Everyone has an opinion on Afghanistan — Do voters care?
On Aug. 15, Taliban fighters rolled into Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. They faced little resistance. Within hours, the Taliban had seized control of the city. The airport plunged into chaos as thousands of Afghans sought refuge among departing American personnel.
In February 2020, the Trump administration signed a peace agreement calling for the withdraw of American troops, but it is President Biden who ultimately pushed ahead and ended what he called “America’s longest war.” Even now, with the Taliban in Kabul, Biden remains defiant and defends his decision. Democrats worry this will hurt Biden politically, and Republicans are doing their best to make sure it does.
But existing research suggests otherwise.
Americans don’t prioritize foreign policy when voting
International relations scholars long have argued that voters punish presidents who back down from confrontations with foreign adversaries, because doing so could tarnish the U.S.’s reputation abroad. But the magnitude of the effect on presidential approval varies depending on whether Democrats or Republicans are in power, the composition of the president’s constituency, and the persuasiveness of the justification for backing down.
Indeed, as my own research has shown, the actual behavior of the president in crises may not matter at all. Ultimately, voters care about whether a president makes the right policy decisions, not whether American forces remain deployed abroad to maintain their reputation.
What’s more, Americans are far more likely care about domestic issues such as health care or the economy than foreign policy. For example, even as Barack Obama rode opposition to the war in Iraq to electoral victory in 2008, more than five times as many respondents to the American National Elections Survey (ANES) listed the economy as the most important problem facing the nation compared to the war.
Military interventions are unpopular with voters
We tend to associate wars with “rally-around-the-flag” effects, in which conflicts lead to popularity bumps for presidents and their parties. Such effects may have been true during WWII, but 21st century military interventions are long, drawn out affairs — and political losers.
This is due to what I’ve identified in past research as the time inconsistency between costs and benefits of military interventions. While the costs of intervention accrue immediately, both in terms of actual money as well as human lives, the best-case scenario benefits of intervention take decades, sometimes generations to bear fruit.
For politicians facing election campaigns, this means that there is just no incentive to pay the costs of war up front when you might never see the benefits. In research I conducted on troop contributions to the war in Afghanistan, I found that contributors to the war effort — including the United States — withdrew around 10 percent of their forces whenever they were up for reelection.
The politics of U.S. casualties
Voters do care deeply about the loss of American lives. While images from Kabul evoke memories of Saigon and withdrawal from Vietnam, the more apt comparisons are the capture and failed rescue of U.S. hostages in Teheran following the Iranian revolution in 1979 or the Benghazi embassy attacks in Libya in 2011.
Both the Iran hostage crisis and Benghazi negatively affected perception of two presidential candidates, Jimmy Carter and Hillary Clinton, respectively. Biden’s ability to avoid the political fallout might hinge on whether all Americans are evacuated safely.
Sadly, this political calculus suggests there may be little room for humanitarian evacuations and refugee resettlements. While Biden has pledged to bring any trapped Americans home, there simply may not be much political incentive to evacuate Afghan refugees – especially if doing so endangers American lives.
Moreover, accepting refugees means finding areas in the U.S. willing to resettle them. Conservative media commentators have already seized upon this issue, with one prominent pundit warning his viewers that they will be “invaded” by Afghan refugees.
Biden’s political calculation
Voters are not closely engaged with current events, often seeking to avoid politics altogether. Humanitarian disasters quickly disappear from headlines. Consider that less than a week after the Taliban overtook Kabul, news from Afghanistan did not make the front page of newspapers is several major cities.
On the flip said, the potential costs of staying in Afghanistan would be enormous. Currently, President Biden is focused on getting Congress to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill that, together, would comprise much of his first term agenda. Given the importance of these domestic issues to voters relative to foreign policy, passing the bills through Congress will be the most important politically for Biden.
According to estimates, the war in Afghanistan alone has already cost American taxpayers more than $2.2 trillion. Concerns about the combined price tag of Democrats’ legislative agenda have triggered concerns about federal spending and inflation. More spending on Afghanistan would make Biden and his fellow Democrats even more vulnerable to such attacks.
The slim margins in Congress suggests that Biden must reserve his political capital to maintain the existing coalitions to pass these two bills, not a new war effort. Doing so would also offer the Democrats the best chance for retaining control of Congress in the 2022 midterm elections.
William G. Nomikos is assistant professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis and director of the Data-driven Analysis of Peace Project. He is currently working on a book about international military intervention entitled Local Peace, International Builders. Follow him on Twitter @wnomikos.