple withdrawals from Iraq with an escalation in Afghanistan, the peace movement turned its attention to Afghanistan. And turn it did, to the point where Iraq now seems to have inherited the title of "forgotten war" from its older (by 13 months) brother.

But, while organizations and movements can change their focus relatively quickly, public opinion is another matter. While opposition to the Iraq war remains at the 70% level (despite the best efforts by General Petraeus and his supporters to spin the war as a success) opposition to the Afghanistan occupation has only recently broken the 50% mark.

In short, we find ourselves in a period where the most unpopular war is ending and the war that's continuing is not so unpopular -- a state of affairs that doesn't place the peace movement front and center in the public consciousness.

Events in Afghanistan, combined with the peace movement's new focus on that war, are now taking their toll on support for the Afghanistan war. The well-respected Quinnipiac University poll describes its latest poll results this way: "Support For War In Afghanistan Collapses." Here, "collapse" means a two-month change from 49% support for the war and 41% opposition in September to 44% support and 50% opposition in November -- a 14-point swing in the antiwar direction.

That's a hopeful sign for those of us who want the U.S. military to leave Afghanistan, but it's also an indicator of how far we have to go. The bias towards war among media and political elites in this country is so strong that 50% opposition to war -- or even 60% opposition -- doesn't buy you anything. Push opposition to the 70% level, however, and you'll start to see cracks in the bipartisan military-industrial-complex coalition that fuels our wars. In 2008, the split was expressed in the form of the Obama candidacy. A future split could express itself not only within the Democratic Party, but within the Republican party as well, given the increase in Tea Party candidates expressing isolationist views.

But why should it be the case, nearly 10 years into the Afghanistan occupation, that we've only recently crossed the threshold into majority opposition? Here, we need to remember that Afghanistan is not Iraq, the war the peace movement chose to focus on, in part because it was the easier war to argue against. The Afghanistan war still enjoys some base of support within the U.S., for example, among political liberals who are concerned about the consequences for Afghan women if the U.S. military withdraws. There are good arguments against this point of view, but they need time to be made and to sink into the public consciousness.

We shouldn't doubt the peace movement's ability to "be heard" and move public opinion in an anti-war direction. The shift from 70% support at the beginning of the Iraq war to 70% opposition less than three years later is one of the most remarkable feats of public persuasion in our nation's history, vastly exceeding anything the Tea Party has ever accomplished or even attempted, and all the more remarkable given the near-total media blackout under which it was accomplished.

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Steve Burns is Program Director of Wisconsin Network of Peace a Justice, a coalition of more than 160 groups that work for peace, social justice and environmental sustainability.
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