In the Arena

Election Road Trip, Day 20: No More War

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Rocky Rajkowski Town Hall meeting in Birmingham, Michigan. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael - Magnum for TIME

Henderson, Nevada

Traveling Companions: None

Event: Interview with GOP Congressional Candidate Joe Heck

So far as I can tell after three weeks on the road, there is little or no support among the public for the war in Afghanistan. The most I can come up with is an occasional, half-hearted “We need to fight the terrorists over there” or “The generals know better than I do.” And this is not just true of Democrats. In Birmingham, Michigan, two weeks ago, I attended a town meeting held by the Republican Congressional candidate Rocky Raczkowski, a Major in the U.S. Army reserve, just returned from a tour in Afghanistan. (Correction: Actually, his last tour was in Somalia–JK)His position: “Unless we change the rules of engagement, we should bring the troops home tomorrow.” He was referring to the very strict guidelines against causing civilian casualties that have U.S. soldiers fighting, as one told me, “in handcuffs” against the Taliban. There was little pushback from his conservative Republican audience. When one man asked Raczkowski if he saw any prospect of the rules of engagement changing, Raczkowski said no. “So what should we do?” the man pressed. “As I said before, if the rules of engagement don’t change, we should leave,” Raczkowski replied.

According to the Pew Research Center, 48% of Americans support keeping troops in Afghanistan, down from 57% in 2009. But a recent Quinnipiac poll showed that 58% of people agreed that “eliminating the threat from terrorists operating from Afghanistan is a worthwhile goal for American troops to fight and possibly die for,” that’s 72% of Republicans and 48% of Democrats. Point of comparison: in 1968, 53% of Americans said it was a “mistake” to send troops to Vietnam. – Katy Steinmetz

Yesterday, I spoke with another Republican Congressional candidate–and member of the Army reserves–Joe Heck in Henderson, a suburb of Las Vegas. He was less sweeping than Raczkowski, but skeptical all the same, “We need to know what the end point is, what victory looks like, in Afghanistan.” Does it mean a complete military defeat of the Taliban? The elimination of the terrorist threat? The building of an Afghan army–or an entire Afghan government? Heck wasn’t about to put his own definition of victory on the table, but said that if clarity didn’t come soon, “We should leave.”

Less knowledgeable civilians are completely perplexed by the war–and wondering why we’re spending so much money over there at a moment when we’re struggling back here. When I try to explain that it has to do with stabilizing the region, that it’s mostly about our need to make Pakistan–with its 80 nukes and history of Islamist army coups–feel more secure, eyes quickly glaze over.

This is a factor that should guide the President in the December policy review: if he decides to dial back in Afghanistan–to Joe Biden’s less ambitious model, perhaps–he will be noisily criticized by the neoconservatives (who seem a far more significant presence in Washington than they do out in the country), but most civilians will either not care or not mind. Indeed, one of the most interesting battles within the Republican party between now and 2012 will be the tussle between neocons and libertarians. The former will be pushing for more war, especially with Iran, and for “victory” in Afghanistan–similar to the mirage of “victory” they proclaimed in Iraq; the latter will be pushing for an end to foreign adventures, smaller defense budgets, lower taxes. America’s actual security needs lie somewhere between these extremes.

This post is part of my Election Road Trip 2010 project. To track my location across the country, and read all my road trip posts, click here.