Through the looking glass

The parties' traditional national security roles are reversed in this election year

Americans accustomed to the issues traditionally emphasized by the two major parties in a presidential election year can be forgiven for thinking they have stepped through the looking glass in 2012.

Republicans have billed themselves as the party of national security and a strong military for many years, while the Democrats have played defense, insisting they are every bit as tough on terrorism as the GOP.

Not this year.

Today marks the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The war in Afghanistan — the conflict that began in direct response to those attacks — is the longest in the nation's history and continues to drag on, and the death toll among American troops is mounting faster than before.

Last month, the Republican Party's nominee for president, Mitt Romney, delivered his acceptance speech at the party's national convention without mentioning Afghanistan. None of the other major speakers — keynoter Chris Christie, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan or even Condoleezza Rice — mentioned it either.

In their convention last week, the Democrats predictably beat up on the Republicans for that omission, reminding voters that President Barack Obama gave the order to kill 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and criticizing the GOP ticket for ignoring the troops.

In fact, there isn't much difference between the two campaigns on what to do in Afghanistan. Obama has pledged to withdraw the 70,000 U.S. forces still in the country by the end of 2014, a timetable Romney and Ryan say they generally agree with.

The major issues dividing the two sides so far in this election are economic: what to do about the too-slow pace of the recovery, the still-too-high unemployment rate and the ballooning national debt.

None of those problems are trivial, and they all need solving. But in one sense, the prominence of economic issues over national security is a good sign. It means Americans feel safer now than they have since the attacks just over a decade ago.

National security didn't go entirely unremarked upon at the GOP convention. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee, criticized Obama for not supporting a revolution in Iran, and Republicans fault the administration for not doing more to slow Iran's nuclear program.

In fact, Iran is probably a more important issue in this election than Afghanistan. The potential of a military strike by Israel that could draw in the U.S. is a very real concern.

This country has endured a decade of war, in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Another armed conflict is the last thing America needs.

Obama and Romney are scheduled to square off on foreign policy in the third and last of their debates this fall. U.S. policy toward Iran should figure prominently in that exchange.

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