Max Fisher and Amanda Taub contend that domestic political pressure is an important reason why Obama and now Trump have chosen to continue the war in Afghanistan:
As we wrote in an article last week, any American president knows that he or she will pay a high political cost for either striking a deal with the Taliban or withdrawing [bold mine-DL], which would likely prompt the country’s collapse. Because voters tend to blame presidents for change but not for the status quo, then keeping troops in Afghanistan forever is better politics even if it is not a winning strategy.
That’s an interesting claim, but I wonder if it’s really true. The war in Afghanistan is not popular, and the last time anyone bothered asking (in 2015) most Americans said they thought the war was a mistake. According to a Politico-sponsored poll, very few (20%) support a troop increase, and almost twice as many (37%) want to reduce the number of troops now there. As far as public opinion is concerned, there doesn’t appear to be much public pressure to continue the war in Afghanistan. The general public indifference to the war allows it to continue indefinitely, but that same indifference means that a president could choose to end the war anytime without risking a popular backlash.
The authors go on to say this:
Voters tend to take cues on foreign policy, more than on other issues, from trusted politicians, and so mistook this phony bipartisan consensus as proof of the war’s necessity. This created a feedback loop, in which politicians both created and were constrained by public pressure to continue the war.
That would make a certain amount sense, except that there has not been “public pressure to continue the war.” Rather, successive administrations have opted to continue the war for other reasons and the absence of significant public opposition has allowed that to happen. If voters simply took cues about matters of war from their political leaders, they would not have turned so sharply against the Iraq war, which retained broad bipartisan support long after the public strongly opposed it. Likewise, there would not have been overwhelming popular opposition to the proposed attack on Syria in 2013. It may be true that most voters follow their leaders’ cues on most foreign policy issues, but on questions of war they have recently been quicker to recognize when a war is not worth fighting and less inclined to continue wars without end.
It is true that any president would face substantial criticism in Washington for ending the war, but would that criticism translate into a “high political cost” for that president? Would ending the war lead to “political disaster” as the authors claim in their previous article? That would depend on the manner in which the war was ended and the reaction of the president’s political opponents.
An orderly, planned withdrawal carried out in tandem with the negotiation of a political settlement would not be a disaster for the president responsible for it. Indeed, many if not most Americans would greet that outcome with relief, and only bitter-ender hawks would have reason to complain about it. There is always the danger that a president’s domestic opponents would try to exploit the aftermath of withdrawal to attack him for “losing Afghanistan,” but since many Americans already understand that the war has been lost and couldn’t be won at an acceptable price this accusation won’t have much of a sting.