Mitt Romney’s silence on Afghanistan, by the numbers

It's rather surprising that it was mystery-guest actor Clint Eastwood -- not Mitt Romney -- who made the only reference to the war in Afghanistan during the final night of the GOP convention. Commentators on both the right and the left have taken the Republican presidential nominee to task for not addressing a nearly 11-year-old conflict in which roughly 90,000 U.S. troops are currently engaged and more than 2,000 have died.

In fact, the so-called "forgotten war" was only mentioned four times during the three-day Republican convention (the word "jobs," by contrast, was uttered 220 times). The Associated Press reports that Romney is the first Republican since 1952 to accept the party nomination without discussing war.

The omission is particularly notable considering that just last week, in New Hampshire, Romney criticized President Obama, who has not delivered a major address on the war since May, for not speaking more about Afghanistan. "When our men and women are in harm's way, I expect the president of the United States to address the nation on a regular basis and explain what's happening and why they're there and what the mission is, what its progress is, how we'll know when it's completed,'' he explained.

Romney himself, however, has not mentioned Afghanistan much this election season. According to an archive of 46 formal campaign speeches that Romney has delivered in 2011 and 2012, which the University of California, Santa Barbara's American Presidency Project compiles based on transcripts released to the press by the campaign, Romney has mentioned the word "Afghanistan" 10 times on the campaign trail.

Obama, by contrast, has used the word 36 times -- more than three times as often as Romney -- in 41 speeches (over a shorter timeframe), according to the same American Presidency Project archive. There are caveats to these figures, of course: the UCSB database doesn't include every remark the two candidates have made on the campaign trail, and Obama almost always references Afghanistan in the same way -- a line or two about the administration's commitment to winding down the war, bringing the troops home, and investing the savings domestically. Obama is also the commander-in-chief, while Romney is a candidate.

Still, directionally, the numbers suggest that the Democrats are currently more comfortable talking about the war than the Republicans are. A case in point: An Obama campaign official recently told Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin that Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) will speak about the president's "plan to bring our troops home from Afghanistan just like he did from Iraq" during national security night at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte next week.

The war in Afghanistan is a politically fraught issue for Romney. In calling the conflict a "war of necessity" rather than a "war of choice" (as in Iraq), Obama has taken ownership of the protracted military engagement he inherited. And his plan to end the combat mission by 2014 is popular. In May, for example, support for the Afghan war hit a new low, with a mere 27 percent of respondents in an Associated Press-Gfk poll backing the military effort. Only 37 percent of Republican respondents said they supported the war, down from 58 percent in 2011.

If Romney softens his stance on the war -- as he briefly did last year when he declared that "it's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, as soon as our generals think it's OK" -- he may anger hawks within the GOP. And if he assumes too aggressive of a posture, he may alienate a war-weary public. Plus, every minute spent talking about Afghanistan is a minute not talking about the economy. 

When Romney has discussed Afghanistan, he hasn't offered many specifics. His most consistent argument is that he would shape his withdrawal strategy based on military advice rather than politics or economics. Here's how he addressed the war in his biggest foreign-policy speech so far, at The Citadel in South Carolina in October 2011:

In Afghanistan, after the United States and NATO have withdrawn all forces, will the Taliban find a path back to power? After over a decade of American sacrifice in treasure and blood, will the country sink back into the medieval terrors of fundamentalist rule and the mullahs again open a sanctuary for terrorists?....

I will order a full review of our transition to the Afghan military to secure that nation's sovereignty from the tyranny of the Taliban. I will speak with our generals in the field, and receive the best recommendation of our military commanders. The force level necessary to secure our gains and complete our mission successfully is a decision I will make free from politics.

And yet, it may be politics that's keeping Romney from staking out a clearer position on Afghanistan.

Richard Ellis/Getty Images


The most controversial line in Romney's convention speech?

Mitt Romney only devoted a little more than 200 words to foreign policy in his convention speech on Thursday evening, and most of the section consisted of familiar refrains from the campaign trail. He promised North American energy independence by 2020, while accusing President Obama of throwing Israel "under the bus," embarking on an "apology tour" around the world after his election, and failing to demonstrate strength in his dealings with Iran and Russia.

"Under my administration," he declared, "our friends will see more loyalty, and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will see a little less flexibility and more backbone."

Notably, Romney acknowledged Obama's role in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and didn't mention the ongoing war in Afghanistan once -- both topics that have hardly been discussed during the convention. 

But the most controversial foreign-policy line in Romney's speech may very well have been when he briefly alluded to climate change. "President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans," he noted, pausing skeptically as the crowd jeered. "And to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family." The remark elicited an extended standing ovation. 

Critics swiftly derided the comment. "That climate change laugh line is going to be in every documentary from the latter half of the 21st century," Matt Novak wrote on Twitter. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tweeted that Romney's "dismissiveness was appalling."

It's not entirely clear, however, whether Romney was mocking global warming, Obama's lofty rhetoric and misguided priorities, or both. Earlier in the speech, Romney had argued that "Hope and Change had a powerful" -- but ultimately empty -- appeal. "You know there's something wrong with the kind of job he's done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him," he observed.

Romney has shifted his position on global warming. In June 2011, he told a town hall that he believed "the world is getting warmer," that "humans contribute to that," and that it was important to "reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases." Several months later at a campaign stop, he argued that "we don't know what's causing climate change on this planet" and the "idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us."

The Republican platform opposes Environmental Protection Agency climate change regulations and criticizes the number of times the word "climate" appears in the Obama administration's National Security Strategy.

Beyond the debate over climate change, however, Romney's line speaks to a larger point -- one that should be evident to anyone who's watched the convention these last few days: As the campaign progresses, Romney will do his best to continuously steer the conversation back to his strengths: jobs and the economy.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images