WASHINGTON — In the last few months alone, the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed, insider attacks in Afghanistan have skyrocketed, looming defense cuts have consumed Congress’ attention.
But in the presidential race, national security and foreign policy remain largely an afterthought.
Both President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have touched on those issues in stump speeches, but the topics at the forefront of troops’ and veterans’ minds haven’t been a major emphasis of the campaigns or a focus of the voters.
In a Rasmussen poll conducted last month, only half of the voters surveyed said they thought national security was a “very important” issue in the upcoming election. Only 35 percent rated the war in Afghanistan as a key topic.
Instead, the economy (80 percent), health care (66 percent) and government ethics (66 percent) are the primary issues.
Experts blame apathy toward those issues on American attention spans. Issues that affect voters’ wallets create more worry than future military threats or faraway fighting.
“The military usually only becomes the focus [of a campaign] when there is a calamity,” said pollster John Zogby. “The economy is what produces the anxiety the most, because it directly affects people. People don’t think about a terrorist attack usually until one happens.”
Another reason for the lack of attention may be because most military issues don’t produce dramatic differences between Obama and Romney.
Shawn Brimley, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said despite harsh rhetoric from both sides, the candidates share the same basic stance on many of the biggest national security and foreign policy issues.
Both have plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2014. Both have committed to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Both have vowed to build up military power in the Pacific. Both have promised to cut wasteful Pentagon spending, and oppose the dramatic defense budget cuts that sequestration would bring.
That makes creating contrasts — and support for the candidate’s position — more difficult to parse.
Earlier this month, CNAS released a 26-page report on the national security issues that have not received enough attention this election cycle, highlighting issues like cybersecurity, instability in North Korea, and the U.S. relationship with Pakistan.
“People are always going to be more focused on putting their kids in school and paying their mortgage, so national defense is never going to be the number one issue,” Brimley said. “But they absolutely should be listening to it. You’re hearing a potential commander-in-chief lay out his plans to keep this country safe.”
The first presidential debate featured only a passing mention of the military and no references to veterans. The candidates for vice president spent half of their debate talking about U.S. policies towards Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria, giving a hint that those topics will play a larger role in the next two presidential debates, on Oct. 16 and 22.
Both campaigns insist that national security is a major part of its platform, even if public attention hasn’t been focused there.
This election is the first since 1944 in which neither of the two major-party candidates served in the military, and the first time since 1932 that none of the four men vying for the presidency or vice presidency are veterans.
Zogby said the lack of attention on military issues is understandably frustrating for troops.
“It can be hard to swallow if you’re on active duty, to know that people aren’t always thinking about you,” he said.