The 2012 election has certainly not felt like a contest carried out in a nation at war. Though 68,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan and the 2,000th American was recently killed in the decade-long conflict, President Barack Obama has largely relegated his promises of winding down the war to an afterthought in his stump speech. His rival, Mitt Romney, barely mentions the war at all. The U.S military pulled out of Iraq at the end of 2011, but that has gotten far less play in the campaign than the killing of Osama bin Laden. And neither candidate discusses how or when the open-ended U.S. war on terror might finally come to an end.
Americans traditionally vote with their pocketbooks, but the extent to which war has been relegated to the political backburner is still striking. It's possible that, in an era when war is carried out by a dwindling percentage of Americans -- increasingly by remote control -- in an undefined territory and without a clear end, Americans have simply accepted a permanent state of low-level war. Obama likes to talk about how he wants to do "nation-building at home, but perhaps the very idea of a peacetime presidency is a thing in the past.
In previous decades, elections have often hinged on questions of war and peace -- with candidates pledging peace on the campaign trail as they plan for war. "He Kept Us Out of War," was a Woodrow Wilson campaign slogan in 1916, yet Wilson sought a declaration of war with Germany five months after the election, bringing the United States into World War I. Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned in 1940 on a commitment to keep the United States out of the war then raging in Europe. "Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars," he told voters as Election Day neared -- even as American men were already being called up in a new draft, long before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
Lyndon Johnson, who would escalate American military involvement in Vietnam, campaigned in 1964 as a peacemaker. Portraying his Republican opponent as a dangerous warmonger, Johnson ran an infamous TV campaign ad showed a little girl pulling petals from a daisy and counting down to zero, until blotted out by the countdown to a nuclear explosion. Electing Republican Barry Goldwater, the ad suggested, was a sure path to Armageddon.
This year's candidates have played their own version of this game. During the 2008 campaign, Obama promised to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He did bring formal U.S. involvement in Iraq to a close, and has a plan to gradually wind down the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan. But a war against al Qaeda -- a war without an endpoint -- continues to serve as a justification for military detention and targeted killings. Romney has urged greater defense spending, including more Navy ships, but made no mention of war and peace at the Republican National Convention, so that voters might well wonder what conflicts an expanded naval fleet is meant to be fighting.
But as viewers of the third presidential debate -- the one devoted to foreign policy and national security -- couldn't help but notice, the two candidates largely seemed on the same page when it came to withdrawal from Afghanistan, combating terrorism, and staring down Iran's nuclear ambitions. The contrast to the fireworks that erupted over arguments on health care and the deficit was striking.